New Mexico, in the southwestern U.S., is known as the Land of Enchantment. We have partnered with Arizona-based Susan Lanier-Graham, who writes about wandering the world looking for “wow moments” on her blog Wander With Wonder, as she explored enchanting moments in New Mexico that proved to be transformational. Read on to find out how to create your own life-changing moments in New Mexico.
I have always found a certain magic in northern New Mexico. It’s a land of truly enchanting places, with scenery that ranges from low desert to high mountain peaks. It holds sacred lands revered by Native Americans, wide open plains, and blue skies that seem to go on forever. The capital city, Santa Fe, was settled in the early 1600s and is a mecca for artists and creative types. Spas and healing waters bubble up from deep below the Earth’s surface. And of course, chilis and the inevitable question of “red or green” arise wherever you go.
New Mexico chilis are beautiful and delicious in either red or green. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham
When I had a chance to visit two spas and take a personal mini-road trip, I didn’t hesitate. It turned out to be a transformational time filled with massages, great food, moonlit nights, artwork, and even a few puppies.
Welcome to New Mexico
New Mexico isn’t on the way to anywhere. That’s part of the charm. I flew into Albuquerque, which has a beautiful, modern airport served by most of the major airlines. From there I rented a car and drove about an hour north to Santa Fe. While the day was cool, I rolled my windows down to breathe in the air as I moved toward the mountains. I could feel the weight of the world floating away as I neared Santa Fe.
Even though one of the spas was in Santa Fe, I wasn’t scheduled to stay there first, so I opted to have lunch in town before heading north—because every visit to New Mexico has to start with fabulous food. I had heard great things about The Pantry, which has been a locals’ hangout since opening in 1948. They serve breakfast all day and use fresh, local ingredients. This isn’t fancy food. It’s true New Mexico. You’re going to get tradition and flavor at The Pantry. My toughest decision? Whether to order breakfast or lunch. I opted for the day’s special, an avocado chicken enchilada. And yes, I ordered it with red sauce.
Avocado Chicken Enchiladas at The Pantry. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham
Visiting Historic Ojo Caliente
I was full and happy as I headed toward my first spa destination, Ojo Caliente. Ojo has a long and interesting history. The ancient ancestors of today’s Native American Tewa tribes gathered there for thousands of years for the healing waters. In the 1500s, the Spaniards wrote of the strange waters coming from the ground. In 1868, the historic bathhouse, which is now on the National Registry of Historic Places, was built and the Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs opened as one of the country’s first natural health resorts. A hotel was added in 1917, and it drew a bit of a cult following for many years.
When I first visited Ojo Caliente many years ago, it was still a favorite of New Mexico natives, and folks frequented Ojo for the day to soak in the pools and stay in the historic rooms. On this visit, I found a beautiful destination resort that has seen a great transformation over the past few years. While it still welcomes the day visitors who come for the pools, it also welcomes those who want a more luxurious destination stay and come for the massages and upscale experiences as well.
Ojo Caliente was opened in 1868. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham
Ojo Caliente is unexpected. Under new ownership in the past few years, it keeps a sense of the open, rugged New Mexico that always drew locals, but adds a refinement that appeals to a broader audience. I found the blend of massage services, the healing waters of the desert, true farm-to-table cuisine from the onsite Ojo Farm, and the historic charm to be one of the most distinctive spa experiences I’ve had anywhere.
The rooms at Ojo can vary from the charming rooms in the 1916 historic hotel, each with a half bath (with shower access offered only in the locker rooms from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.), to the gorgeous suites where I stayed. You can opt for a cliffside or pueblo suite, each with private access to the Kiva pool, private front and back entrances, a lovely courtyard, a fireplace, a kitchenette, and WiFi. The cliffside suites have a patio with a private soaking tub facing the cliffs. There is also an RV park and cottages, so there is something for everyone at Ojo.
Cliffside Suite at Ojo Caliente. Photo courtesy Ojo Caliente
As I travel I always look for “wow moments,” and I found a couple at Ojo Caliente. The first was the food at Artesian Restaurant. Located in the historic hotel, it’s casual but serves some pretty amazing Southwestern flavors that the chef creates using much of what is grown onsite at Ojo Farm. The 2-acre farm was started in early 2014, and it provided great fresh tastes to every dish I ate. My favorite were these warm little gluten-free blue corn muffins. I ate them as if they were my last meal.
The other wow moment came the evening I stayed at Ojo. I had a delightful massage and enjoyed the steam rooms and assortment of pools. The healing waters are all sulphur-free and range in temperature from 80 to 109 degrees. There are four types of mineral pools at Ojo—lithia, iron, soda, and arsenic—each believed to serve a different purpose, from helping aid digestion to relieving arthritis and bringing about relaxation. All pools are coed and swimsuits are required. I was quite relaxed, but nothing could compare to my evening in the private pool.
Ojo Caliente Private Pool. Photo courtesy Ojo Caliente
I checked in for my 50-minute session at the secluded private pool and followed the attendant up a set of stairs to a dimly lit patio. She said she would let me know via intercom when my time was up and left me alone. I stood perfectly still for a few moments, my eyes adjusting to the dark. A kiva fireplace was in the corner, the smell of mesquite wood wafting through the air and flames casting shadows over the small pool. I dipped a toe into the water. It was warm and inviting. I looked up at the cliffs, dimly illuminated from the resort’s subdued lighting, and followed the rocks up to the starry sky. There were millions of twinkling stars.
