By Richard McCord

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It's the oldest hotel on its original site in all of North America, and many guests who have stopped there say it is the most stunning—or romantic, or gracious, or enchanting, or all of the above. It's called La Fonda, which in the Spanish language simply means "the hotel." And the understated grandeur of this title is entirely appropriate, because for almost 400 years La Fonda has indeed been THE hotel in Santa Fe.

Historical records reveal that shortly after the founding of Santa Fe in 1607 an inn was established on the Plaza, then as now the heart of the city. And long before then, as excavations have revealed, the site was occupied by native inhabitants of America. Like most structures in town, that first hotel was built of adobe—blocks of dried mud, hardened in the New Mexican sun. The site has gone through several reconstructions since then, the most recent taking place in 1920, followed by several renovations. Today La Fonda is a superb modern hostelry, with every amenity visitors could want, from covered parking to hot tubs to massages to data-port telephone lines to valet laundry to a multilingual concierge. Yet the past still infuses "The Inn at the End of the Santa Fe Trail," and always will. Walking into La Fonda's lobby is like stepping back in time.

Through the centuries, the famous and notorious who have taken lodging at La Fonda are too many to count. They include Spanish conquistadores;. William Becknell, who established the Santa Fe Trail in 1821; U.S. Army Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny, who claimed New Mexico as an American territory in 1846; Confederate Gen. Horace H. Sibley, when Southern troops occupied Santa Fe for several weeks in 1862; then later by victorious Union generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman; Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy, subject of Willa Cather's classic Death Comes for the Archbishop; Kit Carson, on numerous occasions; New Mexico Territorial Gov. Lew Wallace, author of Ben Hur; most of the other people who shaped New Mexico's history and destiny; and President and Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes, the only sitting president to stay there.

In 1857 an unfortunate gambler was lynched on a tree in La Fonda's courtyard. Ten years later, the chief justice of New Mexico's Territorial Court was shot to death in the lobby, by a lawyer who subsequently was acquitted of murder charges in those "Wild West" days of yore. However, despite persistent rumors to the contrary, La Fonda owner Sam Ballen insists with a chuckle that there is no proof whatsoever that New Mexico's most infamous son of all time, Billy the Kid, worked as a dishwasher at La Fonda.

World War II journalist Ernie Pyle, who made his last home in New Mexico, was entranced by La Fonda, and also by the way local people referred to it as "the La Fonda Hotel." With a wry eye for humor, he noted that the phrase literally translated to "the the hotel hotel." He also observed: "You could go there any time of day and see a few artists in the bar . a goateed nobleman from Austria, or a maharajah from India, or a New York broker . You never met anybody anywhere except at La Fonda. You never took anybody to lunch anywhere else."

Another prominent World War II figure who frequented Santa Fe was nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, which was created in great secrecy in nearby Los Alamos. As the Free World's greatest scientists converged on remote Northern New Mexico, usually with barely an idea of what they would be called upon to do in service of their country, La Fonda was their jumping-off place for destiny.

In modern times, celebrity guests are more likely to be movie stars than Western legends. Early on, Hollywood discovered Santa Fe, and with it, the city's most famous hotel. Guests have included Errol Flynn, James Stewart, Raymond Burr, Greer Garson, Larry Hagman, Robert Duvall, Linda Hunt, Diane Keaton, Shirley MacLaine and a host of others. When producing "Good Morning, America" live from Santa Fe, hosts David Hartman and Joan Lunden chose La Fonda for their lodging, as did billionaire Ross Perot, in one of his bids for the U.S. presidency.

Yet for all its fabled heritage—it is listed as a National Trust Historic Hotel of America—La Fonda is well within the reach of most travelers. Its 167 accommodations are moderately priced, with guest rooms ranging from $149 to $249 a night (plus special off-season discounts based on availability) and luxurious suites topping out at $500. The award-winning La Plazuela restaurant, a striking enclosed courtyard bathed in suffused sun- and moonlight, is open for all meals. La Fiesta Lounge provides libations, a hearty lunch buffet, light fare, and dancing and live entertainment nightly. And from late spring through early autumn, the fifth-floor Bell Tower, one of Santa Fe's tallest structures, serves cocktails and a superlative viewing point for New Mexico's spectacular sunsets.

Only a little less spectacular are the beautiful images inside La Fonda. Splendid original Southwestern art abounds, and the hotel has been called "a living museum." La Fonda has a staff artist, Ernesto Martinez, who meticulously has painted windows, bed headboards, ceilings, and murals and decorative designs in the sleeping rooms, hallways and even the garage. In addition, famed Western artist Gerald Cassidy was commissioned in 1922 to create 10 major paintings immortalizing the great Southwest. They can all be seen in La Fonda's public places. Hand-crafted furniture and lighting fixtures, wood carvings, authentic Hispanic religious artifacts, stained-glass windows, other paintings and murals, and even an abstract original by the legendary Georgia O'Keeffe, round out La Fonda's unique collection. As in a museum, it is too much to absorb in only one visit.

Located right on the Plaza (yet easy to reach by auto in small-scale Santa Fe), La Fonda is within quick walking distance of several museums, the downtown shopping district, St. Francis Cathedral, the exquisite Sena Plaza, and fine restaurants of every description. For four centuries La Fonda has been THE hotel in Santa Fe. Once you stay there, you will know why.

Link to La Fonda Hotel

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