Taos Rising

May 1, 2004

A Ski Trip to this Resort in New Mexico promises challenging Slopes, Art-related Activities and a wonderful new Eco-Lodge.

When Taos Ski Valley founder Ernie Blake opened his resort in 1955, with one ski lift, the road from the town of Taos, eighteen miles away, was barely passable. That hardly deterred dedicated skiers seeking the challenge of the resorts fabled steep slopes. Highway 150, or Ski Valley Road, as the locals call the route from the town to the ski valley, was paved in 1972. The mountain, however, is still an uncrowded, unpretentious world-class resort with small-town charm, one of only a few ski resorts remaining in all of North America that is owned and operated by a family, Taos Ski Valley has uncommonly deep snow, a famous ski school, lifts that rarely have long lines lots of sunshine and no snowboarders.

The town of Taos is small artists' colony and a spiritual center, with the oldest continuously inhabited pueblo nearby. The town has an elevation of 6,950 feet, a steep drop from 9,206 at the base of the mountain, so on sunny days - which average 300 per year - skiers can go from morning powder runs to afternoon rounds of golf. More low-key and far less glamorous than its chic neighbor, Santa Fe, Taos is just as culturally rich and has long attracted serenity seekers with its apparent immunity to overdevelopment. Among its residents are celebrities like actress Julia Roberts and defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whose sage-dotted ranches provide them with refuge from their all-too-public lives.

There were always plenty of reasons to visit Taos, but without an invitation from Roberts or Rumsfeld, few good places to stay. But last summer the enormous wooden gates to El Monte Sagrado, a one-of-a-kind upscale eco-resort, opened, providing an elegant alternative t the simple delights of the older inns. Now well-heeled travelers are getting a taste of what die-hard skiers and bohemian artists have savored for years.

Located at the base of the southern Rocky Mountains and 135 miles from the nearest major airport, in Albuquerque, Taos remains unspoiled in large part because of its remoteness. Rio Grande Air operates three forty-five- minute flights per day from Albuquerque to Taos's small commuter airport. If the Albuquerque airport layover is longer than tow hours, make the scenic two-and-a-half-hour drive northeast (with the essential halfway lunch stop in Santa Fe).

Having a car is helpful once you get to Taos, since the town is a thirty-minute drive from the base of Taos Ski Valley. The aptly named chili Line is a reliable and inexpensive ($5.00 roundtrip) public-transit system that runs ever two hours to the ski valley, but you may need a car to get to the pick-up spot nearest your hotel.

Even if you come to Taos to ski, it is worth the daily drive to stay in town at the glorious
El Monte Sagrado Resort. Tom Worrell, a former newspaper magnate who is now an environmental entrepreneur, spent $50 million developing this centrally located boutique hotel, which debunks the myth that sustainable living (recycling, reusing water and energy) means sacrificing comfort an style. Such notables as Paul Simon, Gloria Estefan and Vice President Dick Cheney haven't seemed to mind solar panels on the roofs of their lavish suites.

Some of the resort's buildings are made with a combination of traditional mud-and-straw adobe and an environmentally safe construction material called Gunnash and open onto a path running past water gardens and towering cottonwood trees that surround what Worrell calls the Sacred Circle. Pueblo-style furnishings and Native American art adorn eighteen rooms.

Eighteen freestanding houses, which are meticulously appointed according to the customs of foreign country, such as Tibet, Japan or Bali, are also available. They may sound hokey, but each is quite wonderful the China suite, for instance, features a Ming-style dining table, Chinese silk bed-spreads, jade lamps and a grand red bathroom decorated with twenty-four-karat-gold leaf. Of course, all rooms have modern amenities, but the global suites also have private gardens, and hot tubs. There are also fifteen casitas, beautifully renovated historic landmark houses, offered for rent on nearby streets around Taos Plaza.

The Rejuvenation Center, El Monte's serene spa, hosts only four visitors at a time to ensure personalized treatments ranging from facials to spiritual massages.

The spectacular De La Tierra restaurant is housed within the stacked sandstone walls of the main building. Rooms from $395 to $1,795 per night. (800-828-TAOS).

Before El Monte opened last summer, the closest thing in Taos to luxury accommodations was the seven-year-old Fechin Inn, named after the renowned Russian-born artist and wood-carver Nicolai Fechin, who built his Taos home in 1927. The inn's eighty-four carpeted Southwestern-style rooms, with hand-carved doors and kiva fireplaces, are bright and cozy but modest. Its central location and suitability for families are its major draws. Rooms form $102 to $208. (800-811-2933).

The De Casa de las Chimeneas Inn & Spa has been a bed-and-breakfast standout since owner Susan Vernon bought and renovated the original 1930's adobe house sixteen years ago. She's added fine linens to the eight traditional viga-beamed suites, over-the-top breakfasts and a spa. Rooms from $165 to $325. 877-758-4777.

The bar may be raised soon at Taos Ski Valley: two high-end developments are slated to open by 2006. At present, however, there are only a few quaint but mediocre Alpine-style lodges offering all-inclusive packages.

