Another phantasgoramic installment in Nick’s Gay Travel Guru series!
It hardly ever rains in Santa Fe, and when it does, the locals are positively giddy about it. “Isn’t this weather great,” Victoria, a vendor at the weekend Farmer’s Market, commented to me. I smiled politely, and thought to myself, “what about the 300 days of sunshine that I keep reading about? I live in Seattle, for goodness sakes! I need every sun ray I can get!”
Lucky for me, Santa Fe is magical regardless of the weather. Located at 7,000 feet above sea level, Santa Fe is not only the nation’s oldest state capitol but also it’s highest. “The City Different” is creative, charming, romantic, stunning, serene, gorgeous, relaxing, beautiful, and sophisticated. You’ll find the past and present playing gleefully with each other throughout town. History, arts, culture, food and nature converge to create a vacation for those with discerning tastes seeking a sensory travel experience.
And after only a few days there, I’m totally gay for Santa Fe!
Santa Fe recently marked its 400th anniversary, making it the oldest inhabited town in the United States. During these 400 years, and the thousands before them, Santa Fe has accumulated a rich, and oftentimes dark, story.
The New Mexico History Museum, centrally located on the Plaza, is an intelligent, fascinating and interactive look at the area’s storied past. In fact, this museum is one of the most enthralling history museums that I have ever visited – it fundamentally alters how you interact with the city once you leave. Sophisticated multi-media exhibits cover the Pueblo Indians, reveal what the area was like first as the capitol of Spain’s territory, and then as the capitol of Mexico’s. It follows with Statehood, the atomic age, and more.
Santa Fe has a staggering amount of history at every turn. It’s mind-boggling to think about how long human beings have inhabited this area, and how the enchantment has continued across centuries of people.
Thomas Edison’s “Enchanted Drawing” plays on the screen in front of me, and it’s a perfect illustration of Santa Fe’s artistic attraction. I’m at SITE Santa Fe, which presents significant, innovative and contemporary visual arts in the recently renovated historic Railyard District.
SITE is only one color in the palette of Santa Fe, which itself is the third largest art market in the country. The streets are lined with galleries, and people come from all over the world like moths to a flame. They gawk, peruse, fondle, absorb, experience, and often purchase, art of all kinds: Native American, sculpture, porcelain, modern, pottery, cutlery, jewelry, contemporary…the list goes on.
Canyon Road is home to the majority of these galleries, with a concentration of creativity that makes any art nerd’s heart flutter. You can see Ansel Adams and Annie Liebovitz, Georgia O’Keefe and Maynard Dixon, alongside the authentic Native American crafts at the Palace of the Governors.
On Friday evenings, the funky galleries on Canyon Road stay open late and it’s quite the scene. Wandering around is an excellent opportunity to expand the art-watching to people-watching. A plethora of Native American craftsmanship shines amidst towering sculptures of bronze and contemporary paintings from up-and-coming artists. Follow the winding road, and end up listening to live rhythms at El Farol, Santa Fe’s oldest and most well trafficked cantina.
“The streets are made of mud, the buildings are made of mud, the courthouse is made of mud…In fact, it’s all made of mud.” –Anna Morris, late 1800s
People have been coming through this area for centuries, and have left an indelible imprint on the area’s culture. Today, Santa Fe County is home to only 70,000 people, but welcomes over a million people a year through its adobe porticos. This ensures that the city maintains an urban, cosmopolitan vibe despite its humble size.
The Native American tribes indigenous to the area have a strong influence on the culture here, which developed alongside the cowboy culture. Stores like Cowboyz, selling used boots and wide-brim hats, coexist with the Native American-influenced statues, jewelry and tchotchkes that populate the windows of many stores here. Imagine boys and girls still playing cowboys and Indians, only all grown up (and without the manifest destiny!).
It is also a slower life here, easily intoxicating ex-New Yorkers, Californians and Texans used to the breakneck pace of urban life. Reeve Stein, who works at famed spa 10,000 Waves, moved here several years ago. “It’s gorgeous. I like the outdoorsy aspect of it. It’s just a different vibe [from NYC]. You can really appreciate life at a slower pace. I garden, I cook, I have a restaurant, I am never looking for something to do!”
