Discovering healing powers of New Mexico on nine-spa tour
AS THE Rio Grande cools at dusk, the winding desert road off I-25 becomes eerily isolated. The surrounding views along the Santa Ana Pueblo are a palette of terracottas, roses and sepias — the road seems to lead nowhere.
And then, like a mirage, the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort and Spa rises before us.
I'm here on a 1,000-mile, eight-day and nine-spa-treatment tour to discover the healing powers of New Mexico.
CENTRALLY located between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, Tamaya is a short distance from the historic Route 66.
It is here, at the Tamaya Mist Spa and Salon, where I meet Katie, from New England who was stationed in New Mexico with the Air Force.
When her poor vision halted her military career, Katie gravitated towards a job in healing at the Mist Spa and Salon.
And it is here where she performs the Tamaya Ancient Drumming Treatment, a service indigenous to the Santa Ana Pueblo, one of 19 pueblos that span New Mexico.
She applies a detox body mask of mud gathered from the area's Jemez Mountains, infused with New Mexican red chilli, then a sudden rap-a-tap-tap is strummed out on my body using a petite satchel filled with flax seeds and dipped in a piñon, an indigenous nut in the pine nut family.
The tapping produces a heat from my chilli-cooled skin before Katie bastes me with a warm oil which she has drizzled all over my limbs and back.
A piñon-resin scrub tops off the treatment before I head to the spa's rain shower for a clean-up.
The next morning I head towards what was Route 66, now Central Avenue, for a morning Croque Madam at The Grove Café and Market in Albuquerque, a must-stop for breakfast and to pick up a take-home jar of chilli-infused jelly.
My next stop is Great Face and Body, where co-owner Keith West-Harrison's sensitive and caressing hand movements appear choreographed to the spa sounds.
While he works his magic, applying cleanser, toner and a mask of Cabernet-infused products, he shares stories of celebrities he's serviced while living in New Orleans, such as the Breaking Bad stars and Britney Spears.
"She walks barefoot in public restrooms," says Keith, who, after my service, offers me a glass of Reservatol (a powerful antioxidant) in cherry water.
It was time to move on to the long desert highway, leading to the former Isleta Casino and Resort, now Albuquerque Hard Rock, a popular casino on weekday afternoons.
Here, guitars decorate the walls while go-go dancers entertain gamblers.
Although the roulette tables beckon, I resist and head to the spa for a 25-minute Swedish massage, courtesy of Jennifer, who helps ease the tension in my back and legs so that I can continue my two-hour journey south on I-25 to Truth or Consequences.
At the exit I have my first encounter with tumbleweed the size of a Barcalounger recliner.
These thorny things can do some serious damage if they catch you unawares.
Luckily my rental car survives and just as the shock of the collision wears off, another element of New Mexico strikes — a sandstorm which lasts for the next 100ft, blowing horizontal and reducing my visibility to 20 per cent — and my composure to a heap of giggles.
BLACKSTONE Springs in Truth or Consequences is tacky, yes, but worth a stop just to view the no-frills trailer park-like hotel sited on a fault line.
The hotel rooms are decorated in retro television show designs, such as the Twilight Zone, appropriately named for this bizarre area, as well as The Jetson's, The Babaloo (I Love Lucy) and The Golden Girls Room, where I settle in with pictures of Betty White and her entourage on my walls.
To say there's something bizarre about Truth or Consequences is an understatement. It feels more like a film set for a B-rated thriller.
Many of the locals have come here from all over the nation for the slow pace of life, isolation and space the town offers.
But, the fact the hot springs temperature has risen 10 degrees since the volcanic eruption in Iceland is more than a bit disturbing when you realise you'll be sleeping above a fault line.
Seismic action is occurring, but that doesn't stop me from crawling in the hot springs tub for a soak before dinner at Bella Luca, a restaurant given an Award in Excellence in 2009 by Wine Spectator.
On a sunny, warm morning, I walk to the Happy Belly Deli, which makes my belly happy with the most scrumptious French toast and bacon I've ever tasted.
And the owner is the best of company, explaining how so many of the town's folk were once visitors, smitten with the area and unable to leave.
I take a more sophisticated soak at The Sierra Lodge, where Inanna Champagne, who turns out to be a healer who once studied polarity (a system of treatments used to restore the balance of the body's energy) in Massachusetts, attempts to lessen the pain in my left foot, an injury caused by a slip during last winter.
As witness to the 'land of enchantment', Inanna sparks a realisation that New Mexico really is a 'land of healing'.
A bit of polarity mixed with cranial sacrum therapy alleviates my foot pain before I'm back on the I-25 to Santa Fe on a seriously windy day.
Before I leave, a stop at the gift shop in the lobby is in order to grab a smudge stick of sage and lavender.
Desert sage works wonders for energy balancing, or so I'm told.
I ARRIVE unscathed in Santa Fe after a drive spent dodging tumbleweeds, two sand storms and a hailstorm.
I'm relieved to be sitting in front of my fireplace at the cosy and private suite at Bishop's Lodge Ranch Resort and Spa, where scenes of 'Crazy Heart' were filmed.
It is 38 degrees, yet a winter coat isn't necessary because of the dry air.
