There is no sign above the door, but there should be one that reads: Department of Character.
It was exactly 50 years ago that Martinez, just out of high school, took a job at La Fonda Hotel repairing furniture. Oh, he fixed the chairs OK, but he also painted decorations on their backs _ flowers, birds, cactuses.
Management loved it (thank goodness), then surveyed the stark, white walls of the hotel's interior and turned him
La Fonda Hotel |
(Santa Fe, New Mexico)
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Martinez never left, and over the years has worked in oil, water colors and latex, while also dabbling in tin work, wood carving and light fixtures. His whimsical stamp can be found in nearly every corner of the hotel: murals, window panes in the dining room, bathroom tiles, arrows pointing the way to restrooms, air conditioning registers, facial tissue dispensers.
And no two artistic expressions are alike. Talk about the antithesis of the cookie-cutter chain hotel.
It's just one element of La Fonda that makes this hotel an endearing place for dinner, a drink, a stroll through the lobby or a bed for the night.
Heritage runs deep here. When Santa Fe was founded
The current pueblo-style building went up in 1922, and although it won't nestle you into the lap of modern luxury _ with the exception of the 14 rooms in the new La Terraza wing _ it's a hotel that offers charm, comfort and tradition in generous doses.
Because of its deep roots, it also has the most enviable location of any hotel in town. Walk out the front door, cross the street and you're at a corner of the Plaza, directly across from the American Indian craft bazaar at the Palace of Governors. Peer up San Francisco Street along the side of the building and you'll see St. Francis Cathedral, one block away and beautifully framed by the setting.
We found that we barely needed our car while staying here, since we were able to walk everywhere _ to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, to Loretto Chapel and San Miguel Mission, to the art galleries of Canyon Road and to any number of the town's acclaimed restaurants and cafes.
Travelers accustomed to serene lobby environments will have to make some adjustments, though. Because of the hotel's prime downtown setting, shops string out along two sides of its street level, with front doors opening onto busy boulevards and rear doors opening into the lobby. That and the historical novelty of the hotel find tourists streaming through its public areas during the day, particularly on weekends.
But consider this: It was probably ever thus. This was the terminus of a major trading route. Imagine the excitement over the Yankee goods that Capt. William Becknell began hauling into this dusty outpost in 1821. It's only fitting that the bustle of commerce _ now in turquoise, art and crafts _ continues today.
La Fonda doesn't bristle at being a natural gathering place. In fact, it encourages the mingling, limiting the number of guest-only areas, providing an eclectic bill of musical acts in its La Fiesta Lounge and welcoming all comers to its rooftop treasure, the Bell Tower Bar.
One Saturday afternoon, we enjoyed listening to a Latin combo playing Spanish love songs in La Fiesta. There were two violins, so that one could harmonize with the melody. Conga drums provided a gentle rhythm.
Later that night, the mood shifted dramatically when George Bullfrog and the Turquoise Trailers took the stage. They ripped into some country-western dance numbers, and soon the scuffed wooden floor was swarming with locals, some in Old West attire, two-stepping and waltzing for all they were worth.
The next night, a jazz trio took over, and it obviously had a loyal following of its own.
This was heartening. It's never enjoyable to settle into a hotel bar or restaurant and notice that the clientele is composed entirely of guests and other tourists. Over our four-day stay in July, it was evident that La Fonda remains a social crucible for the residents and business people of Santa Fe.
This certainly applied to the Bell Tower Bar, a patio lounge that perches on the roof of the three-story hotel. Open from late spring through the fall, it's the best spot in Santa Fe to watch the sun set behind the Jemez Mountains.
It wouldn't do to order anything other than a margarita in such a setting, but the selection made us dizzy long before the tequila could. There are a dozen to choose from, most featuring homemade agave silver tequila with accents ranging from Cointreau to Grand Marnier to the more familiar Triple Sec.
We grew quite fond of the Patron Silver Coin _ homemade agave squeezings laced with lime and Cointreau. Even when we repaired to the hotel's La Plazuela restaurant for dinner, our heads weren't turned by a recently overhauled wine list that leans heavily to the products of Spain, Argentina and Chile. The tempranillo grape may have a reputation for standing up to the spicy Nuevo Latino offerings of chef Lane Warner, but a second Silver Coin proved to be just as apt a complement.
