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Shop for world-class art in a laid-back setting in Santa Fe, N.M.

Although it's considered one of the top art centers of the Western world, Santa Fe has its drawbacks. Like the lack of sidewalks on much of well-known Canyon Road, home to more than 100 galleries. I thought about this when a Pepsi truck driver honked and sternly yelled "Watch out, lady" as I sidestepped a muddy puddle on the cobblestone street.

Still, Canyon Road has its charms. This winding, shaded street, just blocks from Santa Fe's busy plaza, has a picturesque quality and ambience all its own. It's a pretty place to spend a day wandering in and out of galleries that represent some of the best-known artists in America. It's just not very pedestrian-friendly.

Most people don't seem to care. In this architecturally distinctive city, site of renowned opera, museums and restaurants, Canyon Road's weathered half-mile is something to take in stride. The street, which originated as a foot trail into the mountains, now hosts wealthy art collectors from around the world, with millions of dollars' worth of art changing hands monthly, according to estimates.

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Maggie Hanley, manager of the Santa Fe Gallery Assn., likes to tell the story of the Dubai developer who flew into the municipal airport in August and bought a couple of dozen pieces to dress up his new hotel.

It's not unusual for people to make multiple purchases. "We tell art lovers who want to start a collection that this is the place to do it," she said. "It's a walkable, pleasant destination. A couple can come here with $7,000 and get three to four very good pieces of modern or contemporary art."

But where to start if you hope to take home a fine-art reminder of the city? During an August visit, I turned to Jorden Nye, a longtime friend and a Santa Fe art consultant, for tips. I also enlisted some of the city's top gallery owners.

"First of all, Canyon Road isn't the whole story," Nye said. "It's a fun place to visit and has lots of great art, but we have two other concentrations of excellent galleries too," and he ticked off downtown Santa Fe and the Railyard Arts District.

With 250 galleries, "we pretty much have nearly every type of gallery in the art world: historic Western, contemporary, modern, ethnographic, etc.," he said.

Add to that eight art museums, including the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum — the largest repository of the famous Southwestern artist's work in the world — and you have an intense art-oriented itinerary. Maybe too intense.

Connie Axton, a gallery grande dame, advises first-time visitors to pace themselves. If something speaks to you, you don't want to be too tired to listen.

"Poke your head in; if you don't see what you like, move on," Axton said. "Then come back later, after you've whittled it down to 10 or even just five galleries, and explore those more thoroughly." Axton owns Canyon Road's Ventana Fine Art, one of the city's largest galleries and a top player in the U.S. art scene.

If galleries intimidate you, shopping Santa Fe-style won't, John Addison, director of Chiaroscuro Contemporary Art, said when Nye and I stopped by.

"That's the major difference between us and New York and Los Angeles," Addison said. "In those other cities, you're almost expected to know what you're looking at."

A couple of blocks away, Nancy Hunter, owner of Hunter Kirkland Contemporary Art Gallery, agreed. "Don't go in if a place makes you feel uncomfortable. And realize that there's a wide variation of prices in Santa Fe. There's something for everyone. We want you to be relaxed and enjoy yourself."

Not everyone is quite so open to browsers, however.

Over in the Railyard Arts District, the newest destination, gallery owner Bill Siegal was quite frank. "I don't want tourists. We don't want the kind of traffic they have on Canyon Road and the downtown galleries," said Siegal, who owns William Siegal Gallery.

Some of the antiquities he sells "go into the millions," he said. "People who come here are serious art buyers. And that's the way I want it."

Needless to say, I didn't buy anything there.

As a matter of fact, my only Santa Fe purchase was a $64 handcrafted copper necklace from a Pueblo Indian vendor at the Santa Fe Palace of the Governors, where Native American vendors sell arts and crafts daily. I really like it. And I have a fine list of galleries to visit the next time I win the lottery.

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When dining in Santa Fe, N.M., every day can be 'Christmas'

Twelve knife-wielding cooks were crazily chopping roasted vegetables, sweet potatoes, apples, pears and lettuce into recipe-size pieces. Overhead mirrors reflected the action, turning the 24 chopping hands into 48.

It was a class at the Santa Fe School of Cooking, and I was part of the frenzied action, dicing ingredients with the best of them. We were facing a tight deadline: lunch. We couldn't eat until we prepared the food.

Cooking classes are just one way Santa Fe celebrates its love of food. The New Mexico capital city is a gourmet's heaven, complete with celebrity chefs and a dazzling array of restaurants. You can find Asian, European, Mediterranean, Indian, Middle Eastern and other international favorites here, besides crazy-hot green chile dishes.

My three-hour cooking class, which I took during an August visit, focused on celebrating summer in the Southwest. We learned how to grill encrusted pork chops and make sweet potato salad, and we prepared apple empanadas for dessert.

It was a lot of fun and added an interesting hands-on element to my visit — plus, the finished product tasted great (125 N. Guadalupe St.; [800] 982-4688, www.santafeschoolofcooking.com; $80-$115 for a demo class).

If you don't have time for a do-it-yourself outing, there are plenty of options here. Looking for authentic old-style Santa Fe cuisine? You can find it at some of the vintage restaurants in town, including locals' favorite Tía Sophia's — credited with inventing the breakfast burrito in the '70s — and other older restaurants that still serve New Mexican fare, a combination of Hispanic and Native American flavors.

Innovative, international fare is the new wave, rating kudos at high-end restaurants such as the Compound on artsy Canyon Road and Julia, the new dining room at La Posada de Santa Fe Resort. Julia chef Todd Hall, the latest in a series of nationally recognized chefs to locate here, gutted the menu at the Luxury Collection hotel, adding creative locally sourced dishes such as rock hen baked in Santa Fe red rock clay and a wonderful chocolate extravaganza in the shape of a pueblo.

