New Mexico…it’s all about the sky.

Over the years I’ve read many books about artists relocating to New Mexico for the light in the sky and wondered was there really something special about it? How could the sky, the same one I look up into, look that much different some place else? Sure, I’ve been places where the beach is vastly different from the Oregon Coast or the birds that migrate are different due to the climate. But, the sky? Ah, yes, the sky…we’ll get to that.

Taos, New Mexico

Taos, New Mexico

After a long day of flying that included too many connections and thunderstorms, we arrived at the Albuquerque airport but one thing I’ve learned from my mom over the years is to start at the furthest store first and make your way home. So our week in New Mexico began in Santa Fe. After settling into our well-appointed and centrally located hotel, we headed straight for El Farol (Spanish for ’The Lantern’), the oldest restaurant and cantina in Santa Fe, with live flamenco music in the bar. Our meal consisted of an array of tapas complimented by glasses of Tempranillo in a setting that smelled of old wood with the sounds of Brazilian jazz wafting into the main dining room. This is exactly what I’d hoped I’d find in Santa Fe.

A good night’s sleep and some scrambled eggs fueled us as we ventured into historic Santa Fe unwittingly bumping into the beloved Holy Spirit Espresso on San Francisco Street. Established in 1993, locals pour out onto the sidewalk in part because Bill makes a smashingly great cup of coffee but, also, the place is small; no where to sit and only one or two people can fit in the post card-covered shop.

So much to see in the historic district. We admired the architectural gem that is the Lensic Performing Arts Center (built in the Moorish/Spanish Renaissance style). The French Romanesque Cathedral of St. Francis tempts you from Santa Fe Plaza, such is its size. Loretto Chapel, located on the Old Santa Fe Trail, was built in 1873 to resemble Gothic Revival-style Sainte Chapelle in Paris and contains the much-touted ‘Miraculous Staircase’ which appears to defy engineering and is made of extinct wood. A couple blocks south sits San Miguel Mission said to be the oldest church in the United States still in use (built in the early 1600s). Rounding out our church-themed tour was Santuario de Guadalupe on Guadalupe Street reputed to be the oldest shrine in America dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe (c. 1781).

Our self-guided tour of the State Capitol proved surprisingly interesting. At first glance, one can see it resembles a sun symbol and the interior of this building is dedicated to the art and artists of New Mexico. An amazing highlight for us was Buffalo by Holly Hughes of Socorro, New Mexico. It is her rendition of a buffalo head using recycled items in cleverly symbolic ways (old paint brushes to form the bridge of the nose represent the first cave drawings and “one eye is a lantern, symbol of light, hope, strength”). It was fascinating. A tribal town hall meeting was being filmed by local news media and their passion drew us in to observe and reflect.  The Cross of the Martyrs is located on a hilltop just beyond historic proper. This 76 ton cross stands 25’ high and honors the memory of more than 20 Franciscan priests and numerous Spanish colonists killed during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt against Spanish dominion.

To lighten the mood, we headed for Upper Crust Pizza on the Old Santa Fe Trail which proved to be an excellent choice not only for the good food but inviting outdoor seating and affordable local wine. In contrast, the recommended La Casa Sena in historic Sena Plaza was a bit of a disappointment certainly not for their ample selection of fine wines but rather the pretentious atmosphere that it is cloaked in. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the rooftop bar of the Coyote Café on Water Street. I can tell you the atmosphere is lively, the iced tea refreshing and the guacamole was fantabulous.

A full day must be set aside for driving the High Road to Taos. The scenery, businesses and memories are amazing. We happened upon Estrella Del Norte Vineyard & Tasting Room which had such picturesque grounds and, having never tasted New Mexico wines, we were immediately fans. Another magical side trip was Santuario de Chimayo in Chimayo, obviously a pilgrimage and

Satuario de Chimayo, a pilgrimage in Chimayo, New Mexico

Satuario de Chimayo, a pilgrimage in Chimayo, New Mexico

we’d never been to such a place. It was pastoral, introspective and powerful. Lunch on the High Road was at Sugar Nymph’s Bistro in Peñ asco which was recommended by our hostess at Estrella Vineyard. This quaint bistro in the middle of seemingly nowhere strives to use the freshest ingredients in every dish and a meal here will not disappoint. About 12 miles northwest of Taos sits the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, unnervingly blown up in Terminator 4. Its observation deck looms 565-650’ above the river (depending on the publication) making it an incredible rush of an experience.

Back in Taos, there’s so much to see in and around the Plaza including historic Ledoux Street but we didn’t spend much time here. Fast tracking it back to Santa Fe, we took Hwy 68 and stopped at Embudo Station situated on the banks of the Rio Grande. Lights strewn from the trees, a Flamenco guitarist/vocalist and keyboardist adding another layer of atmosphere to this 1880 railroad station-turned restaurant and brewery made this a truly magical evening but, alas, I believe it is no longer in existence. Keep your eyes open. Maybe another restauranteur has purchased it.

