Santa Fe looks (and smells) like one big yuletide celebration in December. The aroma of piñon logs burning in kiva fireplaces fills the night air of America's oldest capital city, while downtown rooftops and sidewalks glow with rows of farolitos, paper-bag lanterns holding votive candles. Its cool-weather charms are considerable—browsing art galleries along Canyon Road, relaxing with a Pueblo mud bath at a day spa, gliding down precipitous slopes in the neighboring Sangre de Cristo mountains. Best of all, the often chaotic crowds have thinned by the time of northern New Mexico's first frost, making this month an ideal time for a Santa Fe sojourn.
INNS AND HOTELS Although winter is Santa Fe's low season, accommodations can go quickly—and command higher rates—the two weeks before Christmas. The Inn of the Anasazi (113 Washington Ave.; 800/688-8100 or 505/988-3030; www.innoftheanasazi.com; doubles from $199) puts a luxurious face on traditional New Mexican design. Rooms mix antique handwoven indigenous rugs and traditional wood-beam ceilings with such thoughtful touches as humidifiers (a boon in bone-dry Santa Fe).
A dapper three-story building in the Pueblo style, Hotel Santa Fe (1501 Paseo de Peralta; 800/825-9876 or 505/982-1200; www.hotelsantafe.com; doubles from $99) is in the funky Guadalupe District, a 10-minute stroll southwest of the historic Plaza, which anchors downtown. Rooms in the posh new Hacienda wing come with corner fireplaces and the discreet service of London-trained butlers. The Picuris Pueblo Indians own the hotel and an adjacent shop, a great source for authentic Native American crafts.
Bohemian poet Witter Bynner once owned the rambling 19th-century Spanish—Pueblo Revival house that today contains the 10-room Inn of the Turquoise Bear (342 E. Buena Vista St.; 800/396-4104 or 505/983-0798; www.turquoisebear.com; doubles from $99). You can book the very rooms in which Bynner put up Ansel Adams and Rita Hayworth.
Santa Fe's top lodging secret, the Don Gaspar Inn (623 Don Gaspar Ave.; 888/986-8664 or 505/986-8664; www.dongaspar.com; doubles from $115), is in the up-and-coming South Capitol district, which fringes the southern edge of downtown. Nine rooms and a two-bedroom cottage occupy three adjoining historic structures, each representing a local architectural style: Arts and Crafts, Pueblo Revival, and Territorial. Hand-carved furnishings, Navajo rugs, and limestone-tile whirlpool baths complete the sunny rooms.
DINING OUT Don't miss the grilled Maine lobster tails with an organic corn-and-caper compote and chile-garlic sauce at Geronimo (724 Canyon Rd.; 505/982-1500; dinner for two $110), housed in a courtly 1750's adobe house. The new owners of the recently reopened Compound Restaurant (653 Canyon Rd.; 505/982-4353; dinner for two $120) didn't change its whitewashed interior but did revolutionize the menu, adding stunning dishes such as slow-baked salmon with soft pumpkin polenta and a golden chanterelle bordelaise sauce.
Naysayers scoffed when yet another high-end purveyor of Nuevo New Mexico cooking debuted last summer, but the Canyon (731 Canyon Rd.; 505/984-3270; dinner for two $85) quickly proved them wrong with knockout dishes such as tangerine-glazed sea scallops over a smoky hash of parsnip purée and bacon.
Whether for a hearty weekend breakfast of blue-cornmeal waffles with honey butter and bananas, or an evening supper of thin-crust pizza or Moroccan vegetable stew, head to the homey Harry's Roadhouse (Old Las Vegas Hwy., one mile south of Old Pecos Trail and I-25; 505/989-4629; dinner for two $40).
The demure Kasasoba (544 Agua Fria St.; 505/984-1969; dinner for two $50), a noodle house with an entertaining collection of Japanese monster-movie posters, has soba- noodle bowls with tender sliced and grilled duck breast in a savory broth of roasted leeks and sesame seeds, plus traditional tempuras and rice dishes.
THE REAL DEAL: NEW MEXICAN CUISINE Debating the virtues of green-chile stew and stuffed sopaipillas counts as a serious sport in Santa Fe. New Mexico has its own cuisine, and although it shares ingredients with Tex-Mex and Mexican cooking, its loyalists will chide anybody who lumps them together. To find authentic New Mexican, venture away from the tourist haunts near the Plaza and make for La Choza (905 Alarid St.; 505/982-0909; dinner for two $30), which abuts the railroad tracks southwest of downtown and turns out sublime burritos with carne adovada (pork or chicken marinated in red chile, garlic, and oregano) and a strangely alluring green-chile clam chowder. Bobcat Bite (420 Old Las Vegas Hwy., 41/2 miles south of Old Pecos Trail and I-25; 505/983-5319; dinner for two $20) opened inside a ramshackle trading post in 1954 and has been serving Santa Fe County's tastiest green-chile cheeseburgers ever since. The parking lot is full of both rusty pickup trucks and shiny new Mercedes-Benzes.
