I'd wanted to go to Santa Fe, NM for a while (because of the large artists' community, the music festivals, the beautiful surroundings in the high desert and the obvious fact that the place is a good fit for me), and this week I finally got to take the trip I had been planning for since February. Here are a few comments on what I did and saw. This post is meant for people interested in visiting Santa Fe, so I give a lot of details and the post is very long.
Santa Fe has a tiny airport that I didn't get to visit, but a friend told me it is the sort of airport with grass on the runway. It is not used very often - the municipal airport only opened to commercial airlines in 2009 and the flights are limited to preserve the beautiful environment as well as keep noise pollution down; during my time there I never even saw one plane in the sky. Anyway since Santa Fe Municipal Airport is only served by American Eagle and I'm a United frequent flier, I quickly decided to reach Santa Fe the way recommended by Frommer's Guide, using the Albuquerque Airport (ABQ) and the Sandia Shuttle.
I didn't make a reservation for the Sandia Shuttle since I didn't know what would happen if the plane was late and I missed the shuttle's departure time out of ABQ (a real possibility since I was connecting through Chicago O'Hare - ah, the things that the prospect of more frequent-flier miles make me do). In hindsight this turned out to be a mistake: if I had had a reservation I could have boarded one of the 12.45pm shuttles, but since I hadn't, I had to wait until 1.45pm due to the high volume of people already holding reservations.
Travelers are asked to check in anyway at the counter when they arrive so that the Sandia Shuttle employees know who is truly going to board the shuttle at a given time; if you're not there, they assign you to a later van. The advantage is that if you make a reservation, they plan for enough shuttles to accommodate everybody: for instance, there were 5 shuttles (accommodating 10 passengers each) for the 12.45pm departure time and 3 or 4 for the 1.45pm one. The boarding system was a bit confusing (drivers would call the names of the passengers they were supposed to take in their van to Santa Fe, some people would not be sure they had heard right, others who were traveling in a group had been assigned to different vans, etc). Some shuttles departed far after the scheduled time. But overall my experience with Sandia, including the return trip, was that the shuttle is very well run, it is a dependable way to get to ABQ and drivers drove the vans very safely.
(Side note: while waiting for the shuttle I had lunch at Black Mesa Coffee, which is the only place outside security where you can get food, and it is outrageously expensive: over $10 for a sandwich! On Thursday for the flight back I got a small bottle of water, a breakfast bagel and a small latte, for a grand total of - believe it or not - over $15. The breakfast bagel alone was over $8. Ridiculous. I like to support the local economy, but compared to that, Starbucks [which I could not find near the A and B gates of the airport, maybe there is one at the E gates] is a real bargain.)
In Santa Fe, I was happy to discover I don't have altitude sickness. Since the town is at 7,000 feet, tourists are discouraged from strenuous exercise and alcohol, at least for the first few days. I felt completely fine, but I didn't try working out. I've been told reaction to altitude really depends on the person.
In terms of entertainment, I chose this time of year to go to Santa Fe so that I could go to the opera festival and the chamber music festival. (This is where I remind everybody that I am a classical-music nerd and I love, love performing arts.) For the opera, I picked La Boheme, always a safe choice. The site of the opera house, on the outskirts of Santa Fe, is truly beautiful. (To get there I bought a ticket for yet another shuttle trip online [not from Sandia], at the same time as I bought my opera ticket. $20 roundtrip is a bit expensive given the short duration of the trip, but the shuttle is very convenient and very well organized, especially to go back to Santa Fe after the opera.)
The opera house is "open-air with covered seats" and during Act 1 when Rodolfo and company are in their Parisian garrets we were treated to rain and thunderstorms in the distance - that blended perfectly with what was happening on stage. I didn't care much for the production, the scenery was a bit too monochromatic for my taste (especially in Acts 2 and 3) and the female voices didn't project, although the soprano playing Mimi sang far better after the intermission. The male voices were excellent, and the tenor playing Rodolfo, Mexican artist David Lomeli, was phenomenal, both in terms of singing and of acting. He reminded me of Marcelo Alvarez (same looks too). There is no doubt in my mind that he will become famous, and it is always exciting to hear someone sing before that happens.
For the chamber music festival, I attended two concerts in the St Francis Auditorium of the New Mexico Museum of Art, which was only a short walk from where I stayed near the plaza: one was a piano recital by Jeremy Denk, whom I had already seen in New York City when he replaced Maurizio Pollini on short notice at Carnegie Hall, and the other was a concert by artists from the Santa Fe Opera. Denk was outstanding - I got one of his CDs afterwards - but I preferred the other concert.
