Up, Up and Away: My Trip to New Mexico
By Ron Kapon, Contributing Travel Editor

Aerial view of New Mexico
An aerial view of a lava-capped mesa by Rio Grande southwest of Taos, New Mexico. The Jemez Mountains can be seen in the background.
New York, NY - Attending a week long travel conference with the North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA) brought me to New Mexico for the first time in 10 years. The population there is under two million people, but geographically it is the fifth largest state in the U.S. Since I had convinced former nationally, and internationally, known TV talk show host, Sally Jessy Raphael, to be the keynote speaker that allowed her husband Karl and yours truly to spend seven days traveling to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque. Sally, incidentally - for those of you who might be wondering what she does to keep busy in some of her spare time these days - is a member of NATJA and has written three articles for its online magazine Travel World International. Currently, she is hosting an Internet talk show, which is rapidly expanding.

I would suggest that, when traveling, you consider the less expensive route of renting a car for a day, as we did after landing in Albuquerque (with free drop-off in Santa Fe, a 75 minute drive), than pay for two three or more if with family, people on the shuttle bus ($20 vs. decidedly more). So, in our case, a brief "thank you" to Avis for their very acceptable and competitive rates. Southwest Airlines was the airline of choice for this particular conference and their very low fares, highly publicized, belie the service offered and which we enjoyed.(www.southwest.com). It was nice to see, despite the fact that Sally?s TV show has been off the air for over two years, people in the airport and aboard the flight coming up to speak to her and still ask for advice. Much of that has to do, apparently, with her regular appearances on the highly rated VH1 show, Surreal Life, which has kept her face and persona before the viewing public.

The conference headquarters and our home for four nights was the Eldorado Hotel, with 203 rooms and suites that made it the largest resort in town, just a few blocks from Santa Fe?s main square. It was typical Midwestern hospitality when it came to the staff - friendly, accommodating and anxious to assist at every turn. The Eldorado has everything a traveler could want during a vacation stay...e.g., the Old House Restaurant, located in the lobby, was Zagat?s top choice in town, a Mobil 4 Star and AAA 4 Diamond dining experience. However, we were a bit disappointed - it is, after all, the travel journalist's mandate to express sincerity and honesty to his or her readers. The food was average, the restaurant - for some reason - was understaffed and, for what was offered, a bit expensive. I would, however, instantly recommend the Coyote Caf?, Dinner For Two, and Los Mayas as alternate choices, as well as The Compound or La Plazuela. When dining, it is well to remember that you are 7,000 feet above sea level so drinking lots of water and taking it easy for the first few days while you acclimate, physically, to the climate is a good idea.

The brief historical background is that, in 1540, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado led the first Spanish exploration to New Mexico; in 1610 Santa Fe was established as the first capitol of New Mexico; around 1821 Spanish rule ended and New Mexico became part of Mexico with the Santa Fe Trail opening; 25 years later, in 1846, the US claimed New Mexico and then, in 1912, New Mexico became the 47th state. Somewhat above the usual tourist shopping effort for shelf dust-gathering items, there are eight sovereign Indian Pueblos near town with Indian artists and craftspeople selling their original wares. This is worth the trip as the descendents of the original Spanish settlers continue to maintain their Hispanic culture through their craft.

Loreto Chapel
The Loreto Chapel is home to the "miraculous" staircase (no visible supports) built in 1878.
What you really have to do is to bring your Nikes or Reeboks. This is a "walking city" so get out your map and head for the Plaza, established in 1610 and the heart of the city. Certified Native American vendors sell their handicrafts next to The Palace of the Governor, built in 1610 and the oldest public building in the U.S. Continue to St. Francis of Assisi Cathedral with its Romanesque architecture and 375-year old statue of the Virgin. Bring plenty of film and be sure to pause and rest at the Cathedral Park next door. The Loreto Chapel is home to the "miraculous" staircase (no visible supports) built in 1878. Skip the Oldest House as St. Augustine is really the oldest city in the U.S. with Santa Fe number two...if you are punctilious about your history and what you saw when attendant to claims and facts. The circa 1610 Barrio de Analco is, indeed, America?s oldest neighborhood although you might think that the one where you lived as a child was. For those not versed in Spanish, Santa Fe means "Holy Faith" and it is the oldest capital city in the U.S. Are you staring to get the feeling that this is an old area? Well, it is but the good news is that it is not catching and you will return home as young as when you began your journey.

For art buffs, be sure to see the extensive art collection throughout the capitol building and then walk to Canyon Road and its art galleries galore. Not to be missed is New Mexico?s most famous artist with her very own Georgia O?Keeffe Museum. The Museum of Fine Arts emphasizes artists working in the southwest.