The children and grandchildren of founder Ernie Blake still run the resort and carry on his pioneering spirit. Although they don't deny that Taos is an expert's haven, they have carefully crafted beginner and intermediate runs, which now make up 49% of the runs. The area's average annual snowfall is a healthy 312 inches. To ensure optimum conditions from November through April, however, snowmakers back up all blue and green runs.

The ski base, a collection of casual restaurants and utilitarian equipment stores (no top-designer labels here), epitomizes the valley's firm focus on pure skiing. The fashion is functional, too: as in the town of Taos, even the most ostentatious Texans keep their fur coats in the closet. Perhaps the strongest evidence of the Taos Ski Valley tradition is the banning of snowboarders - a decision that the Blakes maintain is more about congestion than conservatism. Nevertheless, whatever business the resort may lose is shredders it gains from a core of avid adventure skiers. Many come to Telemark or Randonee ski or to take on the famed double-diamond runs on the West Basin Ridge. When a few skiers requested that the lifts be extended up to Highline Ridge and Kachina Peak - the mountain's highest point, at 12,481 feet - there was an outcry the rustic nature of Taos Ski Valley is its main attraction; its devotees are not afraid to take their skis off and kike; in fact, they prefer to.

Skiers should stay hydrated to minimize altitude sickness, which can be an issue, since the foot of the mountain is more than 9,000 feet above sea level.

A hardheaded German-born, Swiss-educated resort developer, Ernie Blake was convinced that first-class instructors could teach anyone to traverse the valley's steep, secluded slopes. The mountain's terrain may be a challenge, but with skiing instruction that is consistently ranked among the best by ski magazines, it is also a superb place to learn the sport. (Every lift ticket is sold with a pitch for the school; it's a good idea, considering that even expert skiers have been known to leave the mountain in frustration.) World-class instructors like Olympic gold medalist Deb Armstrong, Jean and Dadou Mayer and Alain Veth (who also tunes skis at Le Ski Mastery, his shop in the mountain village) perform the concierge flourishes that are common at fancier places like Aspen and Vail. The real reason to book them, though, is to have expert guides to the mountain's 110 varied runs.

At lunchtime the outside deck at Rhoda's Restaurant (505-776-2005), at the base of Al's Run, and the Phoenix Grill (no phone), at the base of the Kachina Bowl lift, tie for the best green-chili cheeseburgers, homemade soups and views. The best dinners on the mountain are at the main hotels, which cater to their guests before taking outside reservations.

At the Inn at Snakedance's Hondo Restaurant, meat and game and an extensive wine selection are served beside a massive stone fireplace (800-322.9815).

The Bavarian shuttles guests from other hotels to its elegant lodge for sauerbraten and strudel presented by waitstaff in traditional costume (505-776-8020).

If you can get a table, dinner at the Hotel St. Bernard's dining room is a must, particularly when Jean Mayer, a ski instructor and chef, acts as host and oversees the kitchen (505-776-2251).

In town:
At El Monte Sagrado, the chef prepares some of Taos's most inventive cuisine, including such dishes as huevos rancheros with yak chili and queso fresco at breakfast, wild mushroom pancakes with balsamic syrup at lunch and pan-seared wild salmon with black-bean stew and chipotle cream sauce at dinner.

For authentic New Mexican fare, wait out the crowds at Orlando's (505-751-1450),
about two miles from Taos Plaza.

Dragonfly Cafe and Bakery, in an adobe home, serves morning and midday meals (505-737-5859).

Fourteen-year-old Lambert's of Taos is consistently at the top of the town's fine-dining list, drawing ranch owners out of their retreats for its pepper-crusted lamb and nightly game specials (505-758-1009).

And for a lively drinks scene, the Historic Taos Inn, near the plaza, is popular with visitors and locals

Taos has been an artists' mecca since 1898, when two painters traveling from Denver to Mexico stopped to fix a broken wagon wheel and stayed to create the Taos Society of Artists. Mabel Dodge Luhan, an heiress transplanted from Buffalo, arrived in 1918, followed by D.H. Lawrence, Ansel Adams and Georgia O'Keeffe. Today more than a thousand artists live in Taos; many galleries situated around Taos Plaza arrange visits to artists' studios.

Blue Rain Gallery (505-751-0066) houses the best Native American and contemporary art, but one of the largest dealers in town is the Michael McCormick Gallery (800-279-0879), where you can view work by some of the area's most important painters while sampling thick Mexican hot chocolate from its caf? and chocolatier, Xocoatl.

For a great overview of Southwestern art, head to the Millicent Rogers Museum, whose founder amassed extraordinary collections of Native American pottery, textiles, jewelry and paintings (505-758-2462).

A UNESCO World Heritage site and home to Tiwa-speaking Native Americans, the Taos Pueblo, two miles northeast of the plaza, in the foothills of the mountain range, provides a rich cultural diversion from skiing and shopping. Be prepared, though: the extreme poverty can be shocking. The pueblo's multistoried adobe buildings, which have been continuously inhabited for more than a thousand years, are open daily to visitors, except during tribal rituals and for about ten weeks in the late winter to early spring (505-758-1028).

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