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Romantic Interlude in an Enchanted Land

January 29, 1989|BARRY ZWICK | Zwick is a Times assistant news editor .

SAN CRISTOBAL, N.M. — I think New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world that I ever had. It certainly changed me forever. From "Phoenix," the posthumous papers of D. H. Lawrence

Some people go to New Mexico's Enchanted Circle for the scenery and others go for romance.

You'll find romance on the sleek white slopes at Angel Fire, the still blue waters at Eagle Nest, the gold-mine trails at Red River and buried under the martini trees at Taos Ski Valley.

And at the hub of the Enchanted Circle you'll find beauty that changes with the hour and the season, but never diminishes atop Wheeler Peak, tallest in the state at 13,161 feet.

Red River is an inexpensive base of operations for a swath of spectacular country. Whether you comb Red River by horseback, Jeep or snowmobile--or simply drink in its beauty from the huge terrace of your $39.50-a-night studio apartment at the Lifts West Condominium Hotel--you are sure to find it romantic and beautiful.

Wild West

As you mill around the bar at the Motherlode Saloon singing "Red River Valley" with all the other drugstore cowboys, you'll soon start rhapsodizing about the town, a collection of Wild West storefronts and taverns and even a little red schoolhouse. Somebody will say Red River is cute, somebody will say it's darling and somebody will say it's cheap.

Bluegrass music concerts are free in the three-story atrium lobby at Lifts West. There's a bar in the back, but no one will hustle you to buy drinks. Locals bring their own six-packs.

You and four friends can rent a Jeep to explore old gold mines and ghost towns in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains for $17 per person a day. Say hello to the bear, elk and deer. Gold Rush Rentals on Main Street will fix you up.

In winter you can snowmobile into the Midnight and Bitter Creek areas of Carson National Forest for $25. The trails are steep, winding and hopelessly gorgeous, with jasmine blooming through the snow and juncos chirping in the pines. Call Red Dawg Snowmobile Tours. Ask for Bear.

For cross-country skiers, entry to the Enchanted Forest--18 miles of trails on 6,000 acres of pine and fir forests--will cost you $6 a day. Moonlight ski tours end at the warming hut, where you'll be served hot chocolate, apple cider, tea, coffee, homemade chocolate-chip cookies and cheese by the fire.

Old-time melodrama? Cheer the villain, hiss the hero, boo the virtuous heroine, eat jerky, drink sarsaparilla? Try the Mine Shaft Theater at the Red River Inn, at 1849 prices.

Next, the slow lane. Eighteen miles east of Red River on New Mexico 38, the lake's the thing at Eagle Nest. You may have seen it in those $5,000 paintings on Canyon Road in Santa Fe.

Eagle Nest is a truly casual resort; you don't even have to pack a suitcase. You can wear the same old dirty clothes day after day, like everyone else.

Eagle Nest Lake, 145 feet deep, is a paradise for windsurfers, sailors and romantic rowboaters, with a first-class marina. Bait shops line the 16 1/2-mile shore. The state stocks the lake with Kokanee salmon and three kinds of trout.

Ice fishermen, skaters, hockey players and ice sailors take over during the winter. Often you'll find 150 people frolicking on the eight-inch ice. After dark, good ol' boys race their snowmobiles across the lake.

City slickers head south 11 miles on U.S. 64 to Angel Fire, the night-life capital of the Enchanted Circle. Top draw is Annie O's Lounge at the Legends Hotel.

Angel Fire is quite unlike the family-oriented resorts elsewhere in the Enchanted Circle. Lurex and spandex are de rigueur . If you've ever wondered who would do their shopping from the Frederick's of Hollywood mail-order catalogue, look no further.

Angel Fire was named by frontier scout Kit Carson, who adapted it from a tale told by local Ute Apaches. Carson is the great folk hero of the Enchanted Circle. Carson National Forest, which the circle surrounds, is named in his honor. He is buried in Kit Carson Memorial State Park in Taos, and his house nearby is a major tourist attraction.

Angel Fire has become a major tourist attraction these days thanks to aggressive promotion by civic leaders. A special event is scheduled every weekend, from balloon rallies to shovel races. Yes, you can race a shovel. In Angel Fire they've been known to go as fast as 70 m.p.h. Other weekends feature softball on skis, a skiing-with-a-briefcase race for lawyers, and Paul Bunyan Days: ax-throwing contests and chain-saw time trials.

Music From Angel Fire is a jazz and symphonic group appealing to higher instincts, and its concerts are offered in summer and winter.

Music fills the air, too, at Taos Ski Valley, one of the world's quirkier resorts. In summer Taos Ski Valley welcomes a school for young classical musicians, along with the usual run of high-minded backpackers. In winter, though, it's best known for the pitchers of martinis placed beneath blue spruce trees to tempt skiers.

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