My attendant had stressed that this was my private pool, ideal for bathing au naturel, so I undressed and slipped into the warm mineral water. Magical. The ultimate quiet of the evening surrounded me. Is it possible that desert nights are quieter than anywhere else? I think so. It was one of the most emotional moments of my trip and I cried a little, releasing the stress of everyday life. It felt so free and perfect to be in that space at that moment. The private pools accommodate up to eight people, making them ideal for a romantic escape or a fun spot for a girlfriends’ getaway.
Finding Joy at Sunrise Springs Spa Resort in Santa Fe
As I departed Ojo Caliente the next morning, I already felt as if my life was transformed. I had spent the evening staring up at a starry sky that seemed to go on forever, the smell of mesquite lulling me into neverland. I couldn’t imagine I would relax any more than that, but set out for the hour’s drive back south to Santa Fe and Ojo’s sister property, Sunrise Springs Spa Resort.
I had visited Sunrise Springs more than a decade earlier, but under different ownership, so I was eager to once again experience this sacred New Mexico land. I set the GPS and, I will admit, questioned whether it was taking me in the wrong direction. I wound my way through what appeared to be a residential neighborhood before approaching a secure iron gate with a sign for the resort. They buzzed me into what would prove to be a most welcoming sanctuary filled with beautiful cottonwoods, willow trees, a medicine wheel, greenhouses, walking trails, and lakes.
Bridge and lake at Sunrise Springs Spa Resort. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham
The landscape at Sunrise Springs is breathtaking. The resort sits on 70 acres, so you forget you are just moments from Santa Fe. It really is an oasis where life slows down. Somehow, I woke each day at sunrise and felt drawn to slow walks around the medicine wheel, even though I’m not a morning person.
There are a number of accommodation options at Sunrise Springs. There are traditional resort-style rooms with balconies, but I had a casita that I found ideal for the setting. Again, it was modern New Mexico with many local artisan touches. I had my own private courtyard, gas fireplace, in-room coffee and tea service, WiFi and a lovely blanket on the bed that was ideal for snuggling up by the fireplace on cool evenings.
Sunrise Springs Casita. Photo courtesy Sunrise Springs Spa Resort
The experiences at Sunrise Springs are as varied as you want to make them. You could spend each day simply walking, perhaps enjoying a spa treatment or two, eating meals quietly and not doing anything else. If, however, you want activities, the resort has a full schedule all day, from art and yoga to animal interaction and working with plants.
My two favorites were the time spent playing with the puppies—who doesn’t love a good puppy cuddle—and the various art classes. I spent a rainy afternoon doing Zen doodle art and making domino books at the light-filled Willows Art Studio. My little domino book sits on my desk, reminding me each day to take time to find my Zen moments.
Enjoy creating artwork in the Willows Art Studio. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham
I had a relaxing hot stone massage followed by reflexology at the spa, found a quiet corner in the library adjacent to Sages Kitchen—which is where breakfast is served each morning—to read, and took long, slow walks around the grounds. I also found a couple of incredible “wow moments” at Sunrise Springs Spa Resort that might have even topped those at Ojo Caliente.
Enjoying relaxing moments at Sunrise Springs Spa Resort. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham
My most unexpected wow moment came while dining at Blue Heron Restaurant. Under the guidance of new Executive Chef Rocky Durham, my meals provided some of my most amazing dining experiences ever. The restaurant itself is comfortable. It is a natural setting, designed for those staying at this destination spa. You look out over the koi pond, and never is there any need to rush. Chef Durham knows how to appreciate food. I could taste his appreciation for the Earth and its bounty in every bite. The menu changes daily to reflect what is in season. He works with local suppliers to provide the best-quality ingredients. Many dishes are gluten-free, and he easily accommodates vegan requests. He served flavors that rivaled those I’ve eaten in the best restaurants in the world.
Michael Schroeder, Lead Counselor, helps guests experience the Sunrise Springs bounty. Photo courtesy Sunrise Springs Spa Resort
My other wow moment is something I wasn’t even sure I wanted to do before I left home. The resort was offering a Sweat Lodge ceremony and wanted to know if I would participate. I said yes, but expressed some concern about the temperature, which can reach up to 140 degrees. The Sweat Lodge is traditionally used in Native American cultures as a prayer circle, offering purification, spiritual renewal, and a chance to clarify the mind.
At Sunrise Springs, the Sweat Lodge ceremony is held in a rock building that was built as a sauna. I discovered that the woman doing the ceremony was someone I had met on my visit to the spa many years ago and who had given me one of the most emotional, personal, and memorable treatments, so there was no way I was going to miss the ceremony. She met me outside and paid respect to the Four Directions of the Medicine Wheel. The ceremony took place in four rounds of 10 minutes each. That day, it ended up being just the two of us—Concha, my Native American guide, and myself. We sat alone in the dark, talking, praying, and chanting. She asked me questions. She made me dig deep into myself. She made me laugh. She made me cry. We talked about our children and grandchildren.
Once again, I felt that New Mexico had been a transformational experience for me. As I drove back toward the airport the next day, the air felt lighter. I didn’t want to leave Sunrise Springs. I could have stayed much longer. I didn’t get a chance to soak in one of the private baths at Sunrise Springs. I intended to, but never seemed to find just the right moment. I want to return to dine with the chef. There was a chocolate walnut cake that I wake up sometimes craving. I can still smell the fresh air of New Mexico mornings that change with every season. Make your way to New Mexico. I hope you will also find it transformational, just the right place to feed your spirit and your soul.
Private pool at Sunrise Springs. Photo courtesy Sunrise Springs Spa Resort
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