Few places in America offer a more meaningful way to experience Christmas than Santa Fe, N.M., also known as the City Different. Founded 403 years ago by Spanish conquistadors, the nation’s oldest capital was originally called, after all, the Royal City of Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi. Alongside its devout Catholic roots, the high-desert town long has had a welcoming, laissez-faire attitude toward newcomers of all beliefs, from atheist artists and writers to New Age “seekers” and Baptist oil moguls.
On Christmas Eve the whole lot of them, it seems, turns out for something called the Canyon Road Farolito Walk. It’s set mainly along the city’s most famous street, where authentic adobe and Territorial-style homes have been turned over the years into dozens of Western, Native American, and contemporary art galleries.
After being blocked off to most vehicle traffic, the street is lined after dusk on Dec. 24 with “farolitos”—small, sand-filled paper bags, each one containing a lit votive candle. Thousands of people make their way up and down this enchanting setting, stopping at a series of small lit bonfires to sip hot chocolate or something stronger, warming themselves against the cold. More importantly, the revelers break out singing impromptu Christmas carols around these fires, sharing—if only for a few moments—the “true” spirit of the holiday with friends and strangers alike.
You’ll likely catch a whiff of burning pinon wood that night, a sweet aroma that may define Santa Fe as well as anything. Other distinctive characteristics include the city’s sunny climate and clean, dry air (it’s located in the southern Rocky Mountains, at 7,000 feet above sea level); its unique low-slung, adobe-colored architecture; and its (mostly) congenial blend of Anglo, Hispanic, and American Indian cultures.
These attributes have attracted countless Texans to Santa Fe over the decades. In addition to a home in Dallas, retired executive Kevin Twomey, for example, has had a “part-time” home in Santa Fe’s upscale Las Campanas residential golf development for 17 years. Twomey cites the city’s accessibility from Dallas—American Airlines operates nonstop flights—as well as its dining, recreational, and cultural offerings. Twomey’s family enjoys the Santa Fe Ski Basin, and his wife serves on the board of the world-famous Santa Fe Opera.
The spectacular, open-air opera house is situated less than 10 minutes from downtown Santa Fe, not far from the Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado. The resort’s outdoor firepit is a wonderful spot for watching the magnificent Northern New Mexico sunsets, and its Pinon Private Dining Room in the Terra restaurant is a great place to seal a big business deal. One key reason: the culinary magic of Andrew Cooper, who recently arrived as executive chef.
Then again, Santa Fe has an abundance of top-shelf lodging—and dining—options. The venerable Bishop’s Lodge Ranch Resort & Spa, for instance, offers guided horseback trips and a skeet-and-trap-shooting range on its 450 scenic acres. The Inn of the Anasazi, a portfolio property of Dallas-based Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, is comfortably, rustically Southwestern, situated just off the famed Santa Fe Plaza in the city’s heart. The Anasazi competes for the high-dollar crowd downtown with the historic, newly renovated La Fonda hotel, whose board chairman is from Dallas, and the La Posada de Santa Fe Resort & Spa.
At another downtown hotel, Hotel Santa Fe, the only Native American-owned hospitality property in the city, we enjoyed a delicious breakfast one morning of huevos rancheros, chorizo, and sautéed red chile. The ingredients all were locally sourced—that’s a big deal in Santa Fe these days—and perfectly prepared. (Good thing, too, because we needed the fortification to fight our way through the bustling Santa Fe Farmer’s Market nearby.) A stone’s throw away from Hotel Santa Fe you’ll also find Tia Sophia’s, an unassuming breakfast and lunch spot that caters mainly to the locals. The hubcap-sized breakfast burritos there are outstanding, and so is the people-watching: everyone from artists and state-capital lobbyists to land developers and city council members start their day at Tia’s.
If you’re criss-crossing the Plaza, maybe shopping for Native American jewelry beneath the portal of the Palace of the Governors, built in 1610, you won’t want to miss noshing at Roque’s Carnitas, a one-man food cart featured several years ago in a Food Network program. For dinner, those with unrestricted budgets can’t leave without checking out Geronimo, The Compound, or Restaurant Martin. You can always dance off any extra calories at El Farol, a steamy Canyon Road night spot where, in typical Santa Fe fashion, just about anything goes.
We spent some of our last day in the city on the Plaza, simply drinking in the sun-splashed scene. Over in one corner of the square, someone was actually playing a harp. Two women strolled by, hand-in-hand. A tall blonde sat on a park bench, talking loudly into her pink iPhone. “Hi guys,” she said. “I’m in Santa Fe, New Mexico.” Meantime a young man in a red headband, toting a giant backpack, plopped down on another bench. His dog stretched out at his feet, and the guy slapped a pair of sunglasses over the animal’s snout. That’s the City Different.
Trip provided by Santa Fe Convention and Visitors Bureau. A version of this article appears in the December 2013 issue of D CEO.