Travel: Sante Fe beckons, 5 hours from Vail | VailDaily.com

Travel: Sante Fe beckons, 5 hours from Vail

Caramie Petrowsky
Special to the Daily

As a child growing up in the Vail Valley, my family struck out for Santa Fe, New Mexico, multiple times a year.

My parents loved Southwest food, art and history; my brother and I loved eating copious amounts of sopaipillas, exploring the flea market and staying in a hotel. Everyone won. It's no wonder I feel drawn back to The City Different every year or two and want to expose my children to this treasure.

In early March, our family of four met my in-laws there for a long weekend getaway. We all needed a reset, and the 400-year-old city delivered, as it always does. Our family came away refreshed and fully satiated.

At about a five-and-a-half hour drive from Vail, Santa Fe is a family vacation worth taking. Here's some advice on what to do and where to stay because, really, that's what you really need to know.

EAT

There's no shortage of impressive food in Santa Fe. The hardest part is narrowing it down. On our last trip two years ago we left with a list of spots we wanted to hit up this next visit, and we made it to a few of them. Here are the highlights:

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First, we timed our drive and chose our route to Santa Fe so we could eat lunch at El Paragua in Espanola, about 24 miles north of Santa Fe. This family-owned joint has been featured everywhere from Sunset Magazine to The New York Times.

The food is truly authentic: unapologetically spicy salsa, freshly-fried chips and tortillas cooked atop an antique stove while you watch. We split a carnitas-stuffed sopapilla, and the Chata Special, an enchilada and steak and guacamole taco served with rice and beans. Both dishes were simple, sure, but also so spot-on-good that El Paragua are the first words out of our mouth when anyone even mentions a Santa Fe trip.

After hearing great things about La Choza (it's the same owners as the famed Shed near the downtown Plaza), we attempted to go but when we arrived at 4:55 p.m. (it opens at 5 p.m.) there was already a near two-hour wait. With two hungry kids in tow, that wasn't going to fly so we headed to the Tune-Up Cafe, another spot on the aforementioned "list." This unpretentious family-friendly cafe serves up hearty, inventive fare (yak stew was on special when we visited) along with regional items like the super tasty veggie mole enchiladas.

If you're still craving even more classic New Mexican fare, including some of the tastiest chile rellanos around, then stop into the ever-popular Maria's, conveniently located across from the Trader's Joes (in case you need to restock the two-buck chuck). This spot is kid friendly, with crayons, kid's menus and a super involved margarita menu for mom and dad.

One of the best meals of the trip came out of the kitchen at The Black Bird Saloon in nearby Cerrillos, just a half hour drive from Santa Fe and a stop along the Turquoise Trail. This picturesque dirt-street town served as the backdrop for "Young Guns." The Black Bird Saloon might be the one-and-only restaurant in town, but it's terrific. My mother-in-law raved about the Garden of the Gods — a vegetarian sandwich with portabello mushrooms, green chile, red onion, spinach, gouda and roasted garlic mayo. Our Black Jack Ketchum burger was memorable as well, likely because "we treat our burgers like most people do a steak," according to owner-operator Patrick Torres.

Afterward, wander over to the Casa Grande Trading Post, Mining Museum & Petting Zoo. Our children adored feeding the pregnant goats, chickens and the sneaky llama, which is incredibly quick to snatch the paper bag of feed ($2 in the Trading Post) out of your hands.

SEE

Shortly after arriving in Santa Fe and checking in at the Eldorado Hotel & Spa, we walked to the nearby Plaza. Native Americans were selling their wares and we stopped to peruse the beautiful jewelry, including lots of silver and turquoise, carefully displayed on colorful blankets.

The vendors sit in front of the adobe Palace of the Governors, which has an impressive history: It was built by the Spanish as a government building in 1610 and remains the country's oldest continuously occupied public building.

Be sure and visit the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, a beautiful Roman Catholic cathedral constructed from 1869-1886. The stations of the Cross Prayer Garden feature 14 life-size sculptures by Gib Singleton, a master bronze sculptor who lived in Santa Fe (he died in 2014) and whose work adorns the Gib Singleton Gallery on 1 Willow Bridge Road in Vail.

If you're in Santa Fe on a Saturday, then the Farmers Market (www.santafefarmersmarket.com) is a must-visit. We stopped in for breakfast — spicy egg and potato burritos and fresh apple cider — and to stock up on some tasty items we discovered last time we were in town, namely a selection of dried chile powders, apple-mint tea, Heidi's raspberry red chile jelly and spicy garlic mustard from Old Pecos Food. Budget some time (and cash) for this stop — it's worth absorbing.

After spending a few hours at the farmers market, our kids needed to burn off some energy before lunch and a stop at the Santa Fe Children's Museum accomplished just that. The museum offers 35 interactive indoor and outdoor exhibits, including giant bubbles, a dirt-filled trough for digging, a dress-up area and special areas for toddlers to explore. Littles up to age 7 or so will likely dig it.

Meow Wolf Art Complex's House of Eternal Return installation opened to the public two years ago. Before opening, "Game Of Thrones" creator, longtime Santa Fe resident and supporter of the project George R.R. Martin promised the exhibit would "be like nothing you've ever seen before" and he couldn't have been more right. It took 135 artists collaborating to create 70-plus spaces. This multimedia experience is a combination jungle gym, haunted house and immersive art exhibit that unfold in a magical narrative that appeals to kids and adults alike. We felt as if we'd stepped into a video game full of doors and portals that constantly led to other worlds. Even better, our 4-year-old loved it just as much as her grandmother did.

Instead of driving to Bandelier National Monument, to marvel once again at the ancestral pueblo dwellings located at one of the National Park Services oldest sites (1916), we opted to take the kids on an easy hike. Just a short drive from downtown, the Dale Ball Trails system boasts 20-plus miles of trails in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos. The gentle, well-maintained path provided the perfect spot for both kids and grandparents to hike, with plenty of stopping points to marvel at the surrounding acres of beautiful pinon and juniper forest.

Email freelance travel writer, editor and public relations professional Caramie Petrowsky at caramiepetrowsky@gmail.com.