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Weekend Escape: New Mexico

Not Santa Fe, Yet : A tiny town, the quiet desert and a historic inn to calm the city folks

June 09, 1996|ANNE HURLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Hurley is the Sunday Calendar managing editor

GALISTEO, N.M. — Galisteo Inn co-owner and former Californian Wayne Aarniokoski pauses on the side of a sagebrushy hill here, waiting for two trailing horseback riders to catch up to him. Looking at the vast expanse over his head, he says, almost as an afterthought, "The sky here is like the ocean."

He has a point. The New Mexico sky 23 miles south of Santa Fe is uninterrupted by anything but the spire of a small church and hill after rolling hill. It brings, like the sea, that peculiar combination of invigoration and calm.

And that is pretty much the point of coming here. Galisteo, a tiny town of 250--mostly ranchers and artists--is what Santa Fe used to be like before it became Santa Fe. About the only places you can spend your money are a gallery or two, the tiny Santa Fe Brewery, and a sleepy general store featuring chilled Cokes, dusty strands of chiles and a jar of pickled eggs that looks like it may have been there since New Mexico gained statehood.

Presiding over all this laid-backness is the Galisteo Inn, a 250-year-old hacienda that has been restored with authenticity and elegance. It was a perfect escape for two weary friends who wanted mostly to tune out big-city distractions.

We flew into Albuquerque early one Friday afternoon in March and rented a car; we drove east on I-40 about 25 miles to Moriarty, and turned north on New Mexico 41 another 25 miles. The only real landmark is St. Joseph's church on the west side of the road.

Galisteo was founded in the 1700s by Spanish settlers under the patron system; for 200 years the Ortiz family owned much of the land around Galisteo and some descendants still live here. At its peak, around the time of the Civil War, there were nearly 20,000 residents, mostly ranchers who shipped their wool back East. Now there are fewer than 300, many of whom are still ranchers. That Galisteo is ringed with ranches, in fact, is probably what has saved it from encroaching development.

Our room at the inn, the Juniper, was in the main old ranch building and had two comfy double beds, high wood-beamed ceilings, Spanish and Navajo antique furnishings and a kiva-style fireplace in one corner. Our bathroom was down the hall (though most of the rooms have private baths), but any inconvenience we might have felt was melted away when we saw it: Decorated with Mexican tile and Southwestern rugs, it had its own working fireplace, right next to the tub. Did I mention this place has atmosphere?

We knew we wanted to go into Santa Fe at some point during the weekend, so we decided to check in and then head up right away for a little gallery-going and dinner. We avoided the Plaza--too much humanity--and headed for Canyon Road, where we poked our heads into several galleries before going to dinner at Geronimo. All the flying and driving, combined with great doses of fresh air, had made us ravenous, and we savored inventive Southwestern dishes such as moledo-chile-marinated fresh trout served with green-chile risotto, and grilled chicken breast stuffed with fresh sage and prosciutto. Desserts were inspired: a praline phyllo dough Napoleon filled with a cinnamony mascarpone, with a raspberry sauce and caramel sauce, and an almond "taco" shell with berries. Our dinner tab, with one glass of wine and a bottle of sparkling water, was $98--proof that you don't have to be in the big city for a big-city dining experience.

Saturday morning, we woke to a lavish breakfast of chile-studded frittata, fruit salad, yogurt, quick breads and smoothies served in the inn's small dining room. At 10 a.m., appropriately fueled, we walked down to the stables, passing the sheep pen, where a ewe had given birth to three lambs during the night. There were two other hardy souls out in the crisp morning, ready to go out on horses into the surrounding countryside (the inn also rents mountain bikes).

*

We wound through the core of town, past a pioneer cemetery We climbed the hills and then started to pass the more elaborate adobe homes of some of the region's artists (Bruce Nauman lives here). Wayne picked out points of interest, including the hills of the ghost town of Cerrillos off to the west.

When we got back to the inn, dusty and creaky, we had massages waiting. The inn will arrange for massages ($50 for an hour) if you book ahead, and this day they called in Santa Fe massage therapist Mark Baker, a Torrance native who knows his way around tense shoulders and ticklish feet.

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