What's Best About Santa Fe

By Richard Mahler

"The moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning sun shine high up over the desert of Santa Fe," wrote British novelist D. H. Lawrence after his first visit to New Mexico's capital, "something stood still in my soul."

First impressions of Santa Fe may no longer be quite so poetic-visitors of the 1920s didn't have to deal with fast-food franchises and summer traffic jams-but the primary attractions of "The City Different" remain unchanged. Santa Fe still sits under an enormous turquoise sky, nestled in a fold between a brown desert plain and lush, green mountains, about 60 miles northeast of Albuquerque. Santa Fe's light is still clear and strong, and the flat-roofed, earth-toned adobes continue to give this place a distinct architectural character.

Some of these charms are wearing a bit thin or have been overlaid with the veneer of modern American commercialism, yet Santa Fe continues to be loved for what she was as much as what she is. Santa Fe is loved because, as she ages (and the old gal is some 400 years old), she retains the irrepressible ability to shock, surprise, and, yes, even delight.

My best advice is to avoid Santa Fe in midsummer, when tourists often outnumber the city's 65,000 year-round residents. Unless you're a fan of Native American art, don't come during Indian Market, the third weekend of August, when Santa Fe is virtually immobilized by visitors. In general, if you come between Memorial Day and Labor Day, your image of the downtown core may be soured by the large crowds, high prices, lack of parking, and "adobe Disneyland" ambiance you're sure to encounter.

Do yourself a favor: Come here when things are calmer, slower, and more like they used to be, before Santa Fe was the name of a cookie, a cologne, and a "style."

Don't get me wrong: Santa Fe in summer is still wonderful. If this is when you are able to visit, by all means come! The real magic of Santa Fe transcends the crowds and commercialism. And if you come in summer, take full advantage of the city's marvelous cultural smorgasbord, which groans with delicious offerings from June through August.

The best of these include the outdoor opera (north of town), outdoor Shakespeare play (at St. John's College), Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, Spanish Market, and Santa Fe Stages (a dance/theater series). Summer is also the best time to shop till you drop, die outdoors, stroll up Canyon Road arm-in-arm with a loved one, climb Cross of the Martyrs Hill to watch the sunset-then sleep the deep, dreamy sleep of the truly contented.

The best time to visit? Early September through the end of October are my favorite weeks in Santa Fe, as locals reclaim their town and get ready for the long winter. (It can snow from October through early May here, an average of 32 inches each winter.) Indian summer in Santa Fe is a time of warm days and crisp nights. The aspens are gold, and the apple trees heavy with their sweet fruit. Children are back in school and the fiestas are over. In fall this feels like a place where people really work and live.

Remember to get lost at least once. Let yourself stumble upon restaurants and shops that aren't in any guidebook. Savor a leisurely meal at a sampling of the many first-class restaurants here. Be sure to take in some of the fine tourist-related attractions-but remember that the real Santa Fe, the one D. H. Lawrence fell in love with, is found elsewhere.

Look up at a sky filled with thunderheads, or marvel at a sunset. The ever-changing cloudscape, the play of light and shadow, the intensity of color, the air that smells of pine needles and champagne . can still calm the soul as it stirs the spirit.

Richard Mahler is author of "New Mexico's Best" and several other books. A journalist and photographer as well, he specializes in travel writing, among other subjects. He has contributed to National Public Radio since 1973 and to the Los Angeles Times since 1979. He has written thousands of articles for more than 100 magazines and newspapers, including The New Mexican, New Mexico magazine, and Santa Fean magazine. A longtime resident of New Mexico, he lives in Santa Fe.

For a full listing of Richard Mahler's books, and to place orders for them, visit Amazon.com.

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