Sopranos in the Southwest
The opera festival is just one more reason to visit this summer.
By Janet Stites, FSB Magazine

(FSB Magazine) -- Santa Fe is a throwback. As other landlocked Western cities such as Las Vegas and Phoenix grow at warp speed, this nearly 400-year-old town quietly holds on to its charm.

Partly that's because of its location (Santa Fe is not near a major Interstate; Albuquerque is an hour or so south), but you can also credit smart zoning. All buildings in the city must be made of traditional adobe and cannot be more than three stories high, and there are few national chains - mostly relegated to the outskirts of town.

The city's opera theater has won design awards.
Places and prices
Santa Fe Opera
Performances run through Aug. 26; individual tickets $25-$160.; 800-280-4654
La Fonda Hotel
Rooms from $189-$419 a night.; 800-523-5002
The Shed Restaurant
A 2003 James Beard award winner; entrees $9-$17; margaritas $5.; 505-982-9030

If you're looking for an excuse to visit, the Santa Fe Opera celebrates its 50th-anniversary season this summer. It's the opera version of Sundance - an alluring place to hang out with celebrities and watch rising stars debut.

Performances take place at sunset in a 2,000-seat open-air theater on a mesa seven miles north of town. The lineup this year includes a mix of standards (Mozart's The Magic Flute and Bizet's Carmen), lesser-known works (German composer Richard Strauss's provocative Salomé), and an American premiere (Thomas Adès's The Tempest). Performances begin in late June and run through August.

The end of the trail

Stay at La Fonda hotel while in town, or at least drop by for a drink. While the current structure dates to 1922, Santa Fe historians believe that an inn (la fonda in Spanish) has been on this site - the Plaza, the physical and spiritual center of town, where the Santa Fe Trail from Missouri came to an end- since 1607.

For nearly 40 years La Fonda has flourished under the gentle care of former oil and stock analyst Sam Ballen and his wife, Ethel, whose love story and life as hotel owners could be an opera of its own.

The Ballens first came to New Mexico while grieving for their daughter, who drowned at age 2 in a neighbor's pool, but they decided to stay and buy the hotel. Ballen, now 84, runs its day-to-day operations, but he gives credit to his wife, who died earlier this year, for the hotel's personality. She decorated the rooms individually - no two are the same.

Another local landmark owned by a family with deep roots in the city is the Shed, a restaurant across the Plaza from La Fonda. The original adobe structure where the Shed now serves its legendary enchiladas was built in 1692 as a home for a prominent Spanish family, and the USO used it as its local headquarters during World War II.

Family patriarch Courtney Carswell, 62, inherited the business from his parents in 1978. "They came here in the late 1940s for the culture and got jobs at the ski basin outside town, Santa Fe Basin," Carswell says. "The Shed got started because my mother began to feed the skiers." Carswell's wife and three of his four children now help run the business, which includes a second restaurant, La Choza, and a retail line of chili-based products.

The perfect Santa Fe day: a walk around the Plaza, red-chili enchiladas at the Shed, capped off by a sunset aria.


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