Vail Daily travel: Santa Fe’s a spicy off-season adventure
VAIL, Colorado -Growing up, my family would visit Santa Fe and Taos at least a few times a year. It was a quick and relatively inexpensive getaway chock full of things my parents loved – New Mexican art and spicy, authentic New Mexican food. And there were plenty of things my brother and I loved too – stops along the way at the ‘gator farm north of Alamosa, and the Great Sand Dunes.I’ve been waiting to relive those childhood memories ever since. In mid-August my boyfriend and I finally got the chance. We took a four-day weekend and headed south for a roadtrip through Colorado and New Mexico. Unlike my childhood trips, we went through Grand Junction, south through Montrose, and into Ouray, where we stopped for lunch. We took a chance and ducked into Maggie’s Kitchen (520 Main Street) for lunch. A small sign hung above the counter: “There will be a $5 charge for whining.” Sounded like our kind of place.We ordered a couple of green chile burgers ($7.50) with fresh cut fries. Our gamble paid off. The best burger is a dripping, messy one and it delivered. A thick slice of roasted green chile and melted cheese spilled out the sides of the large, juicy burger.
We hopped back in the car, eager to check out the Million Dollar Highway, the scenic 12 miles south of Ouray through the Uncompahgre Gorge to the summit of Red Mountain Pass. The steep cliffs, hairpin S curves, narrow lanes and lack of guard rails makes the drive a bit harrowing, but it’s also stunningly beautiful. After stopping in Durango for three very necessary expenditures – fly fishing flies from Duranglers (923 Main Avenue), a novel from Maria’s Bookshop (960 Main Avenue) and a beer sampler flight from Steamworks Brewery (801 East Second Avenue) – we headed for Pagosa Springs, our destination for the night. Though it was nearing 5 p.m. when we pulled in to town, we decided to check out Williams Creek Reservoir. My boyfriend was dying to wet his line in the creek and I was up for the dirt-road adventure. An hour and one strike later, we made our way into downtown Pagosa. Based on tripadvisor.com reviews we headed to Kip’s Grill & Cantina. The filled-to-capacity outdoor deck told us we’d chosen well. We sat down at the crowded bar and ordered the fish tacos – on special that night, three tacos for $7.95 – and the “Dos Dynamite Diablos,” two, roasted Hatch green chiles stuffed with cheese and steak wrapped in a corn and a flour tortilla ($8.95). The food was tasty and the bartender offered us a wealth of friendly information. Pagosa Hot Springs is cool yet expensive at nearly $20 per person. She handed us a few $5 coupons for the newest game in town, Overlook Hot Springs (432 Pagosa Street), which is located inside an old Victorian style building. We abandoned our visions of camping – it was pouring rain – and checked in at a nearby motel before heading over to the hot springs. The two soaking tubs on the roof were empty and as we sat in the steaming mineral water my silver jewelry turned a dark coppery color. A small price to pay for the relaxing soak.
The next morning we grabbed fresh-baked muffins and coffee at The Pagosa Baking Company and hit the road again. No stops ’til Santa Fe, we vowed. We rolled into town around lunch time and headed straight for The Coyote Cafe (132 West Water Street, http://www.coyotecafe.com). Well-known for its indoor fine dining restaurant, the restaurant also has a bustling, fun roof top cantina that’s open in the summer. The restaurant, run by Chef Eric DiStefano, has a good reputation among locals and tourists alike, and had been recommended via e-mail by Rob DeWalt, the food editor at The Santa Fe New Mexican. The menu is chock full of Latino fare with Cuban flair. My boyfriend and I split a wedge salad with heirloom tomatoes and crispy chile rellanos and the “Navajo Taco de Nuevo.” It was my boyfriend’s inaugural Navajo taco experience and he wasn’t disappointed. With not one but three meats – ground Kobe beef, pork and chicken – atop house-made Indian frybread and topped with beans, lettuce, cheddar and Mexican crme fraiche it wasn’t a light meal, but it was fantastic and he scrapped the large plate clean. After lunch, we headed 15 minutes out of town to our hotel, Encantado (www.encantadoresort.com) for the night. The hotel is located on 57 acres in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Talk about a step up from the night before. The 1-year-old resort is made up of 65 uber-luxurious, contemporary casitas and suites replete with kiva-style fireplaces, private outdoor terraces, soaking tub and separate shower, iPod docking stations and more. In the center of the resort is a satellite gallery for LewAllen, one of the oldest and largest contemporary galleries in Santa Fe. The resort, which has been frequented by celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker and many others since it opened, is well known for its 10,000-square-foot spa, heralded in Conde Nast Traveler as one of the hottest new spas. I spent two hours being pampered with the Mountain Spirit Purification treatment (2 hours, $300), which begins with an adobe clay body mask followed by a body wrap and scalp and foot massage. After an outdoor shower, the treatment ends with a juniper sage massage using hot stones. My therapist and I said very little to each other, which was bliss. I haven’t spent so much time in that half-asleep, utterly content happy place in a long, long time.
The hotel offers a shuttle service to downtown Santa Fe and after a quick nap, we were picked up in one of the resort’s Mercedes Benz sedans and driven to The Shed in the center of downtown. DeWalt, the food critic, had called the restaurant’s food “real regional New Mexico cookin’,” and gave the red chile high praise: “it’s the closest thing to a religious exerience involving red child I’ve yet to have.” We were in. There was an hour wait but that gave us time to stroll around the plaza and check out the beautiful Catholic church. The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, which was originally built in 1714 and added onto in 1887, is a beautiful piece of local architecture and stunning when bathed in the golden light of sunset. My boyfriend walked the labyrinth in front of the church, a replica of the one in Chartes, France, while I watched tourists snap photos of the church. Back at The Shed, we dined on roasted chicken enchiladas, Christmas-style with both red and green chile, “the only” way to order them according to our waiter. The chile was really good indeed, with great smoky chipotle flavors and enough heat to clear the ol’ sinuses. A mariachi band played in the plaza and we danced in the street for half a block or so on the way to The Matador, a basement dive bar our driver had pointed out to us on the way in. Christmas lights were strung under the bar and tons of old music posters – The Who, Rolling Stones and Tom Waits among them – lined the walls. The place was just our style. We finished our beers just in time for that black Mercedes to roll up again.”Not many people getting picked up in a Mercedes from the Matador,” the driver laughed. “If they are getting picked up, it’s in a squad car he said.”Awesome. Check back next week for part two of this two-part travel series.High Life editor Caramie Schnell can be reached at 970-748-2984 or firstname.lastname@example.org.