Albuquerque in 5...

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Published December 23, 2009

| FoxNews.com

Having come a long way in shedding its reputation as a mere access point for tourists heading to nearby Santa Fe and Taos, Albuquerque has developed into a genuine destination in recent years.

The city’s relative affordability and accessibility - it's within a four-hour flight of most of the Lower 48 - make it especially popular in these days of limited budgets and vacation breaks. A vibrant Native American and Hispanic heritage, proximity to spectacular mountains and mesas, and an emerging arts and culinary scene add to the compelling reasons - in the immortal words of Bugs Bunny - to take that “left at Albuquerque” and stay a while.

5…Go Straight to the Top

One of the most enjoyable and useful ways to acquaint yourself with Albuquerque is to ride the world's longest aerial tram some 2.7 miles to the 10,378-foot peak of the Sandia Mountains, which form the city's imposing eastern boundary.

The Sandia Peak Tramway (10 Tramway Loop NE, 505-856-7325, $17.50, www.sandiapeak.com) operates year-round from morning to mid-evening. There's a popular if touristy restaurant at the top that offers passable American food and exceptional sunset views of Albuquerque.

Riding the tram and listening to the guides rattle off curious facts about the city is part of what's interesting (they always point out the wreckage, directly beneath the tram line, of a TWA twin-engine plane that slammed into the mountain in 1955, resulting in the deaths of all 16 onboard). At the top, plenty of worthwhile activities await, from taking snaps of the Rio Grande Valley, Santa Fe, and the Jemez Mountains in the distance, to hiking along the crest.

In winter, the tram provides access to Sandia Peak Ski Area (505-242-9052), a fairly easy ski area with nonetheless mesmerizing views. The same slopes morph into a network of challenging mountain-biking trails in summer.

4…Order it Red, Green, or Christmas

New Mexican cuisine celebrates a dynamic food tradition that's similar to, but entirely distinct, from Mexican, Tex-Mex, and Cal-Mex cooking. Recipes mix Hispanic and Native American traditions. Items like blue corn, posole (hominy), bizcochitos (cinnamon-anise sugar cookies), potatoes, and squash are commonplace on local kitchen tables. Main dishes are typically smothered in a sauce of either red chile, green chile or a generous dousing of the two (if you want to try both, order your food "Christmas,” the local nickname for red-and-green together).

Among the city’s most beloved traditional restaurants is El Patio (142 Harvard Dr. SE, 505-268-4245, entrees $7 to $11) and likewise beloved is the sopaipilla, yet another New Mexican tradition that’s basically a puffed ellipse of fried dough, sometimes stuffed with beans and covered with green and red chile, but also commonly served as a sweet side dish drizzled with honey.

Other excellent options for superb New Mexican fare include quirky Duran's Pharmacy (1815 Central Ave. NW, 505-247-4141, entrees $5 to $10), an atmospheric lunch room attached to an otherwise prosaic drugstore, and El Pinto (10500 4th St. NW, 505-898-1771, entrees $10 to $24), which occupies a grand hacienda.

3…Meet the Original New Mexicans

Second to Alaska in percentage of Native American residents, New Mexico is also home to a pair of indigenous communities that have been inhabited for more than 1,000 years, Acoma and Taos pueblos. Albuquerque's exemplary Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (2401 12th St. NW, 505-843-7270, $6, www.indianpueblo.org) provides a fascinating overview of the region's rich Native American history, as well as exhibits and art installations related to each of the state's 19 pueblos (a few of of these - Isleta, Sandia, and Santa Ana - are just a short drive from downtown Albuquerque).

At the cultural center you can watch Native dances and art demonstrations hosted by members of different pueblos, and attend first-rate lectures, films, and concerts. You can also get a taste, literally, of local indigenous cooking at the Pueblo Harvest Cafe & Bakery. Expect traditional fare with contemporary accents, such as fry-bread tacos topped with carne adovada ($10) and free-range bison burgers ($13).

Nearby Old Town contains the lion's share of Albuquerque's noteworthy museums, and just a 10-minute drive from here, you can visit the city's other leading cultural attraction, the National Hispanic Cultural Center (1701 4th St. NW, 505-246-2261, $3, www.nationalhispaniccenter.org), where high-quality art, performance, food, and history exhibits celebrate both the region's and the nation's rich Hispanic heritage.

2…Have a little picnic with your wine

You've probably noticed that just about every state in the Union now claims some sort of cottage winemaking industry. New Mexico is no exception, but the Land of Enchantment is producing some genuinely notable wines. The state's most prestigious vintner, Gruet Winery (8400 Pan American Freeway NE, 505-821-0055, www.gruetwinery.com), produces award-winning champagne-style wines as well as exceptional Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Alas, the tasting room is in a mundane industrial area along an interstate service road. By all means shop here, but don't linger.

On the other hand, the pastoral setting and Moorish-inspired architecture at Casa Rondena (733 Chavez Rd. NW, 505-344-5911, www.casarondena.com), inspires guests to spend a few hours sampling genuinely outstanding wines. The vineyard and winemaking operation, occupy a fertile plot in Albuquerque's tranquil Los Ranchos neighborhood. You'll never know you're a mere 5 miles north of downtown.

Casa Rondena specializes in less-common old-world varietals, with particularly notable bottlings of Cabernet Franc, Viognier, and a Syrah-Tempranillo blend called Clarion. The rustic tasting room opens to a patio, lawns, a small pond, and picnic benches. Indeed, your best strategy for visiting is to pack a creel of cheese, sandwiches, and crackers, and set out a spread in the afternoon sun.

1…Soar Above the Rio Grande

A reliable year-round weather phenomenon known as the “Albuquerque Box” accounts in part for the region's reputation as the world's preeminent hot-air-ballooning destination - that, and the fact that few cities anywhere provide balloonists with such dramatic aerial views. If there's one activity you should make every effort to experience while in town, it's partaking of an early-morning hot-air balloon ride over the city.

Numerous local outfitters offer these tours, which ascend to as high as 3,000 feet above the city and typically traverse the rippling waters of the nation's fourth-longest river, the Rio Grande. Both Rainbow Ryders (505-823-1111, www.rainbowryders.com) and Above & Beyond Balloon Rides (505-293-0000, www.aboveandbeyondballoonrides.com) are well-respected, and rides typically cost about $150 per person and up.

On the north side of town, you can learn just about everything you could possibly imagine about this activity at the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum (9201 Balloon Museum Dr. NE, 505-880-0500, $4, www.balloonmuseum.com), which also houses a number of balloons that have participated in historic flights. The museum adjoins the grounds of the city's most popular annual event, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta (www.balloonfiesta.com), which takes place each October.

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