The New Taos

This small town isn’t about Birkenstocks anymore. It’s a paradise forartists, shoppers, and those looking for luxury in an ancient place.

DIVINE DESTINATION: For more than 1,000 years, people have come to Taos for inspiration.

Taosenos know that their little brown town in the mountains is a powerful place, an omphalo, where earth and spirit seem to connect. To outsiders, that sounds like a lot of New Age baloney, until you realize the New Age in Taos started several thousand years ago.

From my vantage point at Casa de las Chimeneas, nestled in an adobe suite with an automatic fireplace, heated Saltillo tile floor, and Jacuzzi tub, with piñon-scented air and a fountain outside my door and a DVD player at the command of the remote, Taos exemplifies the new definition of luxury: being left alone, eating well, sleeping in comfort, and breathing deep, all the while enjoying at least the illusion that these pleasures are in harmony with the earth.

I have fresh air and a controlled climate, a king-size bed in a cozy room, rusticity and luxury, solitude and service. I’m in total seclusion in the center of town. That kind of yin-yang comfort describes much of new Taos.

“You learn only what you want to learn,” says Mauro Bettini, chef-owner of the Stakeout, when he comes by our table one night. The Swiss native owns the old hacienda restaurant on Outlaw Hill just south of town. The main attraction is an amazing sunset view across 60 miles of blue hills. (Time your dinner accordingly but be aware that everyone else will be doing that, too.) The food is good—beef filet, buffalo ribeye, lamb rack, and porcini ravioli. What the menu doesn’t say is that, as much as possible, the food Bettini serves is organic. “If you say it’s organic, people think it’s not going to taste as good,” Bettini says. “So I don’t say it.”

If it tastes bad, it must be good for you—that’s one of the all-American expectations left behind in Taos’ new age. Luxury doesn’t have to be decadent. Luxury can be good for the planet.

Down the street from my bed-and-breakfast is the El Monte Sagrado, a monument to this Taos sensibility. The entry soars like a two-story kiva with fiber-optic lights embedded in the adobe. In the library is a pool table on which Minnesota Fats used to practice. Rooms and suites are themed and decorated in the style of the world’s great civilizations: China, Egypt, Japan, Texas. (You read it right.) The central Sacred Circle of 100-year-old cottonwoods provides a place for tai chi, meditation, and sunbathing. Llama trekking is a popular outdoor activity. Walls are lined with bark from Portuguese cork trees. Million-year-old fossil fish are embedded in bathroom backsplashes. Yak is featured on the menu. Original Basquiats hang on the walls. A living machine, the resort recycles all of its water and grows much of its own fruit.

Don’t call it eco-tourism; this is not about Birkenstocks and wheat grass. This is about pure luxury, meaning not only the resulting comfort and style but also the process of creating it have been meticulously attended to.

San Francisco refugees Zeke and Tina Lambert moved to Taos in 1985 to have kids and raise a restaurant. “We were used to the competitive pace of California’s food revolution, so when we started out, we changed the menu every day,” says Zeke, the chef half of the couple. “Then we slowed down to a Taos pace.” Lambert’s depends on local clientele, and Taosenos don’t appreciate quick changes. Nowadays, the menu, though sparked with seasonal specials, mostly stays the same. Highlights are the roast corn chowder that is smoky, sweet, creamy, and spicy all at once. The signature dish is loin of lamb raised in Colorado—or New Mexico, if the sheep roam.

We washed it down with Gruet sparkling wine. It seems typical that the most successful wine made in New Mexico is made in the classic way by a native of Champagne.

Twenty years ago, Taos for tourists was Santa Fe’s stepsister—not uglier, but smaller and slightly boring. You were more likely to feel confounded than enticed. This was a town for residents, not visitors. A visit to the pueblo, a walk through Kit Carson’s old house, a visit to St. Francis—known mainly through Georgia O’Keeffe’s famous paintings—pick up a drum and a pair of sheepskin slippers, and you had been there, done that. Is it possible to be aggressively low-key? Taos was.

