Wide open spaces. Stunning sunsets. Never too hot or too cold. Star-filled skies by night. Hot-air-balloon-filled skies by day.
You probably can guess I’m talking about Albuquerque, New Mexico, a picturesque vacation destination anytime of the year. There are more than 300 days of sunshine and it rarely goes above 77 or below 42 degrees. That’s a Houstonian’s idea of heaven!
The cool, gray-blue Sandia (Spanish for watermelon) Mountains encircle half the city. These are not jagged, angry peaks but friendly, welcoming ones named the Sandias because, when the sun hits them just so, they glow a deep, rosy, watermelon pink. They contribute to the near-perfect climate, make skiing a great option, while golfers can hit the links below and allow for unique wind patterns that send those hot air balloons up year round.
Add to that an exciting art scene, delectable food (red or green - more on that later), great shopping, historical and cultural attractions and, just for extra fun – lively casinos – well, you’ve got the making for some fantastic days of relaxation. We spent a long weekend in this diverse and affordable city last spring so here’s the best of what we sampled:
Accommodations: We chose the newly remodeled Sheraton Uptown where a $20 million renovation just took place. The accommodations are super: this Sheraton features the Link, a circular computer station in the lobby where folks can check their e-mail, order a cocktail and people-watch in the lobby. The rates are extremely affordable and the location is great, but the very best thing about the Sheraton is the staff. They are amazing!
Dining: Red or green? That is the eternal question in the Land of Enchantment, as New Mexico is rightly called. The colors refer to the chile used in the food. The winner is up for continual debate but one savvy resident advised us to simply ask for ‘Christmas.” That way both is served on the same plate. Ho ho ho!
Bravo – A perfectly wonderful restaurant in the Uptown area. What fun there is to be had! Shopping everywhere. Bravo is a white tablecloth, yet affordable Italian eatery with a lengthy menu. Everything is fresh and upbeat. You can’t go wrong here.
O’Niell’s Pub in the heart of Nob Hill – Albuquerque’s answer to Austin’s Sixth Street but more upscale. This is where the chic yuppies mix with the University of New Mexico Lobo crowd. Nob Hill is home to lots of great places to have a drink, shop or have a meal, but O’Niell’s is one of the best. Definitely try the crispy corned beef and cabbage egg rolls.
Flying Star Cafe – A lively mix of laptops, books and coffee mugs are right at home in this brightly painted deli and bookstore. Try the broken meatballs, the Albuquerque patty melt or the Blue Plate Specials.
El Pinto – Brothers Jim and John Thomas opened this Albuquerque icon in 1962 using family recipes. Originally seating just 50 diners, today 1,000 patrons can be seated at once. They produce salsa that is sold nationwide, prepare some fine enchiladas and make a perfect margarita.
Activities: It is no secret that hot air balloons draw millions to the Hot Air Balloon Capital of the U.S. each year – not only to the International Balloon Fiesta held in October but a unique air pattern, called the ‘Albuquerque Box,’ makes ballooning possible year round. Every day, the wonderful folks at Rainbow Riders Hot Air Balloon Company will take you up, up and away over the gorgeous Sandias to admire the landscape below. Head on over to the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum to admire the collection of ballooning equipment and artifacts.
A favorite spot to enjoy is Albuquerque’s famous “Old Town,” the original town site founded in 1706. It is a charming shopping and dining area, often featuring free entertainment. Stroll along the sidewalks and peek into the shops filled with clothing, jewelry, art and ristras, those long strands of hanging chilies that serve as a New Mexican welcome mat.
Cultural attractions: We loved these: the National Hispanic Cultural Center – with a $3 admission, this state-funded museum is a showpiece with an extensive, changing collection surrounded by lovely spaces for receptions and weddings; the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center- which houses a museum, a stunning gift shop and a restaurant where we couldn’t help but order the blue corn ‘mush,’ and the Petroglyph National Monument – home to more than 22,000 prehistoric and Indian rock images and art. Sky City – As we drove 60 miles west to Acoma Pueblo, red earth rushed to meet us. Vibrant earth colors burst against brilliant blue skies. Huge boulders, which thousands of years ago spewed from Mt. Taylor, appeared. Sky City, a sacred home to the local native Americans, provides a look into the past for visitors. About 450 homes are jutted together atop a peak that for hundreds of years, had no real access save a steep climb. Today, there is a van ride to the top but no electricity or running water. The Indians sell handmade pottery and jewelry. Enjoy the $10 million cultural center and Haak’u Museum.
Kelly’s Brew Pub – This funky diner has a brewery on site where anyone can brew their own beer. For a little more than $100, plus the cost of the bottles, Dan Cavin will assist adventurers who want to try their own recipe or use one of his. The food is great, too!
Golden Crown Panaderia – This is the one thing you must do! Owner Pratt Morales gives a lively tour of his tiny, yet enormously popular, bakery where the screen door opens continually with hungry visitors. Morales makes sure that everyone gets a free biscochito, a crispy butter cookie flavored with anise and cinnamon, to savor as they deliberate on their purchases. The old-fashioned display cases are bursting with cookies and breads, including Morales’ signature chile bread. You will want to buy one of everything.
Sandia Peak Tramway – To truly appreciate the expansive and lovely city, take the 20-minute ride to the top of 10,378-foot Sandia Peak. The day we rode up, it was sunny and brisk at the base and snowing at the top! The view is unforgettable.
Spa – La Bella Spa and Salon was fabulous. It is beautiful with floor-to-ceiling windows looking upon the Sandias. The massage and pedicure were perfect, but we really enjoyed the integrative skin analysis. Our faces were photographed, the information fed into a computer, and in moments, we had personalized information about our particular sun damage, wrinkles, skin tone and UV spots.
Casinos – There are at least eight in the metro area, all owned by Native American tribes. Several offer free shuttles from your hotel and there is action all night long. A great way to end the day is at the Sandia Resort and Casino, home to 140,000 square feet of gaming action. They offer more than 2,100 slots and video poker, some in a smoke-free area.
Did you know that Albuquerque is the nuclear capital of the United States? Much of the nation’s nuclear research program is conducted or supervised here. Brand new on the scene is the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History. This 30,000-square-foot facility does a grand job of explaining the history of the Atomic Age.
Whew! We saw a lot in those four days, but it wasn’t long enough to enjoy all of this diverse Southwestern city. We’ll be back – and often. For complete visitor information,www.itsatrip.org
(This article was originally published on 7/29/09)