The breathtaking beauty is literal, however, and you'll need a lot of water to alleviate the struggle for breath at an altitude of 7,200ft above sea level.
I hear you get used to it after a month or two, but help is available in the form of oxygenated water products.
A caviar facial at the resort's ShaNahSpa (CRR) helps as well, with hydrating creams and serums of caviar extract that up the level of sophistication a notch, as far as facials are concerned.
Venturing down the slope into the city, it's clear that Santa Fe is an arty area of New Mexico with more than 250 art galleries alone.
A day of walking around Santa Fe's plaza is a great way to spend a Saturday, when local artisans line the walkways selling New Mexican wares, such as turquoise jewellery and sterling silver goods.
After a quick stop at the Georgia O'Keefe Museum, then to Burro Alley to Chuck Jones' gallery (co-creator of Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote and more and former director of Animation for Warner Bros.), a stop at the New Mexico Museum of History is in order to learn about the history of New Mexico and how it came to be a land that lured hippies, as well as a test of the A-bomb.
Satiated with knowledge, I head to Hotel Santa Fe's Hacienda Spa, where the quartz wall lures you upstairs for a touch of the mystical and healing mineral found in neighbouring mountains.
Here I meet Mercedee, who has always felt compelled to return to New Mexico.
Having an energy healer for a mother, who sent her traveling all over the world, it was Santa Fe where she finally settled.
She is a healer, indeed, and performs an ancient Indian massage on me.
After a short but sweet foot soak in lavender salts, the goal is to encourage the brain to 'let go' and embrace the dance of circular movements her hands make along the body — with hot oil I select by scent.
Healing is the name of the game at this amazing spa: one-hour later, I am more relaxed than I've felt in a very long time, yet I feel centred and calm.
After a serene slumber and hearty breakfast, I start my drive upslope to Ten Thousand Waves, where communal tubs are a big hit.
This upscale hippie retreat is a great après ski spa, but for me, 8,200ft above sea level makes my walk up the 93 winding wooden steps to the spa difficult. I now know what being 90 years old feels like.
I'm soon rewarded with a Yasuragi head and neck massage.
After a shower and change into a kimono, a walk through an outdoor courtyard is the only way to get to the treatment rooms — and it's snowing.
Short, but sweet, my service is over and I can head down the mountainside, back to Bishop's Lodge, with a word of caution: "Don't leave food in your car, not even a gum wrapper. Bears are known to steal for minor rewards. Oh, and be on the alert for mountain lions and if you see one, don't run, just walk away," I am told.
Driving back from dinner that evening, a silver furred coyote jumps in front of my car.
It's a magical experience, and so is dinner at an authentic New Mexico eatery, Maria's New Mexico Restaurant, an unassuming venue that offers a menu of 160 Margaritas, as well as tequila flights and sample plates of the best indigenous food.
This is a must-stop for foodies who want to experience an authentic atmosphere, as well as local artisans who line the doorway entrance selling jewellery.
SO long Santa Fe, I'm off to Taos on a one-and-a-half-hour 'Easy Rider' drive through the most beautiful and spiritual pathway of majestic quartz mountains.
My room at the Historic Taos Inn is indeed historic, charming and authentic, but not quite ready for me.
Within walking distance are small shops, including Mud and Puddle, where I meet Chris, the owner of this fabulous apparel retail store.
He spends a good deal of time discussing the symbolic meaning of the silver furred coyote which ran in front of my car the previous evening.
The 'trickster', he says, 'is a message for me to keep my humour and smile at life'.
Taos is a spiritual land, in and out of this world, or so I'm told — as there are plentiful stories of extraterrestrial happenings.
Personally, Chris says he saw a roving light that was not a shooting star or anything explainable — other than a UFO.
Although I don't witness an extraterrestrial sighting, I do visit Doug at El Monte Sagrado Living Resort and Spa, and thoroughly enjoy a High Desert body treatment of scrub, mud and oil, a cocoon wrap in foil, and lots of good humour in a treatment room with a lit fireplace.
Colin Farrell and Julia Roberts, who live in Taos, have enjoyed this oasis that also offers an oxygen treatment, which I gladly accept.
It's amazing what 25 minutes of oxygen infusion will do for laboured breathing in high altitudes.
Spa is the acronym for Salus Per Aquas which means 'health through water'.
In a grand scale response to this actual meaning, a day trip to the geothermal Ojo Caliente Springs proves to be a destination unto itself.
Arsenic, iron and soda springs in the form of pools are offered for guests to soak and heal. Lithia and mud pools are seasonal. Lunch at Artesian restaurant is worth the time for dessert alone (cigar made out of phyllo dough, stuffed with dark chocolate and sautéed to brown, topped with whipped cream and sifted cocoa on top).
My day ends with a hot stone massage of stones collected personally by the massage therapists, who gather the loose stones from the mountainside.
Although, they say, falling stones should be avoided at all costs, and you need to look out for wandering elk and mountain goats.
Driving the desert roads, there is little signage to confirm you are travelling in the right direction so a compass is valuable during a road trip through Tamaya, Albuquerque, Truth or Consquences, Santa Fe and Taos.
Each area is steeped in cultural tradition, healers are available at every turn, and you can experience all four seasons in one day.
I make my way home, restored, content and 100 per cent convinced New Mexico really is 'a land of healing'.