Saturday, September 16, 2006

Santa Fe and Ten Thousand Waves - December, 2005

Last year around his birthday, I decided that James could use a little relaxation. After doing some research online, I booked us for a long weekend trip to Santa Fe and the Ten Thousand Waves spa - a Japanese "Onsen" on the outskirts of town. It would be close to the holidays, and I figured Santa Fe would be festive with farolitos and Christmas lights, and the weather would be crisp and cool - a nice change from San Diego, where the temperature barely dips below 60. I was looking forward to the smell of burning pinon wood, some bizcochitos and hot chocolate, and of course - some spa treatments and a dip in a steaming outdoor bath.

The best way to get to Santa Fe is to fly into Albuquerque and rent a car. We had a relatively easy time of this - the flight from San Diego is only a couple of hours (with a brief stop in Phoenix) and the drive was about an hour and a half. It's a straight shot on the freeway with no traffic, and the scenery is quite nice.

New Mexico and I actually have a bit of history. At one time, I considered going to the Air Force Academy for college. My Dad is an alumni and I have no brothers, so the pressure was all on me. I should have known it wasn't my bag - I've always been better with letters than numbers (it's basically an aeronautical engineering school) but the decision was made that I should spend a year at the New Mexico Military Institute - a military prep school in Roswell, to bone up on my calculus and get a jump on the whole "military life" thing. Long story short, it didn't quite work out that way. I wound up at UC Irvine - and this was my first trip back to the State since I had done my time there.

My last trip to Santa Fe was on my way there, and I have fond memories of that trip. I remember going to the Santa Fe Opera (open only in the Summer because it is open-air) to see Die Fliedermaus, and having some excellent coffee and pastries in an outdoor cafe (these are the kinds of things I noticed, even at age 18). I also remembered the boho artsy vibe, and the naturally elegant architecture. Based on these recollections, I described it to James as "Santa Barbara in the Desert."
Our plan was to stay two nights at the spa and enjoy the treatments/baths there - and then move to a hotel in town for the second two nights. I had expected that we would be pretty well occupied with the spa activities for the first two days, and would be ready to explore the town for the second two. What I did not anticipate is that we would have to go to town throughout the trip because there is nothing to eat at or near the spa. We actually bought groceries at Whole Foods and took them back to our little cabin for dinner on the first couple of nights. The first night we had a little feast of bread and cheese with champagne, and on the second night we had sushi. During the day, we ventured down to Tomasita's - a famous traditional New Mexico-style Mexican restaurant down by the train tracks on the far side of town. I had forgotten how incredibly delicious a meal of red chile enchiladas, sopaipillas and margaritas can be at altitude. It seems to make you hungrier and it enhances the effect of the cocktails.

Our spa treatments were in the late afternoon - so after toddling around among the overpriced art and antique shops, we swung by the Whole Foods on our way back up the hill to pick up dinner, and were at the spa by 4 PM. On the first evening, the day we arrived, we had a soak in an outdoor pool in a little enclosed area looking onto the pine covered hillside, and each of us had massages. On the second day we soaked in one of their fancier pools, with an attached sauna and steam room, and I had a Thai Massage, which I had never tried before. It was lovely and relaxing, and we had a terrific time.

Our accommodations at the spa were interesting and quite comfortable. Their rooms consist of a cluster of little buildings scattered across the hill leading up to the Spa at the top. They have three "classes" of accommodation ranging from quite spare to luxurious, and each unit is different. All are decorated with a funky mixture of Japanese and Southwestern architecture and decor. On the first night, we stayed in a large room called Crescent Moon, with a fireplace, kitchen, separate bedroom and bath. The woodburning fireplace was stocked with plenty of pinon wood, and the room was warm and cozy. The only problem was that all through the night some sort of steam valve in a nearby boiler room emitted a hissing screech. It was intermittent until about 4 AM, and then it started up and didn't stop until we crunched across the gravel parking lot to the office at 8 AM and demanded that they move us to a different room. Not exactly the relaxing experience we were looking for (at that time, we didn't know the source of the noise - we kept thinking it was the pipes in our bathroom.) They comped us half of the room rate for that night - but at the time we honestly thought they should have comped us the whole thing. In any event - we moved to another room called High Moon before breakfast. It was sort of an odd experience to move rooms first thing in the morning,but we settled in pretty quickly. This room was a bit smaller but newer, with heated slate floors, an adobe-style fireplace and full kitchen. We also looked at Suigetsu, which was also very cute but smaller. I would recommend either of these if you are thinking of staying there.
The spa itself was heavenly. The waiting area has a large fireplace, so you can sit by the fire before or after your treatment with your little cup of cucumber water. The locker rooms are nice and roomy - which they should be because they get lots of day visitors (I would recommend a visit during the week if possible, because it is so much more crowded on weekends.) We were really taken with the Japanese-style architecture and the beautiful water garden outside the waiting room. When you walk out there's a gorgeous patio area with a waterfall/pond, and Japanese bridge to the area where several of the pools are. Some are also in the main building, and some are off to the far left side. They were also adding new treatment rooms when we were there. Down to the far right is a path leading to some small hut-like buildings where they do massages. The paths are lit by gorgeous Japanese/Craftsman lanterns (that I am dying to get for our yard) and they have a funky giftshop full of cool and artsy items that you are tempted to buy because you are in such a good mood. My husband had to restrain me from buying an orange light-up Buddha head. (I still want one - they also come in pink and red.)

