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Her World

Strong Indian Heritage

January 15, 1989|JUDITH MORGAN | Morgan, of La Jolla, is a magazine and newspaper writer

Arizona and New Mexico, those sibling states of the Southwest, have much in common. Both are square in shape and rank higher in geographic size than in population.

In area, New Mexico is the fifth-largest state; Arizona is sixth. Both entered the Union in 1912 as the 47th and 48th states, a condition preserved until 1959 when Alaska and Hawaii joined the party.

Similar climates, Mexican influence and a strong Indian heritage are shared by the homelands of the Grand Canyon and Carlsbad Caverns.

Body and Soul

Yet the bountiful differences between the states are what I find intriguing. If Arizona is the sleek, sun-tanned body of the Southwest, New Mexico is its soul.

Consider the capitals. Phoenix is big, new, sprawling, hot . . . a place wrapped in unlinked freeways and pocked with palm trees and 600-room resorts.

Santa Fe is small and plucky. Its narrow, crooked streets follow old trails and river banks. Its homes are built of adobe. Its heart is a plaza. Both have charms for travelers, but they are not interchangeable.

If you care about golf or tennis or sunshine, head for Phoenix, Scottsdale and environs. Hide out at the grand old Arizona Biltmore, a splendid oasis built in 1929 by an admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright. President and Nancy Reagan honeymooned there; the romantic setting still attracts newlyweds. Turquoise swimming pools and gold-leaf ceilings are equally dazzling.

Legends abound. It is easy to stroll through that long, dark geometric lobby and imagine the Duke of Windsor lounging in a corner or Clark Gable striding through after a trail ride. Gable, they say, lost his wedding ring on the Biltmore golf course; it was eventually found by a groundskeeper.

Such proprietary caring lives on. This winter, when the doorman approached my car and said "Welcome," I felt as if I were stepping out in a formal gown and diamond tiara instead of khakis and a sweater. My car showed the brown-bag signs of a seven-hour drive across the desert. The bellman patted it as if it were a fresh Rolls-Royce.

A general niceness prevailed among the young staff, including the kind warning from a breakfast waitress in the Cafe Sonora that the huevos rancheros would be less fiery than the green chili scrambled eggs. I thanked her, but ordered the latter and loved every bite and tear.

New Mexico does not have the type of glitzy, all-service resorts that are sprouting around Phoenix. Low deserts and urban surroundings seem to inspire hotel cities such as the Scottsdale Princess or the overscale Phoenician, which become destinations in themselves, though often without heart.

The mood of Santa Fe is more intimate. At more than a mile high near the Sangre de Cristo range, this old capital attracts artists below and wild clouds above and, at this time of year, links them with curtains of snow.

Bed-and-breakfast inns seem right for the pace of Santa Fe and other northern New Mexico stops such as Taos and Chimayo.

I have long loved the Inn of Loretto near the Santa Fe Plaza, especially its rooms with fireplaces, and I am watching to see what will happen with the redesign proposals by new owners.

Classic Kitchens

In the meantime I favor the Inn on the Alameda, an adobe structure of only 38 rooms built around courtyards and gardens. Continental breakfast is served, but i has no restaurant.

That means more time to explore the wondrous kitchens of Santa Fe, from classics such as La Tertulia--in a home of many rooms across from the Guadalupe church--to the Pink Adobe of the Old Santa Fe Trail.

In February I get wistful for Santa Fe, for its morning blue skies that turn dark at noon and then drop feathers of snow for an hour or two. The weather is playful and earnest, never quite the same before you enter a museum or gallery or restaurant as when you come out.

New Mexico is a land of surprise, a land of endless enchantment. But, it can be argued, so is Arizona. The real difference, I guess, is that I did not hear any Clark Gable stories in New Mexico.

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