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Weekend Escape: Sante Fe

On the Quiet Side : North of the city lies a respite from outlets, casinos

November 17, 1996|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Turan is The Times' film critic

SANTA FE, N.M. — Don't take this the wrong way: My wife and I love Santa Fe. We were married there, and in the middle of the week to boot, which led to noticeable grumbling from friends who made the trip. But though the area was the natural choice to celebrate our fifth anniversary, we weren't sure if spending time right in Santa Fe was what we wanted.

For one thing, we'd taken several vacations in the city itself over the years and had a taste for something a bit different. And Santa Fe had changed even in the short time we'd been going there, with big casinos and factory outlet complexes designed to look like pueblos cropping up on the outskirts of town.

One thing that hadn't changed, obviously, was the delicately colored desert space of northern New Mexico we'd always found seductive. With its faded, almost sun-bleached browns and greens, lighted up during the fall by the bright yellow gold of the cottonwood trees changing color, this was a spectacle that never ceased to fascinate. Which is why the Rancho de San Juan sounded so attractive.

Located 35 miles northwest of Santa Fe, just two hours from the Albuquerque airport, the Rancho de San Juan was advertised as a small, elegant hotel, a member of the Relais & Chateaux group, which compensated for its outback location by having a promising restaurant on the premises.

The main problem with the place was its size: only four rooms available at the time we called (but now somewhat larger). It was so small that even two months in advance it was impossible to book a weekend room. We settled for a Sunday-Monday, even though those turned out to be days that the restaurant didn't serve dinner. The price was $165 per night, including breakfast, which felt like an acceptable splurge for an anniversary.

Before checking in, we stopped to visit a friend who's lived north of Santa Fe for years. He encouraged us to focus on the far side of the city, to drive around the smaller communities that don't get much notice. And he told us not to neglect the culinary adventures of nearby Espanola, a bustling, unassuming city that was the closest major metropolis to our hotel.

It was on our friend's advice that we stopped for lunch at a tiny drive-in stand on New Mexico Highway 76 in Espanola called El Parasol. Ignoring the large sign that boasted "Award Winning Tacos November 20 1989," my wife ordered a quesadilla and a tostada and I ordered the Beef Burrito de Carne Guisado with Green Chiles (a bargain at $3.50) and retired to a cool picnic table under tall trees. Only one bite revealed an explosion of flavor, taste and heat that made this one of those unforgettable New Mexico sensations that are even more memorable for being so site specific.

Perhaps reeling from the aftereffects of that burrito, we almost drove right by the small stone columns emblazoned with the Rancho's turquoise partridge symbol that marked the entrance to our 225-acre destination. Not visible from the highway, the Rancho's U-shaped adobe-colored building came into view half a mile down a dirt road. It promised pampered rest and desert seclusion, and we were determined to take delivery.

The Rancho was built and opened a couple of years ago by two former Los Angeles area residents who live on the property and run the place day to day. David Heath is the front man and John Johnson does the cooking, which includes an elaborate breakfast every day in the sunlit dining room and a three-course prix fixe dinner for $28.50 four nights a week. The current four units are gradually being increased to eight, including four suites.

Our room, the Black Mesa, had its share of traditional New Mexico touches such as a beamed ceiling, an earthen-colored tile floor and a string of dried red peppers hanging outside the windows. It also had a blue-and-white tiled tub and shower, a raised fireplace and some interesting wooden furniture.

And did I mention quiet? Though other conversations were audible during the day, the Rancho was a tomb after dark, so quiet my wife and I ended up whispering a lot. At night we could walk out and see all those millions of stars that refuse to display themselves in Los Angeles, in the morning the clear desert light streamed through white shutters, and (since we chose not to turn on the heat) a bracing chill reminded us exactly where we were.

Though we didn't know it when we made our reservations, the Rancho has a tourist attraction all its own. A traveling artist named Ra Paulette persuaded the owners to let him hollow out a sanctuary called "Windows in the Earth" in a sandstone formation about a half-hour walk from the Hacienda. With its smooth elephantine columns and elaborately wrought pedestals, the shrine, as it's familiarly known, is one of those places that have to be seen to be believed, half New Age, half sword and sorcery.

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