Our sojourn then continued for half a day in Taos where, early on Sunday, we drove two hours and followed the Sangre de Cristo mountain route through Espanola and San Juan Pueblo. Keep your eyes open for one photo opp after the other. Make certain that you stop at the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, (eight miles outside Taos) a breathtaking drop of 650 feet where the river cuts a narrow slice in the earth. Hold on to the railings as this is the second highest suspension bridge in the U.S. and I was told the number one suicide site in the southwest. Take a few moments, as we did, to see the Taos-Tiwi Pueblo and its adobe houses. The town, such that it is, has been designed around a plaza, the site of the original settlement, and the perfect place to park the car and have lunch. Our next excursion was a two hour self-guided walking and shopping tour. through the historic district with more than 65 galleries, five museums, many shops from which to choose and restaurants.

Upon returning to Santa Fe we chose the low road through Chimayo, famous for its weavers but, lesson to be learned as, since it was Sunday, all the shops were closed. Note of trivia is that the Santuario de Chimayo is called the "Lourdes of the Southwest" for its "miraculous dirt" found in the 19th century chapel. I would not suggest your rolling around it to cure the allergy attack you had in the morning.

Heading off to Albuquerque we ventured off the freeway and onto the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway linking Santa Fe and Albuquerque (60 miles), stopping at the old mining towns of Cerrillos, Madrid, Golden and Sandia Park. Lunch was at the Mine Shaft Tavern, one of the last great roadhouses where the bartender looks like he stepped out of a John Wayne movie. When Madrid?s last coal company closed, the town of 4,000 became a "ghost town" of 13 overnight . The Tavern was purchased from the coal company and restored in 1982 while the Old Coal Mine Museum next door preserves mining and railroading relics as well as vintage vehicles. One man?s junk is another?s treasure. Our last stop was the Tinkertown Museum in Sandia Park, a living memorial to the late Ross Ward and his 40 years of carvings and collecting - over 50,000 glass bottles surround a 22 room museum and his miniature wood-carved figures are interspersed with wagon wheels, old fashioned store fronts and wacky western memorabilia making this a must see as any attempted description of it would be useless.

Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway
The Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway is the world?s longest aerial tramway.
Of the 1.8 million that populate the state, 750,000 of them call this home, and 2006 will be the 300th anniversary of Albuquerque?s founding. We stayed at the Nativo Lodge, just 10 minutes outside the city center, for three nights but, sadly, the building was being renovated so the fitness center and pool were closed with scaffolding and construction materials everywhere. Despite some minor glitches, like the room keys not working initially, the staff did their best to accommodate us (www.nativo.com ) and, for all intents and purposes, succeeded.

This is not a walking city, except for Old Town with its shops, galleries and museums so get settled in and plan each day. That being said, within Old Town you can walk to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science; the National Atomic Museum, where I was able to read the history of the development of the Atom Bomb; Albuquerque Museum of Art & History and my favorite, the American International Rattlesnake Museum, the largest in the world.

I suggest that you ride the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway (world?s longest aerial tramway built 40 years ago) to experience dinner at High Finance restaurant, over 10,350 feet above the city. One glass of wine and you are likely to require some oxygen (no joke) to recover. Careful!!! The next day our group visited the National Hispanic Cultural Center and its adjacent Roy Disney Center for the Performing Arts, as well as the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center where the 19 Pueblos displayed their weavings, pottery and jewelry. Speaking of jewelry, we also spent some time at the Turquoise Museum to listen, learn, tour and buy. For our last day it was early to rise for ballooning with The Rainbow Ryders, a very "uplifting" experience and one that I encourage you to take at the first opportunity. It was then on to the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum that is opening officially in October 2005 in time for the International Balloon Festival, the largest in the world, but to which we were accorded an early "peek." This nine-day festival takes place the first week in October with over 700 balloons scheduled to be in flight. Get the camera loaded right now!

The temperature was well over 90 degrees and we were tiring fast so our visit to the Petroglyph National Monument was cut short. We were advised by the park rangers that there are 17,000 ancient Indian Petroglyphs carved into the rocks, but we did not have a chance to explore and see many of them no less all 17,000. Sadley, we did not do justice to the Albuquerque Biopark and its three venues: Zoo, Aquarium and Botanical Gardens. There is, after all, just so much time in a day. Actually, two of them were outdoors and the heat was already stifling, bringing visions of diving into the pool at the Aquarium but the sharks quickly negated that thought. We drove along Historic Route 66 that weaves its way through town and stopped at the Nob Hill area, home to restaurants and boutiques, and you do want to stop and eat at the Church Street Caf? (breakfast), Graze (Tapas portions), Chama River Brewing Company and the 1,000 seat El Pinto Mexican Restaurant. All at the same time or one right after the other? Probably not but do keep all in mind.

For additional Information, head to www.itsatrip.org and realize that it cannot all be covered in one trip and even the state's residents take years and years to absorb that which surrounds them on a daily basis. So, it really means more than one trip. From my point of view, not a problem.

Ron Kapon is seeking wine tasters for the New York Tasters Guild. Please go to www.tastersguildny.com or email him at Ron@tastersguildny.com.

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