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New Mexico: Stylish Inns and Distinctive Haciendas

New Mexico: Stylish Inns and Distinctive Haciendas

Andrew Harper Editor-in-Chief
In this article:

It’s something in the air — it’s different. The sky is different; the wind is different. I shouldn’t say too much about it because other people may be interested, and I don’t want them interested.

Georgia O’Keeffe hoped to keep New Mexico all to herself, and I can understand why. Every time I return, I find myself entranced once again by the scale of its landscapes and fascinated by its complex history. Centuries-old pueblos, such as those at Acoma and Taos, remain bastions of Native American life and culture.

O’Keeffe is by no means the only artist to have been seduced by the quality of New Mexico’s light, which has a numinous clarity resulting from the high elevation and dry air. In Taos, the Harwood Museum contains a room dedicated to the abstract expressionist works of Agnes Martin. And photographer Ansel Adams found the region a source of inspiration, using the clear skies to emphasize the sculptural qualities of adobe churches and pueblos. Of course, long before, New Mexico had been colonized by the Spanish, whose cultural imprint remains pervasive. Catholic priests planted North America’s first vineyards to make sacramental wine, and some 500 years later, New Mexico produces wines of surprising quality.

Feeling a need to be surrounded by the immensity of New Mexico’s landscape, I headed for the Hacienda Del Cerezo outside of Santa Fe. After negotiating a five-mile dirt road, we arrived at this 10-room high-desert retreat, shielded from neighbors by 336 acres of private land dotted with juniper and piñon. Recent summer rains (summer is New Mexico’s “monsoon” season) had left the desert floor thinly carpeted with grasses, giving the country an unexpected spring-green hue. The hacienda stands on a small hill amid exquisite scenery, with uninterrupted views extending to Los Alamos in the west and to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the east.

Transplants from New York, the engaging owners Stephen and Barbro Kirschenbaum built the atmospheric property from the ground up: The Great Room’s ceiling beams are made of wood salvaged from a Montana railroad trestle, while the dinner china is a replica of the service used on the Santa Fe Railway in the 1930s. The hacienda is their passion, not a primary source of income, which means that they do little marketing and rarely have a full house. Indeed, we had the place entirely to ourselves, and the experience was more like staying at a friend’s country home than in a hotel. The Kirschenbaums act as hosts, not as hotel managers. Staffing duties fall to Carey, who serves as valet, bellman, waiter and gardener. The only other staff member is talented chef Paul Pratley, another New Yorker. Every dish in his Southwestern-inflected five-course dinner menus was well-executed, including addictive chile rellenos, delicious buffalo tenderloin, and delicate quail with subtle green-chile corn cakes. It was bliss to dine by candlelight on the terrace each night, watching the sunset give way to stars and cool moonlight.

Each of the individually decorated accommodations is roughly the same size, making their views the main differentiating factor. Suites 1 and 10 have the most desirable outlooks. All rooms offer wood-beamed ceilings, kiva-style fireplaces and private terraces with cushioned chairs. Baths come with Saltillo-tile floors, thick sandstone counters, Jacuzzi tubs and separate showers with custom etched-glass doors. (Oddly, the showerhead was quite old and in need of replacement.) Despite the comfort of our room, we spent much of our time in the public spaces, including the cozy library and the elegant Great Room. Our favorite place to lounge, however, was beside the infinity-edge pool surrounded by shady flowering gardens. On the far side of the pool, four arches framed the panoramic view, creating a polyptych of desert scenery. We spent hours reading books and taking the occasional lap in the cool water. Aside from tennis, the other main activity is horseback riding. Barbro Kirschenbaum took me on a memorable desert trail ride one morning. Astride our flawlessly groomed chestnut Arabian mounts, we rode along serpentine arroyos and then climbed hills to survey the archetypal Western landscape. (Riding, along with meals and house wines, is ?included in the rate.)

Having checked out with regret, we drove back into downtown Santa Fe, where Native American, Hispanic and Anglo cultures have intertwined over centuries. This remarkable city of 70,000 inhabitants contains the oldest church in the United States (dating to 1626), the highly regarded Santa Fe Opera, numerous fine restaurants, a huge array of art galleries and several excellent museums. The web of streets centered on the historic Plaza is a joy to wander, and many façades of the adobe Territorial-style buildings conceal leafy courtyards that serve as settings for delightful outdoor cafés. The annual Santa Fe Indian Market (August 18-24, 2014) attracts around 150,000 visitors and presents a mind-boggling selection of Native American arts and crafts.

