SANTA FE, N.M. — May was a particularly hectic month: If we weren't dodging tornadoes, we helplessly watched our neighbors' homes destroyed. At work, keeping up with all the damage felt like a vortex on its own. So when I got the opportunity to take a break at the end of the month, I snatched it — literally.
That chance came in the form of a media trip to Santa Fe to check out the city's oldest hotel — La Fonda on the Plaza — and experience some of what one of America's oldest cities has to offer. La Fonda has been undergoing extensive renovations that began in January and are expected to be completed this month.
Santa Fe is fairly close to home but far enough away to feel like a vacation getaway. Chances are that many Oklahomans have vacationed there and even stayed at La Fonda.
I'd been to Santa Fe previously, pulling in to a Holiday Inn after a nine-hour road trip with my son and mother-in-law the night the “shock and awe” campaign began in Iraq. As a news junkie I could not get away from the TV set for long. In any case, it turned cold and sleety the next day, inhibiting plans for an excursion through the city.
That was more than 10 years ago. But this was a totally different experience — and so good. To say La Fonda has a comfortable atmosphere is an understatement. It feels like home, but a vacation home you've always wished for — elegant without being over-the-top, exuding carefree relaxation, with New Mexican artwork that compels you to purchase something original before leaving the city.
The current hotel was built in 1922 under the influence of architect John Gaw Meem and Southwest designer Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter. Today's renovations still bear Colter's cultural and aesthetic Southwest influence but updated by preservation architect Barbara Felix. One such influence is found surrounding the hotel's main restaurant, La Plazuela, a cheery place for dining — breakfast, lunch and dinner — where scores of hand-painted windows were retained in French doors that surround the dining room.
I stayed in one of the newly renovated rooms, part of what hotel chairman Jenny Kimball described as a “significant investment” that will include all regular guest rooms. It was a relaxing suite that shows off original hardwood floors, with a comfortable sitting room, spacious bathroom with oversized shower and conveniences for the digital-savvy. The furniture and decorations are all Southwestern. A cozy balcony overlooked part of the plaza, offering a relaxing respite in the evening. It was from here that I sat frantically keeping up with text messages and calls from my son on May 31 as he tried to outrun another tornado.
There's plenty to do within the hotel itself, including 17 shops where you can browse or purchase souvenirs, handmade gifts, artwork, imported items and other goodies.
Apart from La Plazuela, a second restaurant, La Fiesta Lounge, offers casual dining, serving a New Mexican buffet daily and at night becoming a live entertainment venue — great if you enjoy two-stepping, cool blues and old school soul and jazz, in other words, something an older crowd might enjoy.
Because of the ongoing renovations, some places were not available, including the spa and the Bell Tower Bar. The bell rings each night at sunset, but patrons who order the namesake margarita, the Bell Ringer, also can ring the bell.
If you prefer a more exclusive nest, an area of the hotel known as The Terrace has rooms with private access and a dedicated concierge staff. The area connects to a large terrace, ideal for special events such as weddings, and has a view that includes the beautiful St. Francis Cathedral Basilica.
What I did in Santa Fe
• There's lots to do in Santa Fe. A must-do is a guided bus tour, which typically includes Canyon Road, Museum Hill, Santa Fe Plaza and the Palace of the Governors.
• Take a walking ghost tour at sundown, recalling some of the area's renowned spooky stories.
• If you like hiking, Bandelier National Monument allows you to walk in the footsteps of the ancestral Pueblo people, who made their home in the 33,677-acre park. The vista from the top includes Los Alamos National Lab in the distance.
• Of course, it should be a crime to visit the city and not check out the museums or some of the more than 200 galleries, many within walking distance of La Fonda.
• If you're there with friends, try to schedule a cooking class at Santa Fe School of Cooking, where you'll help to prepare the meal — typically New Mexican cuisine. But my favorite was a bread pudding dessert that included rum and was sprinkled with cheese. Really good. Call ahead to book a spot in one of the classes; the experience will be worth every dollar.
• Dine at one of the local restaurants. I dined at il Piatto, on vegetables bought earlier that morning at the local farmers market, and at Taberna La Boca. Also, I sampled beer at the Marble Brewery.
• Stroll through the plaza, renowned for it shopping, nightlife, annual markets — Indian market in August and wine market in the fall — and other special events.
Rates at La Fonda
Room rates at La Fonda vary, depending on the season. Rates for a regular guest room in fall start at $179 (decreasing to $159 the week of Halloween).
Rates for rooms in The Terrace start at $359.
Travel and accommodations were provided by La Fonda on the Plaza.