By Tim Johnson
Sandwiched between two megawatt states — Texas and Arizona — rugged, beautiful, cultured New Mexico sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. And that’s truly a shame, because few places pack a vacation punch like this desert destination. The diverse range of scenery is simply breathtaking: you can be in the heart of classic desert landscapes — canyons and mountains with cacti and dramatic, deep reds and browns, and then one hour later find yourself in a classic Rocky Mountain setting, with jagged grey peaks and lush, green forest, and then an hour after that on Texas-style flat grassland plains. And from the art and cuisine of Santa Fe, to the fascinating Pueblos, to the cowboy culture in places like Red River, northern New Mexico is a place unto itself — and well worth a visit.
Santa Fe is, hands down, one of the coolest places in the United States — the “City Different” features blocks and blocks of traditional adobe architecture, miles of galleries along the famed Canyon Road (the city is one of the largest art markets in the United States), and delectable cuisine so good that, months later, your mouth will still water at the remembrance of the meal. And best of all? You can enjoy it as a family — the city very often wraps its cultural offerings in a kid-friendly package.
While for some parents, the words “children’s museum” conjure up images of screeching kids and wasted hours, the one in Santa Fe takes its cues from the arts and culture in the city at large. Kids can create art from recycled materials, weave patterns on a loom, or take in theatrical performances aimed at the very young.
Located on the city’s so-called “Museum Hill,” this, the world’s first international folk art museum includes a wing dedicated to the art and heritage of Hispanic/Latino cultures, another displaying items from 100 different countries, selected for their humour, whimsy and relationship with play, and kid-friendly activities like an all-ages behind-the-scenes tour, and a lounge with creativity-stimulating books and toys.
This famed Southwestern cooking school offers all sorts of classes — including those open to all ages — that encourage students to play with their food. But if your family is more about eating than cooking, you may want to consider one of their excellent restaurant tours, which include a circuit of three different city restaurants. The tours are led by a chef, include very tasty samples at each stop, and include Q&A sessions with chefs and owners along the way. Come hungry.
Offering a mix of northern New Mexican and traditional Mexican cuisine, Los Mayas is a great place to introduce your kids to the flavours of the southwest. The atmosphere is casual and festive — the walls echo with the sounds of classic Spanish guitar, and there’s even a Flamenco show every Friday night. There’s no kids menu, but they’re happy to make half portions of any item on the menu.
Forming one side of the city’s famous central plaza, this beautiful adobe structure (built way back in 1610) is the oldest continuously used building in the United States. It’s a great place to kick off a self-guided walking tour of the city’s historic district — look through its rooms and exhibits (it’s linked to the huge, newly-opened New Mexico History Museum), then head up the road to check out the amazing St. Francis Cathedral Basilica, the stunning La Fonda Hotel, and the quirky hat and clothing shops in the neighbourhood.
While Santa Fe is an amazing place, you shouldn’t limit your visit to the city — the charming towns and the wild, untamed territory to the north are well worth the (relatively short) drive. Here are a few of the highlights.
Pulled by an authentic steam locomotive, this historic railway climbs way up, above the tree line, across the 10,015 foot Cumbres Pass. Be prepared — it’s an all-day ride, from Chama, New Mexico, 64 miles north to Antonito, Colorado — but it’s a fun and extremely scenic one, running across towering trestles over deep gorges, steaming along sheer cliffs, and providing magnificent views out to the mountains and across broad valleys. And if you have a squirmy little one, you needn’t worry — riders move freely along the cars, there’s an open air car with 360 degree views, plus a stop halfway for lunch.
A charming former gold-mining town nestled into the Sangre de Christo Mountains, Red River has become one of the top ski destinations in the southwest. The main street is lined with Western style storefronts, and the hills are family-friendly, with two-thirds of the runs at either the beginner and intermediate levels. And if skiing’s not your thing, you can also go snowshoeing, cycling, fly-fishing, hiking or horseback riding (depending, obviously, on the season). And make sure to head up to Bobcat Pass for a Moreno Valley Cowboy Evening — a night filled with steaks and country music in a beautiful outdoor setting.
If you have any history buffs in your family, a stop in Los Alamos — the former site of the Manhattan Project, birthplace of the atomic bomb — is a must. Many of the original buildings from the World War II era still stand, as well as the excellent Bradbury Science Museum, which boasts many great hands-on displays (and no radiation).
This place has something for everyone. A 21,000 acre property spread amongst dramatic red sandstone formations, Ghost Ranch was home to famous painter Georgia O’Keeffe for some fifty years. The stunning scenery served as her muse, and tours now visit some of her favourite sites, matching the actual scenes with her interpretations of them. But non-artists will have plenty to do, too — there’s horseback riding, hiking, plus two quirky museums, one focused on the anthropology of the area, the other on the dinosaur finds made on the property.
Built in a charming southwestern adobe style with a classic, Route 66 motor-court feel, this hotel mixes authenticity with comfort. Featuring carved headboards and furniture and traditional Kiva fireplaces, plus a large, complimentary breakfast which includes fresh fruit and breakfast burritos, this hotel in just three blocks from Santa Fe’s central plaza.
Nothing fancy, but everything you need. Many rooms have wood burning fireplaces, full kitchens and separate bedrooms. Almost every sized family (or group of families traveling together) can be accommodated, up to twelve people — they feature everything from a regular guest rooms to a huge, four bedroom apartment. There’s also a playground and fire pits on the property.
Located just fifteen minutes north of central Santa Fe, this sprawling resort — set on 587 acres of high desert — features tennis courts, indoor and outdoor pools, a spa, a huge casino, fitness centre and authentic cultural elements from the Pojoaque First Nation. And to learn more about these Pueblo Native Americans, visit the nearby Poeh Museum.