Travel: Christmas in margaritaville

Art, spirituality and amazing guacamole: just three good reasons to escape to Santa Fe for the festive season.
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The Independent Culture
The spicy scent of pinion pine lay as thick on the senses as the snow piling up on the pavements. In the central plaza the adobe buildings squatted like great Christmas cakes; the walls the colour of marzipan, flat roofs with smooth royal icing and thousands of candles on top. Lining one side of the square were Pueblo and Navajo Indians, wrapped in colourful thick woven blankets. Seemingly impervious to the freezing temperature, they sat proudly with more blankets carpeting the ground in front, covered in an array of stunning handmade turquoise jewellery, carved fetishes and gourds.

I had gone to Santa Fe to escape the trials and tribulations of Christmas in the UK, and although I thought it would be a miracle to find a place in America that did not play tinned Christmas carols on loud speakers everywhere, I was willing to give it a shot.

I had also heard that Santa Fe was, "Like way out man. Plenty of fairies, but not the kind you stick on a Christmas tree. Anyway, can you imagine a Native American putting stockings out for Santa?" It all sounded very intriguing.

It was. The tiny capital of New Mexico is awash with art and spirituality. It is a wonderfully relaxed mix of a place that has evolved into a city of quite some extremes. The palaces of the rich and famous rest lazily in the foothills of the spectacular Sangre de Christo mountains, overlooking the simplicity of the Native American reservations on the desert mesa below. This is a city in which you buy a newspaper in the street from a nuclear physicist who became disillusioned with his role in life, you hear Buddhists discussing philosophy over a Danish pastry and coffee in a French cafe, and see resident tarot readers in the most traditional of hotels.

And what of the festive season itself? This materialised into thousands of farolitos in Santa Fe. Tiny lanterns, simply constructed with candles and brown paper bags, lined windowsills, walls and pavements. Chilli ristras hung from beams on the adobe buildings, and coloured corncobs decorated doors and porches - underlying the huge interest people have in food here.

I sank into the bewildering range of restaurants with an air of surrender. There was everything from sushi to Tex Mex. A gastronomic heaven. I had never watched a waiter make guacamole at the table - nor tasted anything like it. I had also never been sung to by a waitress before. For traditionalists a turkey dinner could be found, accepting that great succulent chillies were the essential accompaniments to the meal. It was basically Christmas with a twist, and a margarita.

I took a break from restaurants and threw myself into the slow current of Santa Fe's gift buying "frenzy". Laid-back would hardly seem an appropriate description. I fingered spurs and smoky leather saddlebags with a passing fascination, moved on to the gem shops selling everything from amethyst to fossilised mammoth tusks, and finally ended up languishing in a bookshop drinking coffee and listening to music that gave no indication of the time of year.

Yet Santa Fe's general air of lethargy, presumably induced by constant eating, would on occasion metamorphose into an atmosphere literally popping with excitement. I found myself being swept into a procession in the plaza as twilight fell, singing softly in Spanish and watching operatic pantomime devils dancing on roofs, refusing shelter to the Mary and Joseph who led the parade. The freezing night was warmed with the glow of hand-held candles and later with Irish coffee.

The art scene was not to be left out of the celebrations. On Christmas Eve, Canyon Road glittered with a fiery welcome. The Canyon Road walk is a modern tradition; a chance to wander through a haze of carols sung by the side of small bonfires lit in the road, and look in some of the 83 galleries that open their doors and serve warmed wine and punch to customers and gazers.

Making your way through the assorted revelry you get a strong sense of Santa Fe's unique flavour. There was a glorious mix of spirituality with people wearing strange combinations of clothes and trinkets: accessories of Tibetan prayer-beads with dreamcatcher earrings; Saint Christopher necklaces and cowboy boots. Posters wallpapered notice boards promising fulfilment and self-growth by means of Goddess worship, re-birthing, Tantric meditation and line dancing.

I delved into the depths of my femininity at the Goddess workshop and became thoroughly scared, waiting for my inner Kali to come raging to the surface. So, I ended my Santa Fe experience not at a workshop for enlightenment, but at a bar at the end of Canyon Road listening to live jazz and drinking another of the legendary margaritas. Tables were cleared away as real-looking cowboys swung lonely through the doors, scrubbed clean and ready for a night's dancing with a "real lady". I managed to dip under the gaze of several beady eyes lookin' for lurve, after spying the array of polished spurs with trepidation, and I slipped out anonymously into the freezing night - only to be disappointed by the distinct lack of dusty mustangs tied up outside.

I arrived home with a taste for tequila, blue corn chips and chilli, and realised that I had hardly missed the fairy on top of the Christmas tree.

Fact File

Getting there: the most boring thing about Santa Fe is reaching it. The best arrival point is Albuquerque, a brisk hour's drive away. There are no direct flights here from the UK; the least inconvenient route is from Gatwick or Manchester via Dallas-Fort Worth on American Airlines.

If you want to get there by Christmas you can expect to take a circuitous route and/or pay a a high fare. Things improve in the New Year; Flightbookers (0171-757 2000) has a fare of pounds 313 return in January.

Where to stay: Accommodation in Santa Fe can be expensive, particularly around Christmas. Santa Fe Motel is one of the cheapest (around pounds 55 a night; 001 505 982 1039); Hotel Santa Fe is a fun adobe-style place to stay (around pounds 70; 001 505 982 1200), or plump for one of the more expensive hotels like La Fonda de Santa Fe (001 505 982 5511) which has plenty of character.

More information: visit the New Mexico Department of Tourism on Old Santa Fe Trail, where they have a wide selection of material to browse through, or pick up one of the many free local newspapers and magazines that give details on events.

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