The snow started falling on Santa Fe not long after dark. It was only a dusting, so by morning maybe 2 inches had accumulated ― just enough to transform the town.
While my wife, Becky, slept in, I tossed more logs into the kiva fireplace, then took off into the heart of the old city. The Plaza was empty. Snow covered the vigas of the Palace of the Governors and etched the limbs of the Plaza's bare trees. The only sound was the slow drip of runoff from gutters and rooftops. I turned down Don Gaspar Avenue, and there, sitting neatly in the snow, was a fresh chili, its green made more vivid against the white backdrop. The tableau neatly captured the essence of this city in winter. Santa Fe: Even hotter when it chills.
With uncrowded restaurants and galleries, winter offers a real sense of the locals' Santa Fe ― and, with sharp discounts on lodging, it's peak season for budget travel. Although colder this time of year, it's usually sunny and ideal for exploring. And if it does snow, then you get to see "The City Different," as Santa Fe calls itself, just a little differently.
DAY ONE: GALLERY HOPPING
For $85 a night plus tax, we got a room with a fireplace and vigas at Pueblo Bonito Bed and Breakfast Inn. Just a five-minute walk from both the Plaza and the Guadalupe Street shopping area, it let us leave the car parked.
Santa Fe's population is only 62,000, but the city is one of the country's most important art markets. While my photographs betray a unique point-and-shake technique, I do appreciate the guys who keep images in focus. At Andrew Smith Gallery, we browsed the works of Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter. Over at Gallery of the North American Indian, we saw a group of Edward Sheriff Curtis photogravure prints struck from original copper plates. We then poked around Canyon Road to take in Santa Fe's largest concentration of galleries. Back at the inn, we sampled the complimentary afternoon spread of margaritas and snacks before relaxing by our fireplace.
The night air was crisp on the short walk to an Italian spot, Andiamo. We split its signature appetizer, crispy polenta in gorgonzola sauce, along with a mixed green salad, a Margherita pizza, and spicy penne with caramelized onions. Nearby conversations ranged from politics to art and spirituality. Small talk, Santa Fe-style.
DAY TWO: HISTORY AND CULTURE
Heading downtown after breakfast at our hotel, we came upon San Miguel Mission, which dates to the early 1600s and is notable for its 18th-century reredos (altar screens). After strolling beneath the bare cottonwoods edging the Santa Fe River, we headed north to more galleries on Palace Avenue, then stopped at the colorful Paul's Restaurant of Santa Fe for lunch: grilled fish tacos and a salmon and avocado quesadilla, both with salads.
After eating, we explored the 1610 Palace of the Governors, the nation's oldest public building. We picked up passes ($15 each; valid for four days) that covered admission here and, planning ahead, at four other Santa Fe museums, including the nearby Museum of Fine Arts. Further rambling took us to Owings-Dewey Fine Art for its annual American prints exhibition (the most expensive work was $250,000, a definite budget breaker). At the Santa Fe Village Mall, a collection of craft stores, we particularly enjoyed traditional tinsmith Fred Ray Lopez's pieces.
Clear weather pushed us to Upper Canyon Road and nature trails at the Randall Davey Audubon Center, named for the artist whose historic home and studio are now a museum.
That night we splurged. At Maria's New Mexican Kitchen, Becky had the blue-corn beef enchiladas, I savored a nicely marinated pollo asado, and we both sipped the restaurant's famous margaritas. Then we caught Atlan, one of the world's most well-known Celtic music groups, at the restored Lensic Performing Arts Center.
DAY THREE: MUSEUMS AND A SOAK
After breakfast, we drove to Museum Hill, site of the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, Museum of International Folk Art (all included with museum pass, available at all five participating museums), and the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. Taken together, they offer a comprehensive look at New Mexico's art and culture.
Hungry, we split a hearty sandwich at Four and Twenty Blackbirds, a homey spot in an old grocery store. We then surrendered to owner Meryle Geraghty's reputation for desserts by ordering a carrot-cake tart.
From there we went to Guadalupe Street, where we found the late-18th-century Santuario de Guadalupe, the country's oldest shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Back on the street, we spotted an old Ford with a bumper sticker that read, "In Guad We Trust." We then returned to the Plaza area for the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum (free Friday evenings) and its excellent collection.
We decided to break our budget with a final splurge at Ten Thousand Waves, Japanese Health Spa, where we soaked in a private, open-air Japanese bath in a piñon and juniper forest. As the snow fell into the 104° tub, we finally chilled out after a busy few days in a wintry Santa Fe.