The main courses delivered the bold flavors of Santa Fe cuisine _ steak dressed up with chipotle demi-glace, chicken rubbed with achiote and served with peanut-cilantro pesto _ but we noticed that the halibut and salmon entrees had lighter presentations of fruit salsas and herbed rice.
Alas, we didn't learn of a house specialty until it was too late. La Plazuela prepares a guacamole appetizer from scratch at your table. A server arrives with ripe, unpeeled avocados and a platter of condiments and mixes the dip to exact order. You can ask for more or less of any of the ingredients: roasted garlic, roasted jalapeno, onion, tomato, cilantro, salt and fresh lime juice. Definitely something we'll have to plunge into on the next visit.
The restaurant is also a showplace for the work of Martinez, who just couldn't keep his brush still when confronted with its walls of small window panes. There are 466 panes in all, and he drew a different image on each _ desert flowers, a roadrunner, red chiles, a burro, spiny cactuses.
After dinner, it was fun to wander La Fonda's hallways aimlessly, making little discoveries. Like many historic hotels in the West, it has plenty of archival photos and other items to hang on its walls. We came across elaborate murals, posters of long-past cultural festivals in Santa Fe, and dozens of black-and-white photos from the hotel's eight decades of existence. It was also startling to find an original Georgia O'Keeffe charcoal drawing displayed at the front desk.
Not surprisingly, La Fonda is on the registry of Historic Hotels of America, maintained by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. As such, the hotel is limited in what it can do to retrofit for the 21st-century traveler.
Most of the rooms tend to be small and dark, some oddly configured. But more luxurious accommodations were added six years ago in a cleverly planned addition. La Terraza was built atop the hotel's adjoining parking structure, employing a construction design that blends with the rounded, mud-brown contours of the original pueblo architecture.
The 14 rooms here are much more spacious, with sitting areas, outdoor patios and some fireplaces. It is configured around a rooftop garden, with a separate Jacuzzi and a private lounge.
``We wanted to put in 20-some-odd rooms, but the city wouldn't allow it,'' said hotel publicist Elizabeth Martin.
``With the spa, the historic ordinances were so tight that we had to do it in an existing space. But you have to have a spa these days.'' (La Fonda's spa, built 2 1/2 years ago in a space adjacent to the pool, is small, with one treatment room each for men and women.)
Another recent innovation geared to business and convention travelers is wireless high-speed Internet throughout the building.
But while the concessions to modern lifestyle enhance the experience at La Fonda, it is the quirky character that makes it memorable.
And that, largely, is Martinez's doing.
As the 70-year-old jack of many trades sat in his cloisterlike office, surrounded by his paintings, homemade jewelry, pressed-tin adornments and wood carvings, he said, ``An artist is always inspired to keep working. I always feel my next (work) will be better. I don't plan to retire any time soon.''
The guest's experience at La Fonda will be richer for it.
Eric Noland, (818) 713-3681
GUEST COMMENT CARD:
Best attribute: Smack in the center of town, off a corner of the Plaza. Nearly everything of tourist consequence in Santa Fe is within walking distance.
Something unique: Artistic doodlings of Ernest Martinez provide a thematic thread that courses through the hotel.
Don't miss: Sunset at the rooftop Bell Tower Bar, if you visit during the temperate months of spring through fall.
Could be better: With the exception of the housekeeping staff, the service could tighten up a bit _ front desk, bell, restaurant servers and particularly the bartenders (were they really guzzling shooters that night behind the bar?).
Final thought: You can certainly find newer, more lavish accommodations in Santa Fe, but none can match the charm of La
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: 100 E. San Francisco St. The hotel has a covered parking structure at the rear of the property (intersection of San Francisco Street and Cathedral Place).
RATES: Rooms in the original building from $219. La Terraza deluxe rooms from $389. Packages and discounts available.
INFORMATION: (800) 523-5002 or (505) 982-5511. www.lafondasantafe.com.