One thing to remember wherever you dine: If your server asks, "Red or green?" he or she wants to know whether you want red chile sauce or green chile sauce with your New Mexico-style enchiladas, tamales, chiles rellenos or huevos rancheros.

If you can't decide, just answer "Christmas" and you'll get both.

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List of select galleries in Santa Fe

Santa Fe claims that it is the only city in the world with more than 200 art galleries within a 2-square-mile area. Most are in three neighborhoods: Canyon Road, the Downtown Arts District and the Railyard Arts District. Here are some of the best.

Canyon Road

Hunter Kirkland Contemporary, 200-B Canyon Road, www.hunterkirklandcontemporary.com. Contemporary art, including sculpture both miniature and monumental.

Ventana Fine Art, 400 Canyon Road, www.ventanafineart.com. Contemporary Native American and Southwestern art in a two-story schoolhouse; be sure to see paintings by Native American artist John Nieto.

Wiford Gallery, 403 Canyon Road, www.wifordgallery.com. Interesting-looking gallery with a large outdoor sculpture garden containing kinetic sculptures. A fun place to photograph.

Carole LaRoche Gallery, 415 Canyon Road, www.laroche-gallery.com. Artist-owned gallery with Southwest-themed art. Known for wolf and shaman figures.

Morning Star Gallery, 513 Canyon Road, www.morningstargallery.com. Museum-quality Native American art and New Mexican antiques.

Chiaroscuro Contemporary Art, 558 Canyon Road, www.chiaroscurosantafe.com. Contemporary abstraction, including Native American, Australian Aboriginal and American Southwestern.

Zaplin Lampert Gallery, 651 Canyon Road, www.zaplinlampert.com. Museum-quality historic Western and New Mexico art.

Silver Sun, 656 Canyon Road, www.silversun-sf.com Authentic Indian jewelry, with turquoise a specialty.

Nüart Gallery, 670 Canyon Road, www.nuartgallery.com. Contemporary gallery featuring U.S., European and Latin American artists.

Nedra Matteucci Galleries, 1075 Paseo de Peralta (two blocks east of Canyon Road), www.matteucci.com. Historic American/Southwestern art with a lovely, large sculpture garden.

Downtown

Blue Rain Gallery, 130 Lincoln Ave., Suite C, www.blueraingallery.com. Large contemporary art gallery concentrating on Indian and Hispanic art but representing an eclectic mix of artists.

Owings Gallery, 120 E. Marcy St., www.owingsgallery.com. Historic and contemporary Southwestern art and American Modernism.

Andrew Smith Gallery, 122 Grant Ave., www.andrewsmithgallery.com. One of the top photography galleries in the country; Ansel Adams expert.

Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery, 100 W. San Francisco St., www.andreafisherpottery.com. One of the largest Indian pottery galleries in the nation.

Railyard Arts District

Evoke Contemporary, 550 S. Guadalupe St., www.evokecontemporary.com. Contemporary figurative art.

William Siegal Gallery, 540 S. Guadalupe St., www.williamsiegal.com. Ancient and contemporary art.

LewAllen Galleries, 1613 Paseo de Peralta, www.lewallencontemporary.com. Large contemporary gallery.

 

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If you go

THE BEST WAY TO SANTA FE, N.M.

From LAX, United and American offer connecting service (change of planes) to Santa Fe. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $438, including taxes and fees.

WHERE TO STAY

La Posada de Santa Fe Resort & Spa, 330 E. Palace Ave., Santa Fe; (800) 325-3589, www.laposadadesantafe.com. This downtown Santa Fe hotel, which has a pedigree stretching back 200 years, recently underwent a major renovation. Nicely appointed rooms and suites, some with fireplaces and patios, high-end restaurant, spa, lounge, extensive art galleries, 6-acre landscaped grounds. Doubles from $179 a night.

Drury Plaza Hotel Santa Fe, 828 Paseo de Peralta, Santa Fe; (800) 378-7945, www.druryplazasantafe.com. Drury Plaza, which opened downtown this summer in a converted hospital building, brings new competition to town. The family-owned hotel chain offers free breakfast and other perks. Doubles from $179 a night.

Santa Fe Sage Inn & Suites, 725 Cerrillos Road, Santa Fe; (866) 433-0335, www.santafesageinn.com. You'll have to walk a few blocks farther to get to downtown shops and the plaza, but the rates are great at this Southwestern-style motel. Breakfast and free Internet are included in the tariff, which starts at $84 a night, double occupancy.

WHERE TO EAT

Cowgirl Santa Fe, 319 S. Guadalupe St., Santa Fe; (505) 982-2565, www.cowgirlsantafe.com. Looking for Southwestern-style barbecue or a good burger? Stop by this indoor-outdoor restaurant, which advertises it offers "the Mother of All Green Chile Cheeseburgers," a Santa Fe specialty ($15). Entrees from $10.

El Farol Restaurant & Cantina, 808 Canyon Road, Santa Fe; (505) 983-9912, www.elfarolsf.com. Visit El Farol to see and hear fiery flamenco music and dance, and don't miss the excellent paella de la casa, the restaurant's signature dish ($28). Entrees from $20. Cover charge ranges up to $25 per person for dinner shows.

Tia Sophia's, 210 W. San Francisco St., Santa Fe; (505) 983-9880. This family-owned cafe in downtown Santa Fe is open only for breakfast and lunch, but it's managed to become local residents' favorite place to start the day. Don't miss the breakfast burritos ($9.75). All entrees about $10 or less.

TO LEARN MORE

Tourism Santa Fe, (800) 777-2489, www.santafe.org

travel@latimes.com

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