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New Mexico: Sangre De Cristo Mountains


Personal Business: SPECIAL TRAVEL REPORT

NEW MEXICO: SANGRE DE CRISTO MOUNTAINS

I wanted to hike in the hauntingly beautiful mountains of northern New Mexico. But I wanted to go in style. By day, I would be an intrepid explorer, traveling on foot and unraveling the mysteries of Indian ruins hidden deep in mountain canyons. By night, I'd return to the comforts of a fine meal and a bottle of wine served in an elegant dining room. Instead of pitching a tent, swatting bugs, and boiling freeze-dried turkey giblets, I opted for the rustic luxury of Rancho Encantado (505 982-3537).

Just eight miles north of Santa Fe, it's nestled in the foothills of the scarlet and snowcapped Sangre de Cristo Mountains, visible from the large balcony off my second-floor room. Downstairs in the dining room, guests are treated to another splendid view: Floor-to-ceiling windows reveal the vast and largely pristine Rio Grande Valley--you almost expect to see the cavalry charging across it.

It's a good idea to spend the first day lolling about the pool or taking an easy horseback ride. Your body will need a day to adjust to the altitude: The ranch itself is at 7,000 feet, and the hikes will take you up to even thinner air. Breakfasting on a dish known as the Tesuque skillet--eggs, potatoes, black beans, melted cheese, and chiles all served in a large pan--will supply you with plenty of fuel for the hike.

Scenic trails in the Sangre de Cristo range are a 20-minute drive from the ranch. One of the prettiest treks is the Chamisa Trail, a five-mile loop that takes hikers past a rushing stream and through an aromatic pine forest and open meadows abloom with lupine, wild iris, and yellow primrose. Hawks and jays soar above, and woodpeckers hammer away in the ponderosa pines.

ADOBE ABODE. Most hikes take only half a day; an afternoon trip gets me back to the ranch in plenty of time for a swim and a soak in the Jacuzzi, where sangria is served before dinner.

Thanks to occasional whiffs of the stables, guests never quite forget they're at a ranch. But it isn't until evening that the lodge reveals its full charm. The big adobe interior is bathed in warm light, mainly from a huge chandelier with parchment shades. Old wood carvings and a large oil painting of Jesuit priests, near the dining-room entrance, give the place a European ambience. Ornately carved wooden doors lead to a narrow tiled stairway that takes you to the five rooms upstairs. (There are more rooms in the nearby cottages and casitas; prices run $175 to $245 per night.)

In the living room, couches are arranged around a constantly burning fireplace and a huge Indian drum that serves as a coffee table. Rancho Encantado has been open for 25 years, but its almost Moorish feel makes it seem much older. Only the wall devoted to photos of the owner with such celebrities as Princess Caroline, Gene Kelly, and John Wayne breaks the spell.

While casual dress is permitted, many guests opt for jackets and ties or long dresses at night. Dinner is served in large portions, and the fare ranges from lamb to swordfish. A bit out of place perhaps, but very fresh.

For the second day of hiking, I rise early to beat the crowds at Bandelier National Monument, a 45-minute drive across the valley. Less than a mile along the trail, there's an astonishing array of pueblo ruins. Climb the sturdy wooden ladders that lead into the caves--some rise 150 feet high--and peer out into the canyon at the pueblo ruins below. But don't stay out on the trail so long that you miss cocktail hour back at the ranch: Watching the sunset is one of Rancho Encantado's greatest pleasures.Eric Schine


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