SANTA FE, N.M., July 20, 2017 — All Harlan wanted in Santa Fe was a visor. Not a baseball cap, but a visor, turquoise or yellow with the Zia sun symbol that appears on everything in New Mexico, from license plates to tourist brochures.
He’s 16. He can wear a visor without messing up his hair. He isn’t interested in Georgia O’Keeffe. He’s bored to tears by opera and chamber concerts. He hates browsing through art galleries or shopping for baskets, jewelry or pots.
He doesn’t like museums. He hates just about everything that people like his parents would like in Santa Fe. And he just wants to look good while looking like he doesn’t care.
So we dragged him and his 14-year-old sister off for a day and two nights in Santa Fe. They get along like Hezbollah and ISIS, but they’ve united in their agreement that their parents are completely lame, and they agreed that Santa Fe is for old people.
“You hardly see any kids here, do you,” Harlan carped as we walked across the Plaza. “That’s because their parents took them on a real vacation, to someplace where there’s something to do.”
I wondered, why can’t that someplace be Santa Fe?
We got off to a rocky start. After a nine-hour drive, we arrived at the Villas de Santa Fe (400 Griffin Street). I chose it for three reasons: price, location, and no negative reviews with regard to cleanliness.
The price was $150 per night (plus a $23 resort fee) for a bedroom with a queen bed, a living room with a fold-out bed, a bathroom and a kitchenette. The location was 0.4 miles from the Plaza. The reviews were generally glowing.
Harlan and Catherine were horrified. “I’m not using that bathroom! Anyone can just walk in! What kind of people stay here? People who are too cheap to stay at the Hilton?!”
They exaggerated. The room arrangement was a little odd, with the only access to the bedroom through the bathroom. The bedroom-bathroom door didn’t lock, but the living room-bathroom door did. “If the bathroom door is shut, whoever is in the bedroom will just stay in there until whoever’s in the bathroom is finished,” I decreed. “Don’t sweat it.”
Neither was happy, but bathroom privacy was not an issue except in their heads.
The walk to the Plaza was easy. There are abundant restaurant choices in the area for all budgets and palates, though the majority feature regional cuisine. My wife and I wanted to try Café Pasqual’s. We knew from a previous visit that reservations were a must, so we walked by and made them for the next evening before moving on to a place less in demand, the San Francisco Street Bar & Grill (50 E San Francisco Street, on the Plaza).
Our meals ranged from good to excellent, and with tip the cost was about $75 for the four of us.
We started the next day early (far too early, according to half our party) at a French bakery just off the plaza. The French Pastry Shop, located at La Fonda on the Plaza, serves up a variety of pastries, breads, quiches and crepes. The quiche special of the morning was made with the inevitable green chiles. I opted for green chili and egg crepes. Harlan chose a chocolate eclair and a Nutella crepe. Catherine had a croissant and a palmier, and my wife had a raisin roll.
Catherine was delighted by the animal-shaped bread loaves: an alligator, a turtle, and some sort of rodent.
The prices are reasonable and the pastries excellent, but they only take cash.
From the bakery we walked the short distance to the Loretto chapel, which contains the famous “miracle” spiral staircase. The kids were resigned to the fact that we’d be visiting some churches, so both just took pictures and didn’t complain.
The Loretto chapel is small and charming, not grand or imposing. The staircase is a lovely piece of craftsmanship. The man who took our money at the entrance was a talker, and the group ahead of us seemed uncertain about how to get away as he rambled off reams of information, but people could come and go without disturbing his monologue in the slightest.
From the Loretto chapel we walked a few minutes to the church of San Miguel, the oldest church in the United States. Like the Loretto chapel, it is small and charming rather than grand.
It contains one of the most beautiful altar pieces in the Western U.S., though I should admit to some bias on that point; it was painted by my seven-times great grandfather.
Whether you’ll get to see it is a gamble: The church keeps odd hours, open at 9 on one visit, closed at 10 on another.
From San Miguel we walked in five or ten minutes to Canyon Road. At this point there were murmurs of rebellion in the ranks. Canyon Road is a short and pretty road lined with art galleries. If you want to spend money, it’s a fine place to pick up a painting, bronze sculpture, art glass, or stone furniture for your garden.