In addition to checking up on my longtime favorite hotels in Santa Fe (see “Two Classics Revisited,” Page 5), I decided to try two properties I had overlooked on previous visits. Our first stop was the Don Gaspar Inn, a friendly bed-and-breakfast comprised of three former homes linked by tranquil gardens and patios, located a pleasant 10- or 15-minute walk from the Plaza. We opted for the Southwestern-style Territorial Suite, which occupies half of a one-story bungalow on the corner, fronted by a broad terrace overlooking a private garden and the street beyond. Inside, a comfortable leather sofa and chairs face a decorative fireplace, adjacent to a bedroom with a king-size bed and large antique armoire. A second armoire conceals a “kitchen” with a microwave, coffeemaker, mini-fridge and room safe. The limestone-clad bath came with a colorful handpainted ceramic sink and a deep jetted soaking tub/shower combination. The suite offered a generous amount of space for the price; only the old brown carpet was unappealing. The breakfast of raisin-bread French toast, sausage, yogurt and fruit was delicious, and the staff was gregarious and always happy to help. But the Don Gaspar Inn is a bed-and-breakfast with limited service, making it a viable alternative only for relatively independent and self-sufficient travelers.

In contrast, La Posada De Santa Fe bills itself as a full-service luxury resort and spa, but aside from our relaxing treatments, this famous property proved to be a great disappointment. Problems began before we even checked in. As suggested on the hotel’s confirmation, we used the website to request two spa appointments and a dinner reservation, as well as a meeting with the hotel’s art curator. Although we received a formulaic email that our communication had been received, no one ever responded, and eventually we felt obliged to telephone the hotel to make the arrangements. On arrival, we found that our Spa King room lacked the promised balcony, and its only window was covered by a shade that could not be raised. Maintenance, already aware of the problem, told us we would have to wait until the next day for the necessary part to arrive and for the repair to be completed. Not keen to spend the night in what was essentially a windowless room, we switched to a smaller Spa King that had functioning window shades, as well as a terrace. Its broken gas fireplace was repaired while we were at dinner at La Posada’s restaurant, Fuego!. The latter was yet another letdown. The pathetic picadillo lettuce wraps, described as “savory beef with guajillo chile sauce in butter lettuce,” were nothing more than bits of iceberg topped with what might as well have been canned chili. The blackened salmon in my main course tasted fine, but the chef clearly took shortcuts when preparing the gloppy “jambalaya risotto” underneath. In some respects, La Posada de Santa Fe is pleasant enough, but overall, the resort is extremely poor value for money.

Matters improved slightly in Taos, an overrated town that has lost much of its charm. The surrounding landscape is magnificent, but Taos itself has become a glorified adobe strip mall plagued by traffic jams (virtually all vehicles must pass through a single intersection). After revisiting the astonishing 1,000-year-old pueblo, we checked into the Palacio De Marquesa, formerly known as the Casa de las Chimeneas. I stopped recommending this six-bedroom bed-and-breakfast a few years ago after receiving negative reports. Recently, it was acquired by new owners, whom I hoped would breathe new life into the property. Alas, most renovations have yet to take place. The gardens looked scraggly; the tile baths seemed dated; and yellowed “Casa de las Chimeneas” waffle-weave robes still hung in our closet. The manager outlined impressive-sounding plans to redo the landscaping and to install new marble counters in the baths. If implemented, these will doubtless elevate the inn considerably. To be fair, even now, accommodations such as the Library Suite and La Sala de Patron remain comfortable for a night, and I would still choose to stay in one of them over the nearby El Monte Sagrado resort. But until the upgrade is complete, the Palacio de Marquesa cannot be recommended.

Because on most previous New Mexican journeys we had confined ourselves to the northern destinations of Santa Fe and Taos, we decided this time to explore farther afield. South of Albuquerque, the desert opens up into seemingly endless mountain-rimmed plains, punctuated by an occasional lava field or historic marker, such as the one designating the Trinity nuclear test site. As you approach the ski town of Ruidoso, trees slowly overtake the desert brush until you find yourself winding uphill amid stands of 50-foot conifers. A forest fire devastated the area in June 2012, but beyond the fire line, Ruidoso remains a cool oasis scented with pine. Although many visit for the winter skiing or the noted horseracing track, Ruidoso can also be used as a base for exploring the unearthly White Sands National Monument, as well as the historic town of Lincoln (made famous by Billy the Kid).