On the third day, we moved down to the Inn of the Anasazi in town. By this time, we were getting a little itchy with the town of Santa Fe. We were a bit put off by the overpriced chi-chi art galleries, antique shops and jewelry stores in town - and their fur-coat-clad clientele. Ready to get out of Santa Fe, went for a drive out to Los Alamos - just to see what we could see. I had no idea that the lab was so gigantic. It dominates a huge piece of the landscape out there, and the secrecy that shrouds it is palpable. James was interested in this part of New Mexico because his grandfather actually worked on the Manhattan Project at one time - he literally was a rocket scientist - and his family had lived in New Mexico for a while. We stopped by the Visitor's Center out there, and the staff there recommended that we go out to the Bandolier National Monument, not far outside of town - to see the cliff dwellings and the scenery. We did, and it turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip. The weather was clear and gorgeous, and we went on a short hike to see the dwellings. We climbed up a couple of ladders to peek in, and saw several deer along the trail. We learned a bit about the history of the people who lived there at one time. They believe there were about 700 people there in its' heyday.
Back in town, we had a dinner reservation that night at Geronimo - one of the best restaurants in town. Santa Fe has a hot fine dining scene, with several expensive and elegant restaurants serving innovative cuisine. There are also many good cafes, diners and casual restaurants serving traditional New Mexican specialties such as green chile stew, enchiladas, and burgers. We walked to Geronimo from our hotel, along Canyon Road, peeking in the windows ot the galleries along the way. When we arrived we immediately felt enveloped in the convivial feel of the place. It's a small restaurant but it strikes a nice balance between formal and casual - with excellent well prepared food that is not stiff or fussy, and attentive but friendly service. Everything was perfectly prepared and the dishes were innovative but not too far out. We were particularly thrilled with the foie gras strudel dish, and the spicy prawn main dish. I also liked the decor, which is homey and quirky but elegant. I debated between this restaurant, and the Compound (just a few blocks closer to town on the same road) and SantaCafe - but after looking at their menus, I chose Geronimo because it looked more interesting.
In looking at the Compound's website, it appears they have updated and revamped their menu and have a new chef now - so it may be back to its former glory. The dessert menu looks positively divine. Santacafe is a bit more casual - and serves more traditional hearty food with a Santa Fe twist. Another place, called Bistro 315, is the current top rated restaurant in Santa Fe according to TripAdvisor. Looks like it serves quite a standard Bistro menu - undoubtedly good - but maybe not what you are looking for when traveling to sample the best of the region's cuisine.

The Inn of the Anasazi was a nice small hotel right off the square in the heart of Santa Fe. It's decorated in the traditional Southwest style, and they supposedly have a very good restaurant, though we didn't get to try it. (For their photo gallery, click here). They put out ginger cookies and cider at the front desk, which was a nice touch, and had hot chocolate in their library down the hall from the main lobby. We had a small but cute room with a push button fireplace and high four poster bed. This would be a particularly nice place for people with children - as it's comfortable and convenient to town, and it seemed that they would go out of their way for you.

The next morning, we had breakfast at Cafe Pasqual's, a highly recommended and highly rated cafe on the opposite side of the square. It was good, but I think it's a bit overhyped. I may have ordered poorly - I had pancakes, and they were dry and oversized, as restaurant pancakes often are. I guess we are somewhat spoiled, with an array of fantastic breakfast places in California (apparently going out for a big weekend breakfast is a California thing - I didn't know that until recently) and we just didn't see the big deal. I wouldn't wait the hour or so for a table if I had it to do over again.

We wound up cutting our trip a day short and returning to San Diego that afternoon -on Saturday rather than Sunday. We felt we'd seen what we came to see, and we liked the idea of having a day at home to recover and prepare for the coming week. I'm not sure we'll go again anytime soon, with so many other places on our list, but I highly recommend a visit for a change of scenery. The spa was fantastic, hiking at the cliff dwellings was invigorating, and the food, both at the high and low end, was utterly delicious.

Where we went:

Ten Thousand Waves Resort and Spa - On the plus side - relaxing atmosphere, accommodations vary with the price range, convenient to the spa. On the negative -the rates are quite steep for the nicer rooms.

Inn of the Anasazi - On the plus side - lovely little boutique hotel with excellent service, very convenient. Minuses - high rates and small rooms.

500 S Guadalupe St, Santa Fe, NM
Tel: (505) 983-5721
Order the red chile enchiladas (ours weren't that hot, but the sauce varies with the chiles) some margaritas, and save room for the sopaipillas. In a word, mmmm.... If you can, go at an off time to avoid the crowds - or wander around the shops nearby with your beeper while you wait.

Whole Foods - Pretty much the same as everywhere else. Good takeout sushi, cheeses and sandwiches.

Geronimo - fantastic fine dining with a quirky Santa Fe twist. Highly highly recommend.

Cafe Pasqual's - They use top quality ingredients, and the food is good - but I'm not sure it's worth the hour plus wait.

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