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Weekend Escape: Santa Fe : Grand Operatunity : A Couple Is Drawn Again to Hear the Clear Beauty of the Human Voice in the Vast New Mexico Desert

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is no place I’d rather be than in an opera house, and there’s no place my husband, Bill, would rather be than on a trail somewhere. So, when it came time to pick a place to celebrate anniversary No. 8 in early July, we didn’t hesitate: Santa Fe, N.M., was our mutual choice.

We are hardly the first to come to this decision. Last year, 838,855 overnight visitors disgorged on the city of 50,000, and this year it was judged the top destination in the world by readers of Conde Nast Traveler.

Much of the city’s magic lies in its past, which makes itself felt in its architecture, Pueblo ruins, and churches and shrines, and which serves to soften its darker side: the traffic congestion, crowds and the threatening tide of over-development.

We had been to Santa Fe once before, to celebrate our fifth anniversary, and if there was one thing we’d learned, it’s that you cannot begin trip planning too early. We booked our room at the Grant Corner Inn, a three-story manor house built in the early 1900s, on Jan. 6; we ordered opera tickets on Feb. 1, the first day they were available to non-subscribers. (Tickets are still available for almost all performances.)

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After work on Thursday, we took a 90-minute Southwest flight (crowded but cheap, thanks to Southwest’s Friends Fly Free fare) to Albuquerque, where we picked up a rental car and checked into a motel. We had grand plans for an early start on Friday, of driving into the vast sky-bowl of a New Mexico morning while the sun was still rising. But . . . there is something about New Mexico that makes one want to slow down . . . live in the moment . . . soak up the light. So it was closer to mid-morning by the time we hit I-25 for the 60-mile drive into Santa Fe.

After picking up picnic supplies that would provide us with at least three meals, we were off for an early lunch at El Farol, an old restaurant that is housed in an even older adobe at the top of Canyon Road. The place jumps at night, but at midday it was deserted. In fact, although the restaurant opens at 11, the staff was still setting up, so we settled down at a small table on the porch to watch the passing parade and to study the menu.

Of the tapas (small dishes that originated in Spain) on the menu, we chose a delicious. Soon the checked tablecloth was covered with tiny plates, bread baskets and two of the best--but pricey--glasses of sangria we’d ever had.

Then we headed for the Santa Fe Opera, which is seven miles outside of town on U.S. 84/285, perched atop a hill below the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

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Santa Fe Opera was begun by John Crosby, an ailing musician and dreamer from the East Coast who came west in the mid-'50s in search of a climate more suited to his health. He built his opera house in a natural bowl on what had been the San Juan Guest Ranch. Before construction began, he hired an acoustician and the two paced off the grounds, firing a cap pistol to determine the absolutely perfect location. It worked; the sound is fabulous.

That’s just one of the stories we heard on the hour-long backstage tour of the opera house that snakes through the costume and wig department, the set and prop rooms and the carpentry shop where every stick of furniture must be custom made to accommodate Santa Fe’s unique staging requirements: The house does not have a curtain and there is no room overhead to roll up scenery or backdrops.

Tours usually include a trip across the stage, but this afternoon a rehearsal of “The Abduction From the Seraglio” was in progress and the director had called for a closed set. Although we didn’t get to see the stage, we did get to hear some gorgeous singing and the management shaved $3 off the tour price.

By mid-afternoon we were ready to find our B&B;, which we had selected after reading several enthusiastic reviews. Grant Corner Inn is two blocks west of the downtown Plaza. To walk through its shaded gazebo is to leave the Southwest behind and enter a Victorian world. Our room (No. 10) on the third floor had a little nook with a love seat that was great for reading, but next time I’d like to sample Rooms 7 or 8, which share a small porch. All 11 rooms--some quite small, others quite spacious--have Oriental rugs, hardwood floors, brass beds, ceiling fans, handmade quilts, small refrigerators and radios. We were told that the inn is almost totally sold out through August (and reservations for July and August are recommended six months in advance.)