Regrettably, hotel and restaurant options are limited, despite the area’s appeal. The best hostelry is the five-casita Escape Resort, tucked in a shady grove of pines on the main road into Ruidoso. The casitas are exceedingly comfortable, spacious and well-appointed. Our living/dining room looked chic with polished concrete floors, a stone-clad gas fireplace, a four-person dining table, leather-upholstered seating and various attractive contemporary accessories. Both the full kitchen and the bath had granite countertops, and the latter featured a two-person whirlpool tub and separate pebble-floored steam shower. The large bedroom and living room each had glass doors opening onto separate patios, though we spent little time on them because of the spartan furnishings and traffic noise from the road (Casita 2 is closest to the road, and Casita 5 is farthest). Housekeeping effectively tidied our suite each morning, with the exception of the chef’s knives in the kitchen, which were left unwashed. Aside from the road noise, the Escape Resort makes a pleasant enough base for independent travelers seeking to explore the area around Ruidoso, but it is important to remember that service is minimal, and ?the office is rarely staffed.

We spent our final evening of the trip on the outskirts of Albuquerque, a sprawling city that does not traditionally rank among New Mexico’s top attractions. Nevertheless, those making use of Albuquerque’s airport should consider spending a night at Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm. Accessed by an allée of mature cottonwoods, this working farm and 20-room hotel is surrounded by 25 acres of formal gardens, pastures, ponds and fields of lavender, and is located a 10-minute drive directly north of Albuquerque’s Old Town. The property first appeared in a 1790 census, but it took much of its current form in the 1930s, when congressional representatives Albert and Ruth Simms hired acclaimed architect John Gaw Meem to renovate the farmhouse (now the inn) and build La Quinta, the grand rooms of which now serve as event spaces. Weddings and other functions occupy much of the staff’s attention, but with La Quinta separated from the main part of the property, we rarely felt disturbed. Only at breakfast, when a wedding party placed their orders all at once and completely overwhelmed the kitchen, did the comfort of the inn’s individual guests seem to be compromised.

Accommodations are divided among several buildings set around the grounds. The original 19th-century home contains the main office, restaurant and several guest rooms encircling a peaceful Moorish-style courtyard centered on a star-shaped fountain. Of these, “Simms” is the most desirable, with a kiva-style fireplace and two separate dressing rooms. On the far side of the original house, the Girard Guesthouse offers the most spacious accommodations, but the two Greely Suites that front a formal garden provide more privacy (Greely 1 has its own garden patio). We reserved the Farm 2 Suite, an airy wood-floored space containing a fashionable mix of contemporary pieces, country antiques and folk art. Its cozy living room was flanked by a woodburning fireplace and a gleaming stainless-steel and white-tile kitchen. The spare bedroom comprised a sumptuously comfortable steel-framed four-poster bed, a diminutive antique desk, armchair and closet. In the bath, which had a separate shower and tub, we discovered toiletries infused with the farm’s own lavender. Outside, a broad patio trimmed by flowering jimsonweed invited lounging.

Be sure to stay at Los Poblanos Wednesday through Saturday, when its romantic farm-to-table restaurant* La Merienda* is open. Almost all of the ingredients for my “Field Plate” appetizer came from the property. The recipe for this dish — a twice-baked potato stuffed with bacon and pork rillettes topped with greens, gremolata and spicy harissa — reportedly comes from a rare Salvador Dalí cookbook. The line-caught Alaskan salmon in my main course hardly qualified as local, but the accompanying boletus mushrooms were foraged nearby. Rounded out with some zucchini ribbons, fennel and green chile, the dish paired beautifully with a fresh Peitan Albariño.

Aside from dining in the restaurant, guests at Los Poblanos spend time lounging by the pool and borrowing complimentary bicycles to ride along the nearby Paseo del Bosque Trail. The property is very family-friendly; we saw children happily engaging with the farm animals and watched one young boy learn to throw a lasso with startling proficiency. I also recommend taking a few minutes to wander through the stylish Farm Shop. A few blocks away, the Casa Rondeña Winery would not look out of place in Andalusia, with its fountained gardens. We tasted a range of its wines, and I came away especially impressed by the lush-but-dry Viognier, the darkly fruity Cabernet Franc and the powerful Cabernet Sauvignon-based port. All of these diversions made me wish we had spent another night in this unexpectedly delightful corner of Albuquerque before flying home.

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