No mas.

Right now, what used to be an insider’s town is beginning to turn inside out.

At present, there are no commercial flights into the Taos airport. So your option is to fly to Albuquerque and rent a car or take a shuttle to Taos. American Airlines (800-433-7300; and Southwest Airlines (800-435-9792; fly into Albuquerque, and you can rent a car on either web site. Faust’s Transportation (888-830-3410 or 505-758-3410) and Twin Hearts Express (800-654-9456 or 505-751-1201) offer shuttle service—only $40 each way—for the two-and-a-half-hour ride.

LIFE OF LUXURY: El Monte Sagrado is an extraordinary place to connect with nature and oneself.

•Casa de las Chimeneas
405 Cordoba Rd. 505-758-4777

•El Monte Sagrado
317 Kit Carson Rd. 800-828-TAOS 

•Hotel La Fonda de Taos
108 South Plaza. 800-833-2211

•Taos Inn
125 Paseo del Pueblo Norte. 888-518-8267

•The Burrito Wagon
519 Paseo del Pueblo Sur. 505-770-7073

•Joseph’s Table
Hotel La Fonda de Taos. 505-751-4512

•Lambert’s of Taos
309 Paseo del Pueblo Sur. 505-758-1009

•The Stakeout Grill & Bar
101 Stakeout Dr. 505-758-2042

•Taos Center for the Arts
133 Paseo del Pueblo Norte. 505-758-2052 

•Tony Reyna Indian Shop
Taos Pueblo. 505-758-3835 

•Common Threads/ Uncommon Fabric
120-A Bent St. 505-758-8987

NEW AGE GEMS: Visit Mesa’s Edge for spectacular pieces by such artists as Jennifer Sihvonen.

Taos has always been a shoppers, I mean artists, colony. Mabel Dodge Luhan gathered artists, including D.H. Lawrence and his circle, around her in Taos in the 1920s. The tone for Taos was set by Millicent Rogers, a style icon as strong as Diana Vreeland and just as ahead of her time. The Millicent Rogers Museum now houses the heiress’ collection of Southwest artifacts and a record of a life of remarkable creativity and daring. Face it: it would take a lot of daring—and strength—just to wear the pounds of silver jewelry Rogers designed for herself.

Art is still the blood in the veins of the resorts and real estate. On the weekend I was there, there was a juried arts-and-crafts show in Kit Carson Park, an invitational show of Taos artists presented by Taos Center for the Arts, and a live auction of gourd artwork in the Ski Valley. There’s a gallery on every street. Some places, like Tony Reyna’s shop at the Pueblo, have been around for generations, selling traditional Native American (or, as they call it, Indian) arts and crafts—Acoma pots, Navajo and Zuni jewelry—brought in by traders. Reyna was born in, raised on, and twice governed the Taos Pueblo, still the living center of Taos culture.

Newer craft galleries like Mesa’s Edge showcase the latest generation of jewelry artists. The gallery is in a 250-year-old building recently refinished by owner Louise Pasaka. Mesa’s Edge is run by jewelry makers and features incredible pieces by artists such as internationally known Harold O’Connor, who specializes in the difficult process of fusing metals. Andrea Hafner’s silver-set botanicals are in the Smithsonian; Jennifer Sihvonen’s work can be seen in the Albuquerque Museum of Art. Ralph Lauren owns pieces by master silver stamper Seth Brown. Many of these artists are native Taosenos who have adapted traditional techniques to modern aesthetics, resulting in surprisingly affordable art that you can wear.

The cluster of little stores on Bent Street includes the inevitable galleries, boutiques, and bookshops, plus Common Threads/
Uncommon Fabric
. You don’t have to be a seamstress to appreciate the textiles—exotic yardage, antique and ethnic scarves, embroidery and ceremonial pieces from all over the world—for sale here.

Photos: Chapel: Paul Chesley; El Monte: Courtesy of El Monte Sagrado; Necklace: Courtesy of Mesa’s Edge

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