My favorite work was the solo piano piece by Frederic Chaslin, who turned out to be French and the new director of the Santa Fe Opera; that piece called "Gypsy Dance" was truly mesmerizing. I can't wait for it to get recorded so that I can listen to it again. It was a "world premiere", words that always make me shudder because this usually means a cacophony of sounds by people who have decided dissonance is the future, but for once I felt honored to have been there when the work was played for the first time ever in public.
I spent an afternoon on Canyon Road visiting all the art galleries. I even met the art dealer of late photojournalist Andre Kertesz. (He showed me the picture of a painting by another artist he represents, which Robert Redford is supposed to have bought. It shows an open road. I thought there wasn't enough contrast between colors, but I should make a few paintings of Santa Fe before I comment.) I thought Canyon Road would be quite far from downtown - if it's called "road" it can't be within a 2 min walk of the city center, right? - and in the end it turned out to be right behind the cathedral. It was wonderful to be surrounded by so much art and it was fun to see the price tags on the paintings too. I actually got ideas for new paintings of mine, unrelated to Santa Fe - I guess the creativity that the town is famed to bring about doesn't have to be related to New Mexico itself.
Museum-wise, I went to the Georgia O'Keeffe museum ($10 admission for non-residents) and the New Mexico Museum of Art ($9) where I got a free audiophone as a perk for buying chamber music tickets. The O'Keeffe museum was a huge disappointment, since I could count the works by O'Keeffe herself on display on my two hands, and the rest of the space was taken by a temporary exhibition with only a tenuous connection to O'Keeffe. The museum might be worth a visit inbetween temporary exhibitions, but not during one of them. The New Mexico Museum of Art had works by O'Keeffe on display too and it is a much better museum overall.
I also discovered the Collected Works bookstore, which I initially assumed was a secondhand bookstore because of its name and turned out to be an absolutely fantastic independent bookstore with a high-quality (and wide) selection of books, great surroundings and a wonderful coffee lounge area. It also has authors' events but I didn't manage to attend one while I was there. If/when my novel comes out, I would love to hold an event there, because of the opera connection. In any case, I'll be back for my next trip.
I got books about Robert Oppenheimer, Mabel Dodge Luhan and a case I had never heard about. The Oppenheimer book provided a much needed distraction when my flight from Houston to Chicago (the direct flight from ABQ to ORD got canceled about one month before the trip so I got rebooked with two connections, unfortunately) showed up in Houston two hours late from Chicago (I wasn't surprised, given my past experience with the ORD airport - so many delays!), leading to a missed connection and an arrival in Bethlehem well past midnight.
I also want to say a few words about food, although this post is becoming really long. There was a wide range of restaurants and diners downtown, for a broad range of prices, from Blue Corn Cafe and Burro Alley Cafe (cheap and good) to La Casa Sena and the restaurant of the Inn of the Anasazi (both excellent, very affordable at lunch, and the ingredients were extremely fresh - just delicious). I also enjoyed the more relaxed and friendly behavior of the locals. It is good to be reminded that there are different lifestyles besides the frantic pace of the Northeast, especially in the New York City area.
One thing that surprised me was the number of people I met in Santa Fe who knew about Bethlehem and the Lehigh Valley (not in a good way). They are the kind of people who would take Paris or Boston [my previous cities] over Bethlehem any day - art! music! - and were barely placated by the proximity of New York City. I can't deny the LV isn't a good fit, although LU is a great place to work, but if it was a better fit I wouldn't travel as much and I wouldn't have discovered Santa Fe.
I had a lot of insightful conversations with random travelers, tourists, or Santa Fe residents - energetic people, including retirees, who are passionate about what they are doing and get their life exactly the way they want it. For instance I met a couple of anthropology professors from Harvard who had a second home in Santa Fe and were returning from a research trip in Mexico, and a woman who helps Native Americans record their disappearing languages - a critical task because these languages are spoken rather than written, so they will be lost once the last speaking member dies unless they are recorded. I was very impressed with all the people I met on the trip.
I do hope to come back to Santa Fe either next summer or the one after that (or both). Next time I'll try one of the free chamber music rehearsals, also I want to schedule a trip to Abiquiu and the ranch of Georgia O'Keeffe (Ghost Ranch) outside town and overall explore the surrounding area more, now that I know downtown well.