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Santa Fe on a Shoestring

Yes, it can be pricey, but you don't need wads of cash to enjoy the charms of the wildly popular New Mexico town

March 19, 2000|Susan Spano | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

SANTA FE, N.M. — Like Aspen, Martha's Vineyard and the Co^te d'Azur, this lovely old town in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains has a ritzy reputation. After all, it's a favorite movie-star haunt, and Santa Fe's galleries are full of pricey fine art. Then, too, without a major airport, the city is a little hard to reach, and it's a seller's market when it comes to accommodations. About 1.2 million people visit Santa Fe a year, yet it has just 4,700 rooms. So hoteliers can charge whatever the market will bear, especially in high season.

But as far as I'm concerned, the really good places in the world can be enjoyed as fully on a budget as with a wad of cash. Despite its popularity, Santa Fe is one of those, as I found out on two trips to the city in the last year and a half. Neither of them broke the bank, largely because I avoided Santa Fe's chief spending trap, the shops, and sought inexpensive ways to sample the town's sophisticated delights. For example, you can wander through galleries (there are more than 200) and drink wine at Friday night openings for free, or buy a $10 pass providing unlimited access to five museums for four days, including two Santa Fe gems, the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum and the Museum of International Folk Art.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 9, 2000 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 2 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Santa Fe--Due to reporting errors, some geographic locations were incorrectly identified in a story about the New Mexico city ("Santa Fe on a Shoestring," March 19). Cerrillos Road runs southwest of downtown (not southeast), Grant's Corner Inn is northwest of the Plaza (not southeast) and Canyon Road is east of the Paseo de Peralta (not east of Palace Avenue).

Round-trip tickets on Southwest, the only airline that flies directly from L.A. to Albuquerque, often cost as little as $198, or $128 for Internet specials. If you're just interested in the walkable downtown area around the historic Plaza, you can take a van to Santa Fe from the Albuquerque airport for $25 one way and forget about renting a car. Or you can eschew air travel altogether by riding the train, which departs once a day from L.A. and takes 21 hours (generally $156 to $232 round trip in coach, depending on the season and promotional deals, including a shuttle transfer from the Amtrak stop in Lamy, 17 miles from Santa Fe, to your hotel). Otherwise, you'll need a car, and if you rent one from a budget car rental company at the Albuquerque airport, you'll find that the drive to Santa Fe on Interstate 25, across 60 miles of beautiful high desert, is fast and fun.

Finding well-located, reasonably priced accommodations is another matter because everybody wants to be in Santa Fe between mid-May and early October, when the weather is fairest. Budget travelers are wise to stay away in July and August in particular, when high season peaks and crowds jam the Plaza for Indian and Spanish markets, and the Santa Fe Opera performs. Though room rates drop substantially from November to March, winters can be snowy and cold, less conducive to a leisurely stroll down Canyon Road, where most of the town's art galleries are.

Getting the timing right is the trick. Weekend rates tend to be high year-round, but most hotels offer inviting midweek bargains, with savings of 10% to 30%. It also makes sense to plan a visit during the shoulder season in early April and the last part of October, when some downtown hotels like the Hilton, the Inn of the Anasazi, La Posada and the Inn on the Alameda reduce their rates by 10% to 25%.

Because Santa Fe sits 7,000 feet above sea level, the weather in April and October can be unpredictable. But the crowds will be thin, sunny days sometimes warm to 60 degrees and, if you get lucky, you'll be there when the mountains are blanketed in springtime lime green or when fall turns the cottonwoods gold.

Founded by Spanish conquistadors in 1610 (the same year Shakespeare wrote "A Winter's Tale"), Santa Fe has a compact downtown around which many of the museums, galleries and historic sites, like the Plaza and Palace of the Governors, are centered. Consequently, the hotels in this area are among the city's most expensive, which is why people in the market for budget accommodations often choose one of the chain motels on Cerrillos Road, an unlovely commercial strip that stretches about five miles southeast from the Plaza to Interstate 25. Most have swimming pools and touches like tiled roofs and ersatz adobe but little authentic Santa Fe character.

There's one exception, however: El Rey Inn, a bona fide Cerrillos Road bargain. The family-run motel court--sadly part of a dying breed these days--opened shortly after World War II. The hacienda-style inn has covered arcades, a pool, two hot tubs, a playground, porch swings and 86 nicely decorated and well maintained rooms. The queen-bed double where I stayed for $95 per night in October had a huge, spotless bathroom, a kitchenette and Post-it notes on the desktop. Moreover, rates include a surprisingly substantial continental breakfast.

But most visitors will be happiest downtown, where there are a few relatively low-priced accommodations. The historic adobe-style La Fonda has a handful of small economy doubles priced at $129; "petite" doubles at the Victorian-style Hotel St. Francis, a block off the Plaza, cost $78 to $98; and there are B&Bs in the old residential neighborhoods south and east of downtown.

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