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Strolling mariachi bands provide welcome musical interludes in Old Town. (John Kim/PGA.com)

Destination Albuquerque: More than you might expect

PGA.com Coordinating Producer John Kim arrived in town without much of an opinion of his home base for the week. After some expert recommendations, he found that there's a lot of fun for everyone.

By John Kim, PGA.com Coordinating Producer

SANTA ANA PUEBLO, N.M. -- One word came to mind when I learned I’d be coming to Albuquerque to cover the 42nd PGA Professional National Championship: “Seriously?”

Don’t get me wrong, I was sure it was a lovely place, but a lovely place for what? Deserts? Snakes? Tornadoes? (So I mix up Midwest and Southwest sometimes.)

Upon arrival, I did see the greatest coffee shop sign ever -- advertising “bad ass” coffee, and actually that was