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We climbed the two flights of stairs to our room, where we found fruit and chocolate awaiting. With the afternoon breeze gently blowing in the open window (we never did turn on the air conditioner, although temperatures were in the low ‘90s throughout the weekend) we were both out like lights.

That evening, since we were going to the opera, it seemed only fitting to dine at Ristorante La Traviata. Our reservations were for 6 p.m., which allowed plenty of time before a 9 p.m. curtain.

As the twilight deepened, we wound our way up the freeway to the opera house, although we could have taken a private bus service called Shuttlejack, which for $6 per person makes a loop of several hotels, and goes out to the opera. We wanted to be there in time to do a little people watching; it’s one of the best parts of the show.

We were blessed with clear skies for our “Tosca” and if the performance was uneven, the opera house was magnificent. With the lights of Los Alamos twinkling on the horizon, and a cool breeze blowing across the audience, Puccini’s lush music welled up around us and cast its own spell against the total hush of the desert. No helicopters flying overhead here. There’s something about the opera in Santa Fe; maybe it’s the festival atmosphere . . . the enthusiasm of the company . . . the glory of the music . . . the clear beauty of the voice against the vast New Mexico desert. Whatever it is, it’s a magnet that draws me back again and again.

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Saturday morning we were up early because we wanted to be at Bandelier National Monument, about 46 miles away, by 8 a.m. The monument, named after Adolph Bandelier (who first explored the site in the 1880s), is one of the major archeological sites of the Anasazi, thought by many scholars to be the ancestors of the Pueblo. It is a rare sanctuary, as much a wilderness today as it was a century ago, and totally devoid of neon, snack bars, souvenir stands and, if you get there first thing in the morning, most people.

The ancients lived in caves in the canyon and built houses of masonry from one to three stories high against the walls. We clambered up ladders to the upper chambers to see where the Anasazi ate, slept and cooked, where they stored provisions and where the men anchored weaving frames in the walls and floor. By the time we walked out nearly five hours later, the parking lot, which had been deserted when we arrived, was wall-to-wall cars. We left as soon as Bill had found several treasures in the small but excellent bookstore.

As sunset neared, we headed for what would be the perfect ending to a perfect day: a long hot soak at Ten Thousand Waves, a Japanese spa tucked into a mountainside about five miles east of the city limits.

There are five private tubs, each with redwood decks and mountain views. Each has its own name--our’s was the Moon tub--and its own ambience. There are also communal tubs and even a waterfall tub that holds up to 12 people. Everything is scrupulously clean.

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We arrived, as instructed, at 7:45 for our 8 p.m. reservation. We were issued locker keys and cotton kimonos and directed to separate dressing rooms where we were told to stash our clothes, shower lightly and report back. Which we did, feeling slightly awkward in our kimonos and rubber flip-flops. However, once we slid into the water, everything else ceased to matter.

The tub was ours for an hour and for the first 15 minutes, we turned the jets on full blast. But then we switched off the power and total peace and quiet descended. We were mesmerized by the wind, the air, the setting sun. We didn’t talk much. We’d probably still be there if a disembodied voice hadn’t emanated from the intercom: “Moon pool, your time is about up.”

Gress edits the “News, Tips & Bargains” page for Travel.

Budget for Two Airline tickets, LAX-Albuquerque: $247.00 Motel, Albuquerque: $59.84 Rental car: $75.44 Picnic supplies: $16.00 Lunch, El Ferol: $44.62 Canyon Road parking: $3.00 Opera tours: $10.00 Dinner, La Traviata: $68.00 Tickets, Santa Fe Opera: $208.00 Grant’s Corner Inn, 2 nights: $275.63 Bandelier admission: $5.00 Hot tub, Ten Thousand Waves: $31.73 FINAL TAB: $1,044.26 Santa Fe Opera: tel. (505) 986-5900.

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Grant Corner Inn: tel. (505) 983-6678.


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