First impressions are the ones that stick, goes the adage. For Santa Fe's average of 2 million visitors per year, according to Steve Lewis, spokesperson for the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau, that impression often comes in the form of a guided tour.
Being a recent transplant myself (read: teetering between a semi-local and an insecure savant who barely knows his viga from his verga), I decided to jump feet-first into the touristy muck.
Yes, joining a herd of out-of-state, knee-high-socks-with-sandals-wearing individuals can be as enjoyable as a green chile enema, but for most of these fine folks, these simple sojourns will comprise the bulk of their Santa Fe memories—and the savvier ones will take their impressions to cyberspace for public perpetuity. (Thank you Trip Advisor user folsomdirect for this invaluable nugget: "Camel Pocks [sic] Casino, I'd rather just get the lousy T-Shirt…[t]he actual 'camel rock' looks more like a deformed E.T.")
So, armed with some sunblock, the air in my lungs and a notebook, I checked out some of the top tours offered in the City Different, dividing them into three major categories:
Custom Tours by Clarice. Daily departures from the corner of Lincoln Ave. and W Palace Ave. 1½ hours. $15
A 23-year veteran in the scene, owner Clarice Coffey knows her way not only around town, but also my heart. "You want me to acknowledge you?" she asked in her Houston twang. "We always acknowledge celebrities." Just for that, I decided to scrap my "look at the blood…gotcha!" Silence of the Lambs scene recreation. With knowhow second to none and a personality to match, Clarice is the gold standard of local tour operators. "Just about anyone can get a commercial driver's license," she told me, "but you've got to learn a world of history…people ask the screwiest things." Hauling guests from as far away as Rio de Janeiro, Venice and Boulder, Colo., on her tram, Coffey shared tidbits galore on everything ranging from to the local art scene ("If you can't find the kind of art that you're interested in on this street, then by golly, you just don't need it," she said as we cruised up Canyon Road) to our peculiar city ordinances: "Most of the state capitol buildings have domes, and we don't. It's not that they forgot to put it there," she explained; "no building can be taller than the Cathedral, reminding us that God is Lord over all of us, even those silly politicians." Know what hanging six ristras outside your house means? She does.
Memorable quote: “If you forget everything else, remember this: The cleanest, most spotless restrooms are here [at the New Mexico History Museum]. You’ll thank me for that tidbit of information later.”
Distillery tour (7505 Mallard Way, 467-8892). Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 3 pm. 1 hour. Free
"This is the best tour on the planet," Santa Fe Spirits owner Colin Keegan says. "It's different in that it's aimed at a different demographic." Keegan started the business by accident a couple of years back when he jokes he was "either an unemployed or unemployable" architect and stumbled upon an apple tree on a site. An artisanal batch of apple brandy later, he was sold. "I've always appreciated whiskey as an art form and a science," he says, and it shows. Housing two monumental fermenters and a custom-made German pot still, Keegan shares the steps to a fine whiskey in the facility's production room. The liquid that is first distilled is known as "heads," an 180-proof whopper he affectionately calls "nail polish remover"; next up is "hearts," which he describes as "funky whiskey that smells like wet dog"; and the final, robust product is called "tails." Currently available in three states, Santa Fe Spirits is expanding, introducing a new product every six months. Not to be missed is SFS' in-house tasting room. Catch Keegan and master distiller Nick Jones on a good day, and they just might let you sample from a mad-scientist batch that includes standouts like a jalapeño-infused vodka and a soon-to-be-released, mesquite-smoked single malt whiskey that will make you flush that bottle of Gentleman Jack you've been holding onto down the toilet.
Memorable quote: “[Heads] is the reason moonshiners would go crazy; they drank this stuff.”
"Rio Grande Float" at Santa Fe Rafting (1000 Cerrillos Road, 988-4914). Daily departures. 5 hours. $65
"How many of you have never done this?" raft guide Blake Cahil asked as we left Santa Fe Rafting's Cerrillos Road headquarters and embarked on the adventure. "OK, this is called a van ride," he continued. He later shared a series of history, geology and architecture factoids, mixed in with some Onion-worthy commentary on the mating habits of the jackalope and the not-so-famous residents of Tesuque, which apparently encompass Joyce DeWitt, Tom Arnold and Carrot Top, to name a few. Once on the Rio Grande, Cahil issued a crash course in safety, including how one must grip the T-shaped handle at the end of the paddle at all times to avoid accidentally giving one's raft mates "summer teeth." ("Hit them, and summer their teeth will be in the raft, some in the water.") Once outfitted with a helmet and life vest, the rip-roaring adventure through the class I and II rapids began. Make no mistake about it, Santa Fe Rafting will make you work for your Kodak memories, guiding you through tepid waters that will make you want to break into "Just Around the River Bend" all Pocahontas-like one minute, then hold on for dear life through rapids with names like "the cheese grater" and "fangs" moments later. Class IV rapids, I'm coming after you next.
Memorable quote: “If it weren’t for people like you, people like us would have to get real jobs, and nobody would like that…except for maybe our moms.”
Participated on any noteworthy local tours yourself? Sound off in the comments section bellow: