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Santa Fe: America’s most artistic city

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image Statues in front of Santuario de Guadalupe Church, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Photo La Fonda Hotel

The art for which Santa Fe is known surrounds the city extends to all points of the compass.

By WARREN RESEN – NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association)
Photos by JEANNE O’CONNOR
and La Fonda Hotel

Driving northwest from New Orleans toward Texas is where the climate, culture and the country really changes for an Easterner. Greens turn to beige and the elevation starts its gradually rise as humidity begins to drop. Soon you are thousands of feet above sea level but not yet in the western mountains. Our destination was the La Fonda On the Plaza in the heart of the storied city of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

In the city, there are few visually drastic changes from street to street other than the fact that some buildings are newer. Most everything is adobe, stucco and arches. Logs protrude from buildings enhancing the “traditional” southwestern look. Building codes are highly effective in maintaining the city’s Santa Fe Style, combining elements of Pueblo Indian and Spanish forms and incorporating Moorish traditions; in other words, a styling all its own. I jokingly told my wife that Santa Fe must have one of the strictest Home Owners Associations I’ve ever seen.

The most overused word in the real estate lexicon is, “location” and in Santa Fe that would mean the city’s historic PLAZA dating back to the time of Spain’s dominance over Mexico and the Southwest. On the streets surrounding the PLAZA are more museums, art stores, restaurants, markets and other things of interest to visitors than it is possible to list here. It’s easier to just say, “a lot.” La Fonda is built at the spot where the Santa Fe Trail and the Camino Real, which began in Mexico City, ended.
In Spanish, la fonda is the word for inn and the hotel La Fonda claims bragging rights with the current inn having been built on the oldest hotel corner in America.

There has been an inn for travelers on this spot for over 400 years.

La Fonda is at the cultural heart and historic center of the city. The current hotel was built in the early 1920s and purchased by Sam Ballen in 1968. It is still owned and operated by the Ballen family heirs. Being a guest here is a delightful experience attested to by the fact that generations of families return year after year. The hotel fills an entire city block, its architecture retaining the famous Santa Fe Style. La Fonda is not just a hotel, it’s an experience.

Guests are transported back to an earlier time when a building’s design was distinctive, usually mirroring the architecture of the area. The hotel’s interior is filled with original Spanish Colonial, Mexican and Native American art, hand-carved, hand-painted furniture and other ornamentation created by local artists. Hand-crafted chandeliers, tin and copper lighting fixtures, colorful tile and textiles are featured throughout the hotel’s public spaces. Hallways, stairwells, even guest room furnishings are treated with original hand painted designs. Archways and beamed ceilings complete La Fonda’s overall ambience. The entire hotel could be classified as an art gallery.

La Fonda is a proud member of Historic Hotels of America, an organization whose participants have agreed “to preserve the authenticity of America’s most prominent lodging addresses’ and offer visitors a remarkable travel experience...”

Standard guest rooms are spacious and bathtubs, installed in another era, easily accommodate a 6 foot guest. Since this is one of the tallest buildings in the PLAZA area, almost all windows allow unobstructed views of the city. A private rooftop retreat, The Terrace at La Fonda, offers guests dedicated concierge service. Each of its 14 rooms and suites has a private balcony with views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Exceptional in-room amenities include spacious seating areas, large bathrooms with separate bath and shower areas, a kiva fireplace and much more.

Just off the main lobby is the historic La Plazuela dining room, an open, airy, two-story atrium filled with natural light and surrounded with 460 hand-painted windows. We found their local food offerings excellent, portions overly generous, and reasonably priced.

There are shopping and additional dining opportunities for all in the hotel’s meandering lobby. A big surprise for many guests is the large outdoor swimming almost hidden in the center of the hotel. It’s worth the effort to search for its entrance.

When it’s time to enjoy the daytime activities of Santa Fe, the best way to find out where everything is located is to ask for “The Original Santa Fe & Canyon Road Walking Map” at the front desk or from the concierge. Use a marking pen and circle anything of interest, taking into consideration your length of stay.

There is always something happening in this city which is home to major art markets, performing arts groups and major museums.

Unique to Santa Fe is the Palace of the Governors located on the north side of the PLAZA. It served as the seat of government for the state of New Mexico for centuries and is the oldest continuously occupied public building in the United States. Today its exhibits tell visitors of Santa Fe’s and New Mexico’s past. Outside the Palace, Native Americans line the sidewalks in areas specifically reserved for them to display and sell their handcrafts under the Native American Vendors Program of the Palace of the Governors.

Finish off your day with a famous La Fonda margarita at La Fonda’s Bell Tower Bar while celebrating a Santa Fe sunset over the western mountains. Then head to the La Fiesta Lounge just past the registration desk. During the week, Santa Fe is rather quiet after the sun sets and this is one of the few public places providing live music six nights a week A three piece band plays a modified type of country-western/swing music for your dancing and listening pleasure and thankfully it is not highly amplified.

The art for which Santa Fe is known surrounds the city extends to all points of the compass. Taos, a town made famous by Georgia O’Keefe is about an hour’s pilgrimage into the mountains. But there is a Georgia O’Keefe Museum, reportedly one of the city’s most visited places, right in downtown Santa Fe.

Santa Fe is more than a center of art and culture although it often appears that way. It is also a four-season, out-of-doors destination. The area is a paradise for hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, mountain biking, river rafting, fishing and horseback riding. In summer you can hike miles of mountain wilderness, enjoying dramatic, panoramic vistas or just wander through miles of open country.

A visit to Santa Fe, New Mexico at any time of the year is a delight and should include La Fonda On the Plaza whether as a guest or just a tourist.

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