If you don’t want to spend money, it’s a fine place to take pictures of those expensive items you don’t want to buy. Either way, it’s worth a visit.
Unless you’re a teenage boy. “Great, just great,” Harlan muttered every time we stopped to look at something. Every time I pulled out my camera, he let out a theatrical sigh and stomped off so no one would think we were together.
Catherine wasn’t as unhappy. She even found a painting that she fell in love with in a Russian gallery. “Can we buy it, please? It’s only $5,000. Please? I promise I’ll work to pay you back!” It was a lovely self-portrait, and if I weren’t looking at paying college tuition for two kids over the next several years, I’d have been happy to buy it for her.
When it became clear that I wouldn’t, she wrote the artist’s name a couple of times on the palm of her hand so that she could buy the painting herself some day.
As we turned at the end of Canyon Road to walk back toward the Plaza, Harlan cried out in despair, “can we possibly walk any slower?! Why didn’t we drive? Why do we have to walk everywhere?!”
I didn’t know where he was in a hurry to go until he added, bitterly, “all I wanted here was a visor. Why can’t we find me a visor?”
I promptly guided us toward several souvenir and clothing shops in the vicinity of the Plaza. We had no luck finding a visor in any of them. Harlan’s gloom and resentment built into a dementor-like cloud, sucking the joy out of anyone who walked near us, causing people to suddenly stop smiling and look baffled as they wondered why Santa Fe suddenly looked so gray. I saw a tourist information window and practically ran to it to beg, “
I saw a tourist information window and practically ran to it to beg, “Please, my son needs a visor. Where can we find a New Mexico visor?”
The beautiful couple at the window immediately understood when I explained that Harlan was 16 and miserable. “I had 16-year-old sons myself,” said the man, “and I’ve still got some grandkids that age.”
He turned to the woman next to him. “Do you know where they’d sell visors?”
“Maybe REI,” she said. “Here.” She handed me a brochure for the Santa Fe Railyard. “There’s also an old dry-goods store on San Francisco that sells stuff like that.”
“San Francisco is just two blocks over from the Plaza that way, parallel to this street,” said the man.
“No, it runs perpendicular,” said the woman.
“You should go to Museum Hill,” said the man, changing the subject. “There’s a wonderful folklife museum with a toy display.”
“Go to the DeVargas Center,” said the woman, handing me another brochure. “There are some sporting goods stores that might have a visor, and there’s a bug museum. Your kids can hold a tarantula.”
I went back to my family with a handful of brochures. Harlan’s gloom had spread. “Did you have a nice chat?” he sneered. “You were there for half an hour.”
“It was five minutes,” I replied, “and I had a very nice chat, thank you. Now, would you like to go look for a visor?”
We walked back to the hotel to the sounds of much kvetching: “Why are we walking in this heat? We should have driven to the Plaza. Does anyone even know where we’re going? There’s nothing to do here.”
The DeVargas Shopping Center is just a couple of blocks from the Villas de Santa Fe. We drove. There’s a Sprouts and an Albertson’s supermarket there. The collection of shops in the mall had an oddly Himalayan vibe.
There were no visors. There was, however, the remarkable Harrell House Bug Museum.
Oliver Greer claims that his collection is one of the best in the country. I’m no expert, but the 2,400 (and counting) mounted insects, spiders, centipedes and scorpions are impressive. Greer has the second-longest insect in the world in his collection, a 24-inch walking stick from Borneo.
There are dozens of live tarantulas of as many species, live scorpions, and live specimens that you can hold, if you don’t mind the feel of lots of furry little feet moving across your hands. There are also a few reptiles, including a proud-looking water monitor.
Catherine was delighted by the collection. Harlan tried his best to look bored, but he accidentally smiled once when I was looking.
Spirits somewhat lifted, we went to REI. There wasn’t a visor in the building, and if there had been, it probably would have been Patagonia, not a New Mexico souvenir.
Back in the car, my wife asked, “where next?”
