DENNIS MACDONALD/AGE FOTOSTOCK
People often ask me, "If your job is to travel, where do you go on vacation?" Two words: Santa Fe. I have had the pleasure of returning to this city six times, including with my mom and my sister on separate girl trips. I love Santa Fe for its desert beauty and for how it reminds us through ancient sites — such as the 19 pueblos found in the area — that the European colonists weren't the first Americans.
Santa Fe is a city in which you can appreciate our vibrant Native American culture and experience a world-class art scene that's attitude-free. Also: At an elevation of 7,000 feet, one margarita goes a lot further!
The New Santa Fe
A once-grimy, industrial no-man's-land is now the Railyard: a pedestrian-only stretch of beautiful landscaped spaces, open-air performance areas, contemporary art galleries, one-of-a-kind shops and eat-your-heart-out restaurants. It has become a local favorite and an antidote to the historic center of Santa Fe (also known as the Plaza), which on weekends becomes so overwhelmed by people and traffic that you'll be grateful for the breathing space the Railyard provides.
A Walk in the Woods
What I love most about Santa Fe is that just 10 minutes outside its bustling center are fantastic hiking trails. My favorite is the Aspen Vista Trail. It's a gorgeous trek (moderate) through a forest of luminescent aspen that make you feel as if you're walking through a Klimt painting. The sweeping view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains is so breathtaking, I always get slightly emotional when I begin the hike. In fact, I've nicknamed the trail "The Tear Jerker." Find it on Artist Road, past Mile Marker 13.
A Walk in the City
If you like your walk to be more instructive, go to Santa Fe's visitors website for a list of self-guided walking tours with printable maps and itineraries. There are tours that cater to chocolate lovers and coffee lovers, but the most relevant to visitors interested in understanding Santa Fe's roots is the New Deal Art Legacy tour, which combines information about the city's art and history. You'll learn, for instance, that for a decade starting in 1933, public art was funded by President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs. They employed 167 New Mexican artists, who created more than 1,000 artworks in Santa Fe and across the state.
A True Mexican Meal
On my first trip to Santa Fe, I asked a bellman where he would spend money to get the best Mexican food in Santa Fe. I wanted authentic cuisine (no Tex-Mex!) in a nice, comfortable sit-down restaurant. He told me "Maria's," and I have been going there for the last 14 years to get fajitas, enchiladas, guacamole, Spanish rice and more. Maria's has been open since 1952, surviving decades of culinary competition for good reason.
When I order a margarita in other cities, I always ask bartenders if they make theirs using fresh lime. In Santa Fe, this would be considered an insult. Everyone uses only the freshest ingredients, and the idea of using a mix is sacrilegious. There are plenty of places serving great margaritas, but one of my all-time favorites is the Dragon Room Lounge at the Pink Adobe restaurant. The atmosphere is relaxed and the menu offers only six different margaritas. Do we really need to choose from 50?
Explore the Art Scene
If you know Santa Fe, then you know about Canyon Road Arts. This stretch is the city's art district, with more than 100 galleries and shops featuring Native American, abstract, contemporary and 20th-century art. The best time to visit is on a Friday, when many galleries have art openings — and where there's an opening, there's wine … as in free wine! I'm not advocating getting sauced, but it's a refreshing perk. And maybe a glass of pinot grigio will give you the courage to ask someone if he can help explain the difference between contemporary and 20th-century art.
You can't toss a healing crystal in the air without hitting at least two people in the therapeutic arts. This city is an epicenter of enlightened spirituality, and there are thousands of people whose job it is to promote mind/body rest and rejuvenation — sometimes in ways you could never imagine. (Color therapy?)
While in Santa Fe, you should definitely take advantage of being among some of the best massage therapists in the world. My go-to spa is 10,000 Waves, which is designed like a Japanese onsen, or bathhouse, and the spa itself disappears into the nature surrounding it. The locker rooms are cramped, and for the shy, a heads-up: The ladies' pool is bathing suit optional (I can't speak for the men's). But the massages here are unparalleled. Try the Masters Massage: Your therapist will have 30 to 40 years of experience.
A History Lesson
New Mexico (and the area surrounding Santa Fe) is especially rich in Native American culture, history and arts, and the best place to experience this is at one of the Eight Northern Pueblos, which are an easy day trip from the city. The most popular are Santa Clara Pueblo for the Puye cliff dwellings and the Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its multistory adobe buildings. Most of the Northern Pueblos are about 30 miles from Santa Fe, with Taos the farthest, at about 90 miles.