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Albuquerque rising

Like great turquoise, the city's a natural. But with its balloon fiesta and confluence of cultures, this unpolished gem is primed to shine.

January 14, 2007|Beverley Beyette | Times Staff Writer

Albuquerque — AT the American International Rattlesnake Museum in Old Town Albuquerque, I spotted a sign on the door. "We love tourists," it said. "They taste just like chicken."

In the past, this city was about as welcoming as that sign. Shops in Old Town had to be persuaded to stay open evenings, and until recently, zoning laws prohibited visitors from sitting on a restaurant patio and having a glass of wine or a margarita.

So tourists would fly into Sunport, Albuquerque's airport and slither their way up Interstate 25 to Santa Fe, its sexier, better-dressed sister city.

Now Albuquerque is sprucing up its Cinderella image and turning into one of the belles of the tourist ball. TripAdvisor placed Albuquerque fourth in last year's listing of the top 10 underrated world destinations, and online travel company Orbitz chose it as one of five "outstanding locations that should be on everyone's must-see list" in the next five years.

If one thing has put Albuquerque on the tourist map, it's the annual International Balloon Fiesta (Oct. 5-14 this year). It "helped establish a sense of place," said Dale Lockett, president and chief executive of the city's convention and visitors bureau.

The fiesta began modestly in 1972 as a hot-air-balloon rally sponsored by a local radio station publicizing its 50th anniversary. The event, held in a dirt parking lot, attracted 20,000 spectators and 13 balloons. These days, the 10-day festival draws up to a million visitors and as many as 700 balloons.

The balloon crowd had just left when I visited in late October. I decided to ground myself here, so I checked into Los Poblanos, a historic inn not far from Old Town. The inn once was the home of Albert Simms and Ruth Hanna McCormick, who met while serving in Congress in the late 1920s, married and moved to New Mexico, his home state.

The next morning, after a hearty breakfast at the inn, I set off to find out what all the "better-than-it's-ever-been" buzz was about.

I started in Old Town, site of Albuquerque's first Spanish settlement in 1706. The shops in the adobe buildings around the band-shell-centered square weren't doing much trade, selling T-shirts, turquoise and kachina dolls. I quickly lost interest and headed for Old Town's Spanish Colonial twin-spired 1793 San Felipe de Neri Church, where Masses are still celebrated. It is one of the oldest surviving buildings in the city, and its rectory was leased to the Army after the Civil War.

Nearby, I discovered the rattlesnake museum. Its $3.50 entrance ticket came with a certificate of bravery. The museum claims to have 31 species of rattlesnakes. But don't worry: All those rattlers are safely behind glass.

At a strip mall on Central Avenue, I stumbled across the Turquoise Museum, where owner Joe Lowry took me through rooms full of glass cases displaying turquoise from mines around the world.

If you are buying turquoise jewelry, "the word to shop with is 'natural,' " Lowry said. "Real and genuine do not equal natural."

The Federal Trade Commission defines natural as having nothing changed but the shape, he said. That rules out adding other material to enhance a stone's density or changing its color. The latter trick is hardly new. Early Native Americans used bear grease, the Chinese yak fat.

Less than 10% of the turquoise in mounted jewelry is natural, Lowry said. By law, those who sell it must be able to produce a written guarantee. Buyers, he said, should also make sure a piece of jewelry is handmade, with no machine-made parts. "Both are pieces of jewelry, but only one is a work of art," he said.

More works of art can be found in the gentrified Nob Hill section on the southeastern side of the city, where galleries, smart restaurants and boutiques in vintage 1940s buildings dot Central Avenue. Central is also Route 66 and has the 66 Diner and some neon-lighted 1940s buildings -- gas stations, motels -- that have been adapted to new uses.

(A store to check out: Hey Jhonny at 3418 Central Ave. has an eclectic mix of home objets where I found flower frogs about the size of a quarter and good-quality jewelry.)

New energy downtown

THE city is grittier, more real, than "Fanta Se," as some residents disparagingly refer to their northern neighbor, and that's evident in Albuquerque's downtown, which lies between Nob Hill and Old Town. The Downtown Action Team, a private nonprofit, is spearheading the latest urban renewal in the once-dreary district.

"Over the years, there have been 31 other efforts to revitalize downtown," said Luisa Casso, its president and chief executive. Casso says the key to the success of the current 10-year plan, now in its sixth year, is funding, primarily from downtown property owners. Signs of progress: new retail shops, a 14-screen movie complex, small theaters, restaurants and lofts.

"We are a downtown that's evolving," Casso said. "It's not where we want to be. But five years ago, the streets of downtown would roll up at 5 o'clock."

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