x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

A high desert's heady times

My kind of place Nouf al Qasimi finds the atmosphere and dining scene in New Mexico exhilarating.

Nouf al Qasimi outside Santa Fe Farmer's Market where you can eat to your heart's content on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
Nouf al Qasimi outside Santa Fe Farmer's Market where you can eat to your heart's content on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

With more than 300 days of sunshine, there is no bad time to visit Santa Fe. Nestled in the southernmost part of the Rockies, the quality of light is legendary. The Sangre de Cristos Mountains become illuminated at sunset, framing the city like a fortress, and are named "blood of Christ" for their celestial pink glow. At an elevation of 2,134m above sea level, Santa Fe is the United States' oldest and most highly elevated capital city.

One of the most common misconceptions about New Mexico's high desert is that it's hot, colourless and without life here year-round. Fifteen minutes from town, along an icy-in-winter incline leading to the Ski Basin, lies a grove of giant aspen. Known as the world's largest organism, the aspens' roots entwine and grow together in a subterranean embrace. Above ground, the trees are skeletal from November to February, but bear apple-green leaves in spring that turn to shades of saffron in autumn.

In fact, northern New Mexico has four distinct seasons and even a brief monsoon in July in the middle of the dry months when lightning storms, double rainbows, and Botticellian sunsets fill photographers' cameras. But most locals' favourite time of year is autumn when the air is scented with the char of green chillies blistering over flames. I've been coming to Santa Fe for over eight years. To me it's the perfect American town: small but sophisticated, liberal but not overbearing, rural but cosmopolitan and a beacon of alternative health, building and living. I thrive in the thin mountain air, but Santa Fe also nourishes something else in me. In many ways, it reminds me of the Arab world with multiple languages being spoken, an emphasis on family values and tribal pride and the usage of the word mañana is almost interchangeable with "inshallah". Best of all, that there are 300 restaurants for 70,000 people means I never run out of new things to eat.

Staying downtown near the Plaza doesn't get any more classic than the staggeringly beautiful Inn and Spa at Loretto (www.innatloretto.com; 001 505 988 5531), which recently underwent a US$7.5 million (Dh27.5m) renovation. A double room costs from $189 (Dh694). For more intimate luxury, try downtown's only boutique Relais & Châteaux hotel, the Inn of the Five Graces (www.fivegraces.com; 001 505 992 0957). Enticingly, the artfully designed and yet cosy hotel is graced with the Pink Adobe and the Dragon Room Lounge, where favourites like gypsy stew and the Pink Adobe burger are not to be missed. Double rooms cost from $500 (Dh1,835).

While northern New Mexico is landlocked, instead of playing along the coast, locals and visitors hike, bike and fish in forests, rivers, lakes and canyons. The Dale Ball Trails is a 50km-long network of paths running through the city's hills. If there's one thing that helps make sense of the 50-year-old ordinance requiring most construction to be consistent with a single-storey, earth-toned Spanish Pueblo Revival style, it's seeing the city from a scenic overlook.

Santa Fe's most famous landmarks - the Plaza, the Palace of the Governors, the downtown museums, the historic Acequia Madre, the mysterious spiral staircase at the Loretto Chapel and the Santuario de Guadalupe - can be seen on foot in only a couple of hours. Along with its impressive architecture, Santa Fe is also one of the world's largest art markets. The many galleries on Canyon Road, although overpriced, are worth a visit because their courtyards are fairly charming, even though I've always felt that the passé wind sculptures and bad paintings of horses in many of them run counter to their natural appeal.

You can snack to your heart's content on Tuesdays and Saturdays at the Santa Fe Farmer's Market, which recently relocated to the new Railyard Park and Plaza. This is where to come for the stunning red-hued eggs of free-range chilli-fed hens, local choke cherry jam, goat's milk or buffalo steaks. For breakfast in downtown Santa Fe, I head to Tia Sophia's (001 505 983 9880) for a breakfast burrito ordered "Christmas", which is the term to use if you want it smothered beneath both red and green chilli sauce. The homely dish is inexpensive, filling, and second to none. Outside of downtown, it's also hard to beat a meal any time of day at Tune-Up Cafe (www.tuneupcafe.com; 001 505 983 7060), a casual neighbourhood joint that has a festive patio and serves both local and Salvadorean specialities.

Rio Chama Steakhouse (001 505 955 0765) may not be the city's best restaurant, but its proximity to the New Mexico State Capitol building makes for a lively study during the legislative session. Swing by on a frosty winter's weeknight for a cross-section of the downtown demographic, a crash course in amazing nachos with fiery Chimayo chillies and some equally spicy local politics. For the quality of food alone, however, my preferred dinner venues are small, unfussy places that support local farms such as Max's Late Nite Cafe (001 505 984 9104). Wherever you go, leave your dressy clothes back at home - even the most formal dining room in Santa Fe welcomes cowboy boots.

Don't expect to find chichi department stores or wildly varied shopping in Santa Fe; chains don't do well here and most of what is available has been priced for tourists. You'll find, for example, masses of Native American pottery and jewellery that run obnoxiously heavy on silver and turquoise and cost more than they're worth. For unique crafts, such as micaceous pots, visit the Santa Fe Artist Market in the Railyard Park on a Saturday morning.

Beware of inadvertently booking a room in a chain hotel located on the south side of town when there are better deals to be found within walking distance of the Plaza.

Run, don't walk (better yet, drive) up Museum Hill to experience the Museum of International Folk Art (www.moifa.org), which houses the world's largest collection of traditional folk art, or the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. If you have time for only one exhibition, however, try the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum (www.okeeffemuseum.org) followed by a pause at the O'Keeffe Cafe (001 505 946 1065). If the season is right for rapids, I like to take visitors white-water rafting on the Rio Grande. And though scores of locals adore Ten Thousand Waves mountain spa for the hot tubs and massages, I favour the refuge of the natural mineral hot springs abounding in the area. It's a good idea to stay abreast of what's showing at the Lensic Performing Arts Center (www.lensic.com; 001 505 988 1234) and at the Center for Contemporary Arts (www.ccasantafe.org). Santa Fe isn't a party town, but it does host a solid live music scene. Consult Pasatiempo, the daily paper's Friday magazine, or The Reporter (www.sfreporter.com), the free weekly news magazine, for listings of events.