ON THE TOWN Easygoing Santa Fe is an early-to-bed place, but night-crawlers can find a few exciting diversions, such as Paramount/Bar B (331 Sandoval St.; 505/982-8999), a dance club with a bordello-red lounge in the back.
A labyrinth of sleek salons, Swig (135 W. Palace Ave., third floor; 505/955-0400) dazzles barflies with its mod aesthetic, elaborate sugar-rimmed cocktails, and decadent Pan-Asian tapas.
Look to the historic Spanish restaurant El Farol (808 Canyon Rd.; 505/983-9912) for rockabilly, jazz, or flamenco, depending on the night. It's the oldest restaurant in town, dating to the 1830's.
SANTA FE SHOPPING Santa Fe has changed from a provincial Southwestern arts hub into a destination of international repute for interior décor and furnishings. Be sure to stop by the Design Center (418 Cerrillos Rd.), a cluster of about a dozen antiques shops. Among them is the Claiborne Gallery (505/982-8019; also at 608 Canyon Rd.), which overflows with 16th- through 18th-century tables, bowls, vases, and chairs of southern European and Latin American origin. Across the corridor, the Gloria List Gallery (505/982-5622) sells Spanish colonial devotional artifacts such as carved Guatemalan Virgins and Peruvian resplandores (ornate sterling-silver halos) from the 1700's.
You can actually eat the religious art sold at Todos Santos (125 E. Palace Ave., No. 31; 505/982-3855), a lilliputian candy shop. The chocolate milagros and altarpieces coated with edible 23-karat gold or silver leaf seem too pretty to nibble on, but don't hesitate to devour the rose-caramel or lemon-verbena truffles.
Just off the downtown Plaza, the Rainbow Man (107 E. Palace Ave.; 505/982-8706) carries kachina dolls, tribal rugs and blankets, Day of the Dead figurines, Oaxacan folk art, and vintage images by Edward S. Curtis, the distinguished early-1900's photographer of Native Americans.
Set inside a Depression-era bodega that still has its original deli counter, Four & Twenty Blackbirds (620 Old Santa Fe Trail; 505/983-7676) is three rooms of cookbooks, gourmet goods, and culinary knickknacks. But it's the pies—gooseberry, chocolaty French silk, steak-and-kidney, just about any variety you can dream up—that have Santa Feans packing the shop every week (place your order by Wednesday; pick up your pie on Friday).
FIND YOUR BLISS Several brand-new spas and treatment rooms have opened in town in the past few months. The 7,000-square-foot SháNah Spa, at the secluded Bishop's Lodge Resort (Bishop's Lodge Rd.; 800/974-2624 or 505/819-4000; www.bishopslodge.com; day packages from $245), focuses on Eastern healing customs, such as Ayurvedic oil massages and the energy-balancing practice of hatha yoga. Soothing Jur-lique facials leave guests feeling utterly at ease. Downtown's Avanyu at La Posada de Santa Fe Resort (330 E. Palace Ave.; 800/727-5276 or 505/954-9630; www.laposadadesantafe.com; three-night packages from $1,050) is ideal for a full day of rejuvenation. Work out on Cybex equipment or soak in a kidney-shaped outdoor pool heated up to 91 degrees. Favorite treatments include a bracing sports massage and the high-desert aromatherapy session with native herbs and oils—recommended for those unused to Santa Fe's altitude. One of the longer-running area spas, however, still offers perhaps the most memorable experience: the 80-acre Vista Clara Ranch (Hwy. 41, Galisteo; 888/663-9772 or 505/466-4772; www.vistaclara.com; day packages from $229) emphasizes holistic treatments with Native American influences, from a Hopi Indian ear-candle treatment to a dry-brush exfoliation and body wrap that uses the same mineral-fortified adobe mud that has been harvested by New Mexico's indigenous Pueblo tribes for centuries. Hot-stone, shiatsu, and craniosacral massages are also available.
HIT THE TRAILS Although nighttime temperatures drop into the teens in December, sunny, arid days can get up to 50 degrees—ideal weather for taking to the slopes of Ski Santa Fe (at the end of Hwy. 475; 505/982-4429; www.skisantafe.com), just 16 miles northeast of town in the 12,000-foot Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It's a more laid-back facility than the famous Taos Ski Valley, 90 minutes to the north, but it packs plenty of powder. The average annual snowfall here is a whopping 225 inches, and nearly half of Ski Santa Fe's 44 runs are expert.
Forty miles southwest of town, the milder climes of Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument (Hwy. 22, Pueblo de Cochiti; 505/761-8700), with an elevation of only 6,000 feet, offer an unforgettable afternoon adventure. On this two-mile round-trip hike, you'll wiggle through a narrow box canyon not much wider than a Stetson and ascend a jagged path overlooking a massive cluster of pointy sandstone columns, the so-called tent rocks of Kasha-Katuwe.
Andrew Collins, the author of Fodor's Gay Guide to the USA, lives in Santa Fe.