Comfort, joy and hot chillis

Escape the canned Christmas and rediscover the season's spirit in chilled-out Santa Fe

Nicknamed "The City Different", New Mexico's tiny capital, Santa Fe, is a unique city with a cultural and spiritual charge. It's a US centre of the arts and a honeypot for anything linked with the New Age movement. Santa Fe revels in its reputation, sticks its tongue out at convention and flaunts its progressive, bohemian nature. It is also one of the most laid-back and cosmopolitan cities in south-west America, and perfect for a short stop on an American odyssey.

Nicknamed "The City Different", New Mexico's tiny capital, Santa Fe, is a unique city with a cultural and spiritual charge. It's a US centre of the arts and a honeypot for anything linked with the New Age movement. Santa Fe revels in its reputation, sticks its tongue out at convention and flaunts its progressive, bohemian nature. It is also one of the most laid-back and cosmopolitan cities in south-west America, and perfect for a short stop on an American odyssey.

Why go? Because there is nowhere like it. This is a city where you can find a nuclear physicist selling newspapers in the street, New Age megastar Shirley MacLaine shopping in one of the exclusive boutiques, Buddhists discussing philosophy over a Danish pastry and coffee in a French café, and a resident tarot reader in one of the most traditional hotels.

It's also great for people- watching as Santa Fe's character is personified by its 65,000 eccentric residents. Common accessories include Tibetan prayer beads, with dreamcatcher earrings, St Christopher necklaces and cowboy boots. Posters promise fulfilment and self-growth by means of Goddess worship, rebirthing, tantric meditation and line dancing. The proliferation of artists on show, such as the late Georgia O'Keeffe, is unmistakable, exuding a great diversity of colour, style and origin.

The palaces of the rich and famous rest lazily in the forests of the mountains, overlooking the Native American reservations on the desert mesa below.

Why now? Santa Fe in December is the perfect destination to escape the trials of tinned Christmas carols and bad TV films and rediscover the essence of the festive season. In Santa Fe the spicy scent of pinion pine lies thick on the senses. The pueblo- revival architecture is vaguely reminiscent of great Christmas cakes; the adobe buildings are the colour of marzipan, while traditional farolitos - lanterns simply made with brown paper bags and candles - line roofs, walls and window sills. Chilli strings hang from beams, and coloured corncobs decorate doors and porches, all indicating that food is a prominent part of life here.

It is fascinating to watch how the city swings its focus effortlessly from one culture to another, all with a relaxed attitude that is typical of Santa Fe. The celebrations start with Las Posadas (The Inns) in the central plaza, just a few days before Christmas. At twilight, crowds gather gripping candles in gloved hands. In Hispanic tradition, 'Mary & Joseph' lead a procession with a trail of followers singing a chorus.

On each side of the plaza the procession halts and the crowd sing to be let in for the night, at which point a garishly painted singer appears on the rooftop dressed as a devil. He wails an operatic answer until the pantomime continues to the Inn of the Governors where the doors are flung open to a reception of drink and laughter.

The Canyon Road walk on Christmas Eve 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.

The mission Shopping here is a civilised business, with no rush or Christmas pavement rage. There is an eclectic range of boutiques and shops, selling everything from authentic cowboy and cowgirl accessories to gems and fossilised mammoth tusks. Lining one side of the plaza, even in the snows, is a long line of Pueblo and Navajo Indians wrapped in colourful thick woven blankets. Seemingly impervious to the freezing temperature, they sit with blankets carpeting the ground that are covered in an array of stunning handmade turquoise jewellery, carved fetishes and gourds.

For serious culture seekers, Canyon Road (see above) is the place to go. Its galleries offer paintings and sculptures from all over the world, with an emphasis on south-western art.

Remember this Visit the Loretto Chapel on the Old Santa Fe Trail and see the "miraculous staircase". The story goes that a young French architect dropped dead halfway through designing the chapel, and so it was built without any means of reaching the choir loft, 20ft above the nave. The Sisters of Loretto prayed for a solution to their problem until, according to the story, a mysterious man appeared and built the staircase without nails or support of any kind before disappearing without asking for payment. Sadly now it has to be propped up with a metal brace, but it still has a certain magic.

Santa Fe has a plethora of galleries and museums, from a Georgia O'Keeffe museum (Santa Fe Plaza) to the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (710 Camino Lejo), plus the Santa Fe Children's Museum (Old Pecos Trail) which features interactive exhibits. Pick up one of the many local free magazines that give comprehensive details on events.

If you get an overdose of culture, you can always head for the hills and go skiing. From the centre of town, it is a stunning drive up to the small ski station. You can park your car along various designated points on the drive and carry on up on the shuttle equipped for carrying skis and boards. There are enough runs to suit most levels of skier.

If you have a car, there are great opportunities to see some breathtaking places such as the famous open-air Santa Fe Opera (performances only in the summer season), the ancient cliff dwellings at Bandelier, the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Taos. There are various pueblos around Santa Fe and Taos that occasionally have traditional Native American dances that tourists can visit. Look in local papers for details. The dances are ceremonies, not performances, and you must get a permit to take photographs or video footage. (Dates can be changed at the last minute if the spirits aren't ready.)

Eating out There is a bewildering range of restaurants in the city with everything from sushi to Tex Mex. Nothing beats watching your waiter making guacamole at the table. South-western cuisine is tasty and sets your average culinary rules on their head, although for the Christmas traditionalist a turkey dinner can be found, albeit one garnished with chillies. Drink margaritas, of course.

Try La Casa Sena (125 E Palace Ave; tel: 001 505 988 9232); either the main restaurant with its wine list of over 600 selections that earned the 'Best Award of Excellence' by Wine Spectator, or the adjoining cantina that features singing waiters. Also worth a visit is the Anasazi restaurant (113 Washington; tel: 001 505 988 3030), named by Condé Nast Traveller as one of America's most distinguished restaurants. For breakfast try the enormous pancakes at Café Pasqual's (Don Gaspar Ave).

Where to stay The Santa Fe Motel is one of the cheapest places to stay at around £55 per night (510 Cerrillos Road; tel: 001 505 982 1039). Hotel Santa Fe is a fun adobe-style place to stay at around £70 a night (Paseo de Peralta; tel: 001 505 982 1200).

For deeper wallets, La Fonda de Santa Fe (the Plaza; tel: 001 505 982 5511) has plenty of old-style character, as has the Inn at Loretto (211 Old Santa Fe Trail; tel: 001 505 988 5531) complete with award-winning design, galleries and shops. If you're feeling really flush, the Eldorado Hotel is an AAA 4-Diamond full-service luxury hotel (309 W San Francisco St; tel: 001 505 988 4455).

Getting there Fly to Albuquerque with Continental (tel: 0800 776464) for around £365 including tax or with American Airlines (tel: 0345 789789) for around £604 plus airport tax. You can fly to Santa Fe's municipal airport, which is 10 miles south-west of the town, via commuter planes from Albuquerque (Mesa Air; tel: 001 1-800 637 247) or from Denver on United Express (tel: 001 505 471 0008).

Shuttlejack mini-buses go directly from Albuquerque airport to Santa Fe around 10 times a day ($22/£15) or hire a car. Hiring a car is recommended as you can get out of Santa Fe and see some of the spectacular sights. Book in advance from the UK, particularly for the busy Christmas period: Alamo (tel: 0870 400 4580), Avis (tel: 0990 900500), Hertz (tel: 0990 996699).

Further information The Santa Fe Visitors Bureau (201 W Marcy St) has plenty of information on every aspect of Santa Fe, or you can get information before you leave by logging on to their website: www.santafe.org or www.newmexico.org.

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