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USA & Canada: Santa Fe | Native American Art, Outdoor Sports & Starry Skies

Santa Fe can't help itself -- it's seductive. For more than four centuries -- since way before pilgrims and Plymouth Rock -- explorers have been lured to its high-desert hills, lapping at the toes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. In those long-ago days it was gold-mad Spanish Conquistadors who ventured into the land of Puebloan peoples. Ever since, Santa Fe has been the gilded destination of dreams for Southwestern sojourners.

And here in New Mexico's sophisticated state capital, infused with small-town charm, dreams do come true -- that is, if your romantic imagination envisions a place where life moves a bit more slowly; where layers of history and dabs of diverse cultures relay a palpable presence of the past; where art infuses everything, not just creations of canvas and bronze, but architecture, food, clothes, customs, and celebrations. Santa Fe is "The City Different," as boosters like to say.

Lovers will agree. Honeymooning here means strolling hand in hand along labyrinthine lanes past intriguing boutiques and galleries, musing in world-class museums, sitting enraptured at equally world-renowned dance or music performances, and delving into fascinating nearby natural and cultural wonders. But be warned: You won't want to leave.

Beguiling and bewitching as it may be, Santa Fe is hardly bewildering. At only some 70,000 residents, it lacks the worst effects of urban sprawl, with a cozy centrally located corazon. In this historic district you can lodge close to the main attractions and rub shoulders with the city's artsy community.

Santa Fe Through Sunglasses

Slip on those shades and lace up a pair of comfortable walking shoes for a sunny day's amble through the city's historic heart. Be forewarned: Santa Fe holds dozens of noteworthy attractions and museums, plus seemingly countless shops and eateries. It would take at least a week to peek into everything, but you can hit the high points in one day.

Head to the Plaza first to stroll along the north side beneath the portico of the nearly 400-year-old Palace of the Governors. Here, as they have for generations, Native American artisans spread out their handmade wares -- silver jewelry, pottery, blankets -- to bargain with passersby. Prices are better than the shops, the selection is staggering, and some vendors even accept credit cards.

Equally overwhelming is the art collection Santa Fe holds. The Museum of Fine Arts is sprinkled with late 19th-century and present-day works by famed Southwestern artists. Not far away the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum displays an unsurpassed assemblage of this preeminent artist's work. A long walk (but short ride) along the Old Santa Fe Trail lies "Museum Hill," boasting several folk art and Native American collections.

When it's time to give the eyeballs a rest, look to Sena Plaza, a serene patio and park set on the grounds of an old hacienda. Devote a few minutes afterward at the grand Romanesque-styled St. Francis Cathedral, and Loretto Chapel, known for its remarkable "unsupported" spiral staircase. Believers contend that it was built by none other than St. Joseph.

Don't forget to mosey over to Canyon Road, a few blocks southwest of the Plaza across the Santa Fe River. This is Santa Fe's version of Beverly Hills' Rodeo Drive or New York City's Fifth Avenue, but with a distinctive, down-home southwestern feel. Enchanting historic homes share space with high-end galleries and great restaurants. The best thing to do is simply follow your nose, stopping here and there to poke through a gallery or two, before pulling up a chair for an alfresco meal.

Sporty Santa Fe

Pick any season and Santa Fe sports an outdoor activity. Spring and summer mean hiking and camping in the nearby Carson and Santa Fe national forests, the Pecos Wilderness Area, or the Bandelier National Monument. For a good introductory hike, hoof the 1.5-mile Borrego Trail, running from Santa Fe Ski Area to Big Tesuque Creek.

Crave a tad more adventure? Ride those Rio Grande River waves, including the thrilling class IV "Taos Box." Or explore the countryside by bike, horseback, or hot-air balloon.

When the snow starts flying, Santa Fe Ski Area, (800) 776-SNOW, is only 16 miles from town, with a nice vertical drop of 1,650 feet on 12,000-foot Tesuque Peak. A bit farther north toward Taos is Angel Fire, (800) 446-8117, northern New Mexico's most developed ski area. For something more low-tech, snuggle in a sled or inner tube at Hyde Memorial State Park.

To ease the aches and pains of too much outdoor fun, dip into the healing waters of Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs. Located an hour north of Santa Fe, this is one of North America's oldest health resorts, and the world's only natural hot springs to spurt five different kinds of geothermal waters. Think way-cool hot spot.

Santa Fe By Candlelight

"Highbrow" describes the majority of evening entertainment options in Santa Fe. And what a lineup: the internationally acclaimed Santa Fe Opera, the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, the Santa Fe Desert Chorale, the Santa Fe Playhouse (avant-garde, drama or musical comedy), Santa Fe Stages, and even flamenco dance at the Maria Benitez Teatro Flamenco.

More informal out-on-the-town alternatives range from Native American and Hispanic storytelling sessions conducted at the Wheelwright Museum to ghost walks through old Santa Fe. If you prefer to chum around with the locals, saunter into El Farol on Canyon Road, a hangout for artist types who love the intimate interior and great tapas. There's some kind of live performance -- jazz or folk music -- going on most evenings.

Santa Fe's starry nights may be best spent, however, with a candlelight dinner followed by a dreamy ramble around the Plaza, invariably scented with sweet pinon-pine smoke.

Want more info? Call the Santa Fe Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 777-2489.

Photo: Courtesy of Michele Horowitz and Russell Moskowitz

-- Dan Klinglesmith

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