The Secret Hotels of Santa Fe

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Why get tourist-trapped by a dud when you can stay in one of these authentic New Mexican digs?

Santa Fe hotels are the most expensive in the Southwest, but America's second-oldest city is not without bargains. You just have to compromise a little, and the trade-offs are usually pretty clear. Either stay at a generic cookie-cutter several miles from the historic Plaza (where all the good shops, restaurants, and museums are), or choose a place with more character that's near the action but has small rooms or an uninspired atmosphere.

You can also save money by avoiding the summer high season. Winter in Santa Fe is chilly but serene--you'll have the entire city to yourself, and rates drop by as much as 75 percent. Spring and fall are the most pleasant times to visit. They're temperate, sunny, ideal for hiking and photography, and, compared with summer, typically 10 percent to 30 percent cheaper. Unless otherwise noted, prices in this article are for spring and fall and include a private bath and phone.

La Tienda Inn and Duran House 445 W. San Francisco St., 800/889-7611, latiendabb.com/, from $115

 You probably wouldn't stumble on these dapper century-old houses by accident, even though they're but a five-minute stroll west of the Plaza. This stretch of one of Santa Fe's oldest streets is mostly residential, except for a terrific piano bar and steak house, Vanessie, across the street. La Tienda ("the store") comprises what had been an old bodega plus two stunningly restored territorial-style (a local version of Spanish-colonial) houses. Rates vary seasonally and by room size, but even the top-end units (with kiva fireplaces) won't set you back more than $165 in spring and fall. All 13 rooms overflow with well-chosen Mexican and Southwestern antiques and newer handcrafted pieces. Continental breakfast is included.

El Paradero 220 W. Manhattan Ave., 505/988-1177, http://www.elparadero.com/, from $85

 Simple but not downscale, El Paradero is one of the least expensive small inns in town. It's on the south edge of the trendy Guadalupe District (known for cool cafes and home-furnishings shops), a 10-minute walk from the Plaza. An early-1800s Spanish farmhouse, it's fitted with Mexican pine furniture, handwoven rugs and tapestries, folk art, and Saltillo tiles. Alas, there are no grounds to speak of, except a small, sunny patio. But you get a substantial full breakfast and afternoon tea as part of the deal.

Silver Saddle Motel 2810 Cerrillos Rd., 505/471-7663, from $39

With a low-slung adobe exterior decked with wagon wheels, the campy Silver Saddle transcends the divey yesteryear-motel genre. Sure, the carpets are a bit faded and the walls razor thin, and Santa Fe's only strip club is across Cerrillos Road. But there's a kitschy, fun-loving swagger about the place. Most rooms are named for icons of the West (Annie Oakley, Wyatt Earp) and contain plaques with colorful biographies. Funky touches include Talvera-tile bathrooms, serape tapestries, built-in bancos (adobe-style benches), and equipale (Mexican pigskin) chairs. The city's seminal Wild West gift emporium, Jackalope, is next door.

Hotel St. Francis 210 Don Gaspar Ave., 800/529-5700, hotelstfrancis.com, from $80

One of the Southwest's most dashing old-world hotels, the St. Francis opened in the early '20s and fills up fast, thanks to low rates and a super-central location just a block from the Plaza. The least expensive rooms are small and functional, with cherry and oak reproduction antiques and brass or iron beds. A big draw here is the stunning and cavernous lobby, with its soaring ceilings, comfy sofas and armchairs, and elaborate red-tile work. The adjacent bar is a favorite hangout with the twenty-and thirtysomething set.

Pecos Trail Inn 2239 Old Pecos Trail, 505/982-1943, from $79

Strangely, Santa Fe has very few lodging options in the scenic foothills on the east side of town. This homey motor lodge is the rare exception, and its rooms are surprisingly bright and cheery, with beamed ceilings, hand-carved Mexican and Southwestern furniture, tile floors, and earthy palettes. You can't actually see much from your room, but the pool and grounds afford brilliant views of the 14,000-foot Sangre de Cristo Mountains. A bonus: The festive restaurant, Chilacas, serves tasty, cheap grub and offers some innovative promotions--if you sit at the worst table in the house, you can spin the "wheel of chance" to see whether you'll get 50 percent off your bill (or, if fortune frowns, you'll owe $50).

Santa Fe Courtyard by Marriott 3347 Cerrillos Rd., 800/777-3347, santafecourtyard.com, from $79

Don't fret about the morose surroundings (parking lots and strip malls along busy Cerrillos Road, about five miles from the Plaza). Once you're inside this glitzy, miniature resort, anchored by a pair of lush interior patios, it's easy to forget about the outside world, making this place the pick of the chain hotels. Rooms not only have the usual upscale perks (mini-fridges, hairdryers, coffeemakers, high-speed Internet) but also chunky carved-wood armoires, desks, and headboards reminiscent of Spanish-colonial haciendas. There's an indoor pool, a tolerable restaurant (with room service), and a gift shop hawking surprisingly authentic jewelry and crafts.

El Rey Inn 1862 Cerrillos Rd., 800/521-1349, elreyinnsantafe.com/, from $72

The kind of place where Lucy and Ricky might have stayed during one of their cross-country adventures, this rambling 1930s motor court comprises several clusters of white-stucco buildings set on five acres of fountains, shade trees, sculptures, and courtyards. El Rey isn't just retro-hip, it's downright snazzy.

The 86 individually decorated rooms--10 with wood fireplaces and kitchenettes--contain a coordinated mishmash of mid-20th-century antiques and Southwestern accents, from upholstered wing chairs and sofas to Mexican-tile murals to traditional latilla-and-viga beamed ceilings.

Santa Fe Budget Inn 725 Cerrillos Rd., 800/288-7600, santafebudgetinn.com, from $54

There's just one reason to stay at this drab but perfectly clean motel: It has the lowest rates ($54) of any respectable property within easy walking distance of both the Plaza and the Guadalupe District. Otherwise, unless you consider the two cheap and adjacent restaurants (one serves decent New Mexican fare; the other, Big Macs), the Budget Inn is uneventful. Ask for a room in building C or D--they're farther away from the street.

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