The Snowbird Destinations series features six U.S. cities that Canadian retirees might enjoy as a winter retreat, whether travelling for a week or an entire season. Following our series preview last week, here's the first stop, Taos, N.M. Stories on the other five destinations will follow in the coming weeks.
If this is your first visit to this historic part of the U.S. Southwest, Ilona Spruce may wonder what's been keeping you – her people have been here for more than 1,000 years.
"This is the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States," says Ms. Spruce, tourism director for Taos Pueblo, the historic native American (First Nations) community adjacent to the town of Taos.
A village of adobe buildings – mud and straw that must be reinforced each year – Taos Pueblo is a UNESCO World Heritage site that draws as many as 100,000 visitors a year, Ms. Spruce explains.
"We keep track of the tourism calendars for everywhere – Germany, France, Asia," she says. Just don't confuse Taos Pueblo, which is sovereign territory, with the nearby town of Taos, known for its art and alternative lifestyles, or with Taos Ski Valley down the road, for that matter.
Call it a tale of two Taoses – make that three, or maybe more. This part of northern New Mexico, just more than an hour's scenic drive from Santa Fe, is a perfect destination for individuals or couples who want a combined experience. Just remember, it's chilly in winter, with frost in the morning and piles of snow in the mountains.
Taos and area offer Wild West skiing, gallery hopping, lots of good dining choices and a rich encounter with indigenous culture, Spanish America, cowboys, early 20th century bohemians, 1960s hippies and contemporary New Age spirit.
"My grandfather came out here after World War II to start the ski area," says Adriana Blake, spokesperson for the area's wide-ranging tourism and a fount of local knowledge and folklore.
"My classmates at the high school were kids from the Pueblo who wore traditional blankets and hippie kids named Blueberry. It may seem strange to outsiders but that's how we grew up."
The ski resort founded by Ms. Blake's grandfather Ernie in the early 1960s has a rough-and-ready feel to it – a few modern, comfortable condos, a funky Bavarian-style inn, a well-regarded ski school and good restaurant choices, but not the glitzy village feel of resorts such as Whistler or Mont-Tremblant in Canada.
The family aims to keep it that way, explains Ms. Blake.
Ms. Blake's mother Yolanda Deveaux lives in and operates the Taos Country Inn about half an hour from town, a luxury bed-and-breakfast in the family home. The Blakes, whose matriarch Rhoda is still going strong at 97, sold the ski resort late in 2013 to hedge fund billionaire Louis Bacon.
Working with the family, the new owner plans to replace some of the buildings and older chairlifts. "We looked hard for a buyer who recognizes the spirit and the idea of our ski hill," Ms. Blake says.
Its attraction is simple: skiing. It's literally breathtaking if you're not used to the 3,800-metre altitude.
Taos Ski Valley has crystally powder, a one-to-one ratio of expert to beginner-intermediate runs, and it's known for its "hikes" – shockingly steep upper slopes that can only be reached by clomping uphill in ski boots.
(To make things easier, the resort is opening a new upper chairlift this year to reach some of the hikes.)
The resort can focus on skiing because there are so many interesting non-skiing activities in the town and nearby surroundings, Ms. Blake says. The Pueblo village offers regular tours, where Ms. Spruce and other residents can explain how, unlike so many other indigenous people, the Pueblos have managed to remain on their ancestral land for more than a millennium.
The town of Taos itself is centred around a Spanish-style plaza, or square, with an historic hotel called La Fonda on one side. The hotel contains a gallery holding the "Forbidden Art" collection of D.H. Lawrence, author of the racy novel Lady Chatterley's Lover (among other works), who owned a ranch nearby in the early 1920s.
"The pictures were dirty for the 1920s, but they're pretty tame now," jokes Ms. Blake.
The plaza and nearby streets are dotted with galleries whose paintings often evoke the work of artist Georgia O'Keeffe, who lived and painted in Taos. If there's a common theme to Taos art, it's light – artists are attracted to the area because of the way its stunning skies sweep over the mountains.
Down a side road, there's the Millicent Rogers Museum – a particularly interesting collection started by an oil company heiress who moved to Taos after she was dumped by Clark Gable in the 1940s.
This museum takes visitors through the development of native American weaving and pottery styles, as well as Southwestern art. Peter Seibert, its executive director, has also put together a compelling show about Fred Harvey Co., whose founder invented chain restaurants and hotels and inspired a movie musical starring Judy Garland.
Regrettably, this informative exhibit is only temporary. But thankfully the Taos Pueblo is likely to still be there for, oh, another 1,000 years.
The writer was a guest of Taos County and Taos Ski Valley Chambers of Commerce, which did not review or endorse the story before publication.