There are 371 restaurants in Santa Fe alone, making it the city with the most restaurants per capita in the country. With that many places to eat, the agony of choosing a place to eat can be crippling. From the simple to the sublime, a diverse array of food will satisfy even the most sophisticated and discerning foodie.
Try a 2-hour class at the Santa Fe School of Cooking, and you will develop a newfound appreciation for the impact of Native Americans on global cuisine. Chef Rocky Durham (yes, that’s his real name) explains that vanilla, beans, squash, corn, chilies and chocolate would not have been brought to the table if it wasn’t for the indigenous Indian populations.
The chile might as well be the New Mexico state symbol, with the state question being: red or green? Chiles, that is. And if you want both? Christmas. Chile consumption is serious, everyday business in New Mexico and beware: They can be hot. Try one freshly roasted at the Saturday Farmer’s Market, or in dozens of other dishes that intelligently – and often surprisingly – incorporate the mighty chile.
Creativity is infused in the local restaurant scene like apple-wood smoked bacon in ice cream. The ever-popular SHED is eclipsed by other creative cookeries that have popped up around town. La Boca is always packed with locals, serving compact tapas and robust wines. Koi delivers an eclectic and challenging menu. Il Piatto strictly adheres to farm-to-table principles, presenting a brand-new menu every single day. Mu Du Noodles, recently named Restaurant of the Year by the Santa Fe Reporter, works tirelessly to delivers an unrelenting inventiveness with pan-Asian cuisine.
Walking down the street in Santa Fe is a feast for the senses – so beware! You will be tempted.
The true taste of Santa Fe isn’t set down in front of you on a plate. You have to get out and work for it.
The sun shines for 300 days yearly (Or so I hear!), allowing locals and travelers alike ample opportunities to get out into nature. The landscapes of northern New Mexico have been inspiring artists for centuries, with Georgia O’Keefe being one of the most legendary.
In the warmer months, hiking for all skill levels is plentiful. In the cooler fall months, don’t miss the scintillating yellow of the Aspen trees up at Aspen Vista. In the winter, the ski area boasts an average base of 120 inches.
It is impossible to come to Santa Fe and not be inspired by the light, the surroundings, the people, and the town. “Our light is the most well-known in the world,” Melanie Moore, the local DJ, reminds me. It radiates a unique energy, something that just draws you in. Stories abound of first time visitors falling in love and staying for 20 years. “The weather is ideal, its four seasons. The arts culture is absolutely extraordinary from the galleries to the opera to all of the dance and other forms of music we have here. It’s a beautiful city, with a remarkable level of culture,” gushes RainbowVision’s Jane Steinberg.
Santa Fe is also incredibly welcome to gay travelers. Locals lovingly call it the City Different, and they readily embrace diversity. There are plenty of gay people living in the area, and many are coupled up and settled down.
Melanie Moore has been living in Santa Fe for over 15 years. “This is the kind of place where everyone is embraced, no matter who you are, what color your skin is, what your tastes are. People don’t really have a bone to pick about you being different. We’re called the City Different, so we really embrace variety and diversity.”
Picture the legendary American melting pot, now add equal parts sun and spice. Everyone mixes together in a delicious New Mexican stew, fostering a laid-back vibe of acceptance. As such, there are few exclusively gay spots in the Santa Fe area, meaning this is not a place for people who need robust nightlife and a plethora of fresh (human) meat to hunt. The evenings end early here, and the city is virtually silent by midnight on weekdays.
That being said, there are a couple of spots that attract the gays. The unique Silver Starlight Lounge, located in the LGBTQA retirement community called Rainbow Vision, has drag shows on the weekends and was nominated a Top 60 bar in the USA by OUT Magazine a few years back. Mike the bartender makes a mean pomegranate margarita – and will help keep you awake with an espresso-infused cocktail as well!
The Rouge Cat, a bar that opened on Marcy Street in Summer 2010, has a ground floor lounge with a contemporary aesthetic that goes over well with gay and straight alike. The basement features a cozy disco, with regular events that get a mostly gay crowd dancing.
Other than that, venues in Santa Fe are welcoming to all. Which means that it’s exceptionally difficult to pick spots to have a cocktail and eat dinner! Choices abound, and Santa Fe will not disappoint a traveler interested in the culinary arts, the creative arts, music, culture or history.
What’s your favorite gay travel destination?