Atalaya Mountain Hiking Trail near St Johns College (which is a gorgeous location for a college) is approximately eight miles roundtrip and ends at 9,121’. The trail itself isn’t that difficult but, given Santa Fe is the highest capital at  7,000’ above sea level, it can be difficult to breath. Truth told, I didn’t enjoy the hike but the views at the top were my reward. An afternoon spent poolside with a bottle of the fabulous 2007 Black Mesa Sangiovese we bought at Estrella Vineyard hit the spot.

Our last morning in Santa Fe I treated myself to lemon curd ricotta pancakes because I’ve never had them and they sounded delightful. Oh, I was so-o-o right. Twenty five miles southeast of Santa Fe lay the ruins of Pecos Pueblo on a mesa along the Santa Fe Trail. Meander the 1.25 mile self-guided trail or take a guided tour and allow its history to wash over you as you imagine 2,000 people calling this pueblo home at its height.

Author underground at Pecos Pueblo along the Santa Fe Trail

Author underground at Pecos Pueblo along the Santa Fe Trail

As much as we loved the High Road to Taos, I do not recommend Albuquerque from Santa Fe via the Turquoise Trail. The sites along the way have received positive reviews but they just felt like tourist traps to us. The only place of note, in my opinion, was the town of Madrid which had some nice art galleries and an ice cream parlor.

Albuquerque had some delightful experiences to note. St. Clair Winery & Bistro sits a few blocks from the historic area. Another opportunity to enjoy some New Mexico wines and buy a bottle for your room. Do, do, do ride the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway. At $20 a person, it’s steep on many levels but worth it once. The Tramway, built in Switzerland, travels almost three miles up the west slope of the Sandia Mountains to 10,378’. Operators ride the roof routinely but standing inside the tram was daring enough for me. Hiking trails, a reasonably-priced restaurant and soaring views greet you at the top. The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History is a real treat with a Manhatten Project exhibit, replicas of Little Boy and Fat Man and well-versed volunteers who can answer virtually any question you might have about the history of nuclear weapons.

A typical Albuquerque street scene

A typical Albuquerque street scene

Petroglyph National Monument has a few hiking trails where one can see petroglyphs. We chose Rinconada Canyon said to have 1,200 petroglyphs four to seven hundred years old. Due to vandalism, we did not see many and some looked suspiciously like Bart Simpson but some petroglyphs were obvious and exciting to spot.. A word of caution. The canyon is very hot so be sure to have water with you and do be aware of snakes in the area. Tingley Beach near the Biological Park has trails around fish ponds and a train for small children. It’s a peaceful place to escape to. Another outdoor space to enjoy is the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park. There’s an observation room inside as well as forested trails which spill onto the banks of the Rio Grande. Locals abound in the evening walking their dogs and enjoying the cooler temperatures.

Researching this trip I found many pueblo tour options. We chose Acoma Pueblo and it delivered.

To be specific, our guide and his enthusiasm for his people and heritage was contagious. Nicknamed “Sky City”, Acoma Pueblo adorns the top of a 367’ sandstone bluff and is still inhabited to this day. It is history with a heart beat. A highlight for us was walking back to the Visitor’s Center via the ‘hidden’ rock staircase used for so many years that there are hand holds worn into the rock and stairs that look like dry ice billowing up from the path.

In downtown Albuquerque, I made the comical mistake that The Library Bar & Grill on Central Avenue was affiliated with The Library Bar in Dallas. Young gals dressed in VERY short plaid skirt and tied up tops, it was more like a Hooters by another name but we stayed anyway. It was afternoon and our waitress really was a sweetheart. Ironically, I feel compelled to warn you about a place we saw on Diners, Drive Ins and Dives called The Standard Diner which was so bad that my crab cake po’boy stayed with me all night even after gargling twice. Kelly’s Brewery is a cheerful spot that’s open for breakfast, lunch and dinner all week with plenty of outdoor seating. Originally a gas station and then a car dealership, Kelly’s is a popular spot due to their friendly staff, great atmosphere and large menu.

Oh, the sky. It is brilliant. More brilliant than any sky I’ve ever seen. There’s something about the contrast of the mountains with the pink hues in the sky that makes you stop dead in your tracks when you see it for the first time. I mean, consciously realize you’re seeing a sky you’ve never seen before and you freeze. You’re mesmerized and there’s this flood of artistic brilliance that overwhelms your senses and in that instant it makes complete sense that people pack up all their belongings and move here without scarcely a second thought to it being the best decision they’ve ever made. To them I tip my hat and raise my glass…pretending it’s a glass of New Mexico wine.

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