This is how Santa Fe usually sets the hook: The unwitting mark passes through town on a college road trip. Nearing the Plaza, she blinks in disbelief at adobes blushing umber in late afternoon, red-chile ristras dangling out front, courtyards shaded by lopsided cottonwoods. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains seem as close as an old movie backdrop. The next morning, she idly thumbs through the classifieds over huevos rancheros, lets up on the gas when she spots a front-yard "For Sale" sign, thinks about massage classes. Back home, friends try to talk her out of it. Too late. Another infatuated victim. Eventually, the country's oldest and highest capital city (a.d. 1610 and 7,000 feet, respectively) shows up on many a must-do list. It's not just the aesthetics—no other place looks like this—and the juxtaposition of American Indian, Hispanic, and Anglo ways that draw them. It's also the backyard perks—ski runs 30 minutes from town, 320,000 acres of adjacent wilderness, Rio Grande whitewater—not to mention a thick schmear of highbrow culture and a size that guarantees you'll run into friends on trails or in grocery aisles. Some stay for love, some because of inertia. Around here, you can't always tell them apart.
PLAYGROUNDS: Southern Rockies meet high desert, with the overall vibe more easygoing than fanatical (and the weather cooperative nearly every day of the year). The Santa Fe National Forest's Winsor Trail, beloved among local mountain bikers and hikers, climbs from desert scrub through zones of spruce, aspen, and pine; the three-and-a-half-mile Atalaya trail is a right-in-town favorite. Santa Fe Ski Basin, atop 12,053-foot Tesuque Peak, has about 1,650 feet of vertical, with adjacent backcountry chutes and 225 inches of powder annually; Taos is about 90 minutes north. On the Rio Grande, the 17-mile Taos Box runs Class III and IV in season, and the Race Course, Class III—both less than an hour afield. Year-round climbing routes await at White Rock and Diablo Canyon.
WORK: Government and tourism services account for two-thirds of employment. Santa Fe is the nation's third-largest art market (with 200-plus galleries) and is a magnet for alternative health practitioners of every subniche. Other small clusters include a dozen or so "informatics" software geekeries and a bit of publishing, including art books and (ahem) this magazine.
NEST: Pricey but wide-ranging, now that the early-nineties gold rush has passed. On the East Side, where old family adobes ooze postcard rusticity, sales of $1.5 million aren't unheard of, but every so often a fixer-upper there lists for $200,000 or so. Many opt for the family-friendly 'hoods of Casa Alegre and Casa Solana, where a one-story charmer that needs updating might go for $130,000.
NEIGHBORS: Retired roofer with a Virgin of Guadalupe tattoo and an old Toyota Land Cruiser; skier/kayaker/climber/ landscaper (in that order); East Coast divorcee who exercises frenetically and paints—badly.
HOW TO GO NATIVE: Bag old Spanish retablos at the weekend flea market; order "Christmas" when asked if you want green chile or red; never, ever use your turn signal.
WATERING HOLES: Lots of comfy hangouts, among them the Dragon Room, El Farol, and the Cowgirl BBQ & Western Grill. For a double shot of only-in-Santa-Fe, go salsa dancing at Club Alegria, serenaded by Franky Pretto, Catholic priest and keyboardist, and his band.
THE PRICE OF PARADISE: At times a high-desert oasis, even a lovely one with museums and artists and world-class restaurants, feels. . . well, like the desert.