New Mexico’s Biggest City Is A Tourist Mecca

by Jim Weaver

Its always a pleasure to return to a city I have visited before and find new things I missed on earlier trips. Albuquerque, New Mexico, was full of wonderful surprises. I knew about the wonderful balloon festival(s) featuring hundreds of colorful hot air balloons and many thousands of spectators and had written about it. Its so popular (and rightly so) that Albuquerque is now know worldwide as “Balloon City.” Now there’s the International Balloon Museum that presents the history of the sport through many fine exhibits and video presentations. Even if you don’t choose to fly in one (and there are plenty of opportunities) you will find the museum both interesting and worthwhile. See www.cabq.gov/balloon.

There are lots of excellent golf courses here. Albuquerque has 17 in all and since there are 350 days of sunshine each year and mild temperatures, its a great place to play golf year-round. The Twin Warriors golf courses at the Hyatt Resort at Santa Ana Pueblo are particularly outstanding. It’s a golfers paradise here. See www.twinwarriorsgolf.com.

I had ridden the Sandia Peak Tramway before, but a second trip was even more fun, better than an amusement park ride with spectacular views of the city and surrounding area. What I didn’t know is you can also ski (snow ski) during winter months on several awesome trails on the opposite site of the mountain, from some 6,000 feet above the valley floor. See www.sandiapeak.com.

The “Mother Road,” U.S. Route 66, runs from Chicago to Santa Monica, California. More than 2,000 miles all the way as the song says, but no city along its path does more to preserve and celebrate this highway than Albuquerque. Along Route 66, in the Nob Hill neighborhood, there are a number of “retro” establishments — diners, motels, gas stations, souvenir shops, and more in 1940s style architecture. Its great fun.
The nation’s first interstate highway it was honored in the 1946 hit recording by Nat King Cole.

Other things I’d never seen (or heard of) were also quite amazing. The National Institute of Flamenco, a school and dance company, presents live performances at its downtown studio. I had seen flamenco performed before, but never this well. It was really quite thrilling. An International Flamenco Festival held in Albuquerque each year attracts thousands from around the world and produces $1.2 million for the local economy. See www.nifnm.org.

And who knew Albuquerque was “Hollywood East?” Each year dozens of movie and TV productions are shot in the city an surrounding area because of all the sunshine and attractive tax breaks. The hugh vacant repair facilities of the old Santa Fe Railroad here is a popular set for crime and horror pics. Film and TV celebrities can sometimes be seen around town at restaurants and hotels, although its easy to commute to work here from LA.

One of my most unlikely finds was The St. James Tearoom, a charming establishment that serves High English Tea in appropriate Victorian surroundings. It was a refreshing change of pace from Southwest cuisine.
Freshly brewed tea is so much better than tea bags. Then, enjoy a dainty cucumber or watercress sandwich followed by a delicious scone with strawberry preserves and clotted cream. It doesn’t get much better. The young women who serve here are most gracious, a far cry from the normal restaurant wait staff. Learn more at www.stjamestearoom.com.

I’ve eaten at dozens of excellent Italian restaurants, so the idea that I would find something in Albuquerque that was better seemed very remote. However, Torinois’ Trattoria & Caffe is now at the top of my list.
Maxime Bouneou (a classically trained chef from France) is the award winning head chef at Torinos’ His wife, a vivacious Italian, Daniella Bouneou, is the hostess. Located in a business park away from downtown, Torinois’ is open for breakfast and lunch, but plans to add dinner in the near future. The secret to its culinary success is all FRESH (mostly local) foods prepared and presented simply. It is amazing how great Italian food can be. Well worth a visit when you’re in town. See www.torinosfoods.com.

An additional word or two about food. Golden Crown Panaderis makes some the best pizza in New Mexico, and meeting the baker, 75 year old Pratt Morelles, is a treat in itself. The very best southwest cuisine in Albuquerque is at El Pinto. Also the best Marguerites, but that’s another story.

Two attractions not to be missed in Albuquerque are the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center and the National Hispanic Cultural Center. New Mexico is blessed with two great historical cultures, both still very much a part of its contemporary scene. There is much to learn and enjoy at both centers. See www.indianpueblo.org and www.nhccnm.org. Learn more about Albuquerque at www.itsatrip.com.