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Three Generations of Women Set Out to Historical Santa Fe

Travel Pick: Santa Fe

Travel Pick

My grandmother is hard to miss. Though she sits below most lines of sight, in a crimson-red wheelchair, no less, she sports electric-pink lipstick without occasion. She’ll tug, often impatiently, on your sleeve with daintily weathered hands lit up by a bright manicure. The most arresting of attention is the jewelry she stacks like armor, absent of minimalist concern, her thin wrists cuffed with silver bracelets and her chest plated by beads and pendants. (“If you can’t see it from the road,” she’ll tell you, “then keep going.”) In the past 15 of her 87 years, she has amassed a museum-worthy collection of Native American jewelry and wares, collecting pieces on her annual visit to Santa Fe.

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Photograph by Claire Schaper

The weekend trip has become somewhat notorious in my family. My mom and aunt follow in tow with too much luggage and an appetite for Hatch chiles. My dad waits at home for some art that he will inevitably hate but stay mum about. My sister and I get a call between their first and second margarita to hear about where they went and what they found. This fall, as they planned their Southwestern pilgrimage, we asked to tag along. And so, in October, three generations of women set out to the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Santa Fe’s history is inimitable. The oldest capital city and the second-oldest city founded by European colonists in the United States, Santa Fe is more than 400 years old, but the land was occupied by indigenous peoples for centuries prior. By 1540, Spanish explorers claimed the land, with Franciscan missionaries joining them in the 17th century. Revolts by the Pueblo Indians of the region caused possession of the territory to change hands, and tumultuous periods came and went. When Mexico gained independence from New Spain in 1821, so with it went Santa Fe, until New Mexico was ceded to the United States in 1848.

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A scene from the Canyon Road arts district.

With a history so long, varied and often marked by conflict, the city of Santa Fe is now somewhat of a dream. Blue desert skies are punctured by the nearby mountains, which include the Santa Fe Ski Basin, only 16 miles from Santa Fe’s central plaza. Walking through town, you find yourself admiring those signature adobe pueblos, with their soft edges and sunbaked facades, which shelter artists, museums, shops and cafés. (The architectural style has remained consistent since 1957, when it was mandated in the name of preservation.) Originally a presidio, the Santa Fe Plaza is the heart of the city and is ringed by historical structures in the Pueblo, Spanish and Territorial styles. The Palace of the Governors, built around 1610, is the longest continuously occupied public building in the country and now acts as a museum.

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Historical and charming La Fonda on the Plaza. Photograph by Robert Reck.

Under the palace’s shaded front porch, known as the portal, Native American artisans lay their handmade jewelry and more out daily for sale. In terms of opportunity, the portal is rare; buying jewelry directly from local artisans is an excellent way to support the art and historical significance of Native American pueblos, tribes and nations. For more-upmarket shopping, try nearby Malouf on the Plaza for apparel, art and Navajo rugs or Ortega’s on the Plaza for a wide selection of regional designer jewelry.

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Hester and Hardaway, View Looking East from O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu Bedroom, 2010. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch is just a short drive north of Santa Fe.

On a weekend visit, it’s ideal to stay near the plaza, too. Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi is a luxurious boutique hotel, with well-appointed accommodations that blend modern and native influences. With 180 rooms, La Fonda on the Plaza’s present structure was built in 1922. Even if you don’t stay at the property, meander through the lobby to enjoy its rich legacy and a margarita at the rooftop bar, the Bell Tower, during warmer months. My family has made a habit of staying at the more intimate Inn of the Governors for its value and charm. Delicious daily breakfasts are included, as are tea and sherry served every afternoon, a pool and hot tub, and free parking. During colder months, rooms that feature kiva fireplaces are a worthwhile splurge.

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Meow Wolf is an immersive art experience that can be enjoyed by all ages. Photograph by Claire Schaper.

Santa Fe is a mecca for visual artists. The most famous and commonly associated with the region is painter Georgia O’Keeffe, who visited New Mexico for 20 years before moving permanently to Abiquiú, about 50 miles north of Santa Fe, in 1949. To celebrate and learn more about her legacy and life, visit the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. The museum, the only in the world dedicated to a sole female artist from North America, boasts more than 3,000 works.

For something a bit more eclectic, art collective Meow Wolf has produced a 20,000-square-foot installation named “House of Eternal Return.” The production, like a lot of contemporary art, is experiential and tricky to explain but well worth a couple hours of exploring. The Museum of International Folk Art is another fascinating experience. Unlike with Meow Wolf, this museum would be better explored with a guide, who can offer the context and significance of the museum’s many artifacts.

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Photograph courtesy of Tourism Santa Fe & SWAIA

Whether or not you’re in the market for art, meander up Canyon Road, just a few blocks from the plaza. While professional artists had been visiting Santa Fe to study its scenic beauty and culturally rich history since the late 1800s, many have also made it a permanent home, leaving more-urban cities for New Mexico’s clean, dry air, thought to cure the rampant respiratory diseases of the time. With their health in order, artists built homes and studios throughout the neighborhood. Now, the lower half-mile of the road is an internationally recognized arts district, with more than 125 galleries, boutiques and restaurants in a short six-block span. Another noteworthy district is the Santa Fe Railyard, which hosts a beautiful farmers market on Saturdays.

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In terms of cuisine, Tex-Mex fans will be delighted to try the twists that New Mexico brings to its somewhat similar plates. For atmosphere and location, The Shed is a go-to if you’re looking to try red-chile enchiladas or blue-corn specialties close to town. For lunch on the run or a breakfast-taco fix, El Chile Toreado is unbeatable. Cafe Pasqual’s is legendary, so be sure to make a reservation, or if you’re looking for something more off the beaten path, try local favorite Jambo Cafe for African homestyle fare.

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On the Saturday night of our visit, with my grandmother already tucked into bed, my mom, my aunt, my sister and I sat at the bar of El Farol on Canyon Road. We sipped wine and shared plates, switching to margaritas as a reggae band (God help us) began a set. My aunt and I rolled our eyes as my mom and sister — both the older sibling — rose to dance.

I thought about my grandma. How she had created this. About what it must feel like to spend time with your daughters and your daughters’ daughters. What it’s like to leave an electric-pink kiss on the high cheekbones that you’ve passed down. To accessorize with reckless abandon. What it must be like to be nine decades into a life and enjoy a city that has lived so long and so well, too. It must be wonderful.