“How about Meow Wolf,” I suggested. “It’s one of the brochures I picked up, and it’s on a Trip Advisor list of top-ten things to do in Santa Fe.”
“Meeoww,” purred Catherine.
“No!” said Harlan. “That sounds stupid.”
“What is it?” asked Lisa.
“From what I’ve read, it’s part interactive art exhibit, part haunted house. It’s suitable for all ages.”
“I’ll bet it’s just hundreds of little kids,” said Harlan. “I don’t want to go there. It’s lame.”
We went. And here words fail me. I really don’t know what Meow Wolf is all about. It’s an interactive mystery story, I think, though I had no idea how to interpret the clues. It’s a house built inside an old bowling alley.
There are journals in the bedrooms, with entries by members of the family who lived there. There are pictures on the wall. Clues to something, but I have no idea what. There is a refrigerator you can enter to walk into another world, or you can crawl in through the fireplace, or go down a glowing tunnel through the door of the drier.
And in that other world there’s a glowing mammoth skeleton whose ribs you can strike with mallets to produce musical notes. A singer chants and creates beautiful, eerie sounds on her bowls. There are rooms within rooms, and when you think you’ve seen them all, you find another.
Meow Wolf is kitschy and fascinating, weird and beautiful, silly and fun. Harlan and I went our own way while Catherine and her mom went another, and for three hours we explored. When we were finished Harlan admitted, “that was a lot better than I thought it would be.” If he were in Santa Fe with friends, he said he’d hang out with them at Meow Wolf.
It was late afternoon when we left. We’d have eaten at some of the food-trucks outside Meow Wolf, but we had to get back to the hotel and change for Pasqual’s.
Café Pasqual’s is a James Beard Award-winning restaurant a block from the Plaza. The food is Southwest-inspired, but not easily pinned down. I started with a bowl of curried sweet-pea and buttermilk soup ($7). Catherine had the appetizer of chicken mole tamales ($16) for her main course, not liking the sound of anything else on the menu. Harlan didn’t want an appetizer, but he did order a glass of organic lemonade ($4.50) that he considered much better than the Minute Maid he’d been getting at other restaurants along the way.
My main course Plato Supremo ($29) included an enchilada with mole, a squash-blossom quesadilla, and a chili relleno. Harlan went with a green chili burger with sweet potato fries ($18), while my wife ordered chicken paillard ($28), a pounded and breaded breast fillet served with a lemon sauce, garlic mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus.
For dessert, Catherine had a lemon merengue tart, Harlan had Turkish figs stuffed with a cream and sliced almond mixture, I had apricot pie with vanilla ice cream, and my wife had chocolate-mint ice-cream with chocolate sauce ($11 each).
My wife and I agreed that we loved our entrees. Harlan liked his burger, though he thought there was too much filling for too little bun, and it did turn into a mess. Catherine hated her tamales, but she loved her dessert. Harlan wasn’t quite sure how to eat his, but he thought it tasted good. The apricot pie was sour, but it was very nice with some ice-cream on each bite. The chocolate-mint ice-cream was made with real mint; my wife and I liked it, but I decided that the bite of mint would probably make most children cry, and not for joy.
We walked back to our hotel by way of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, where Catherine enjoyed walking a small labyrinth, then through the Plaza, where a crowd had gathered to hear one of the nightly concerts. As we walked past the art museum, a crowd who’d been there for a chamber concert came pouring out the doors. I asked a couple who were walking our way how they’d enjoyed it. “It was WONDERFUL,” they enthused.
At the end of the day, Harlan still didn’t have his visor. But he admitted that it had been a mostly good day, and that he’d like Santa Fe if he visited with his friends.
If your kids are more open to museums than mine, Santa Fe has a variety of them for the whole family. The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival runs into late August, and the opera brings world-class music to town.
Lodgings can be quite inexpensive if you’re willing to stay a few miles from the center of town, but even in the center there are some decent prices. And we’ve stayed in mediocre hotels in Manhattan that cost more than some spectacularly good hotels near the Plaza.
There’s definitely something to do in Santa Fe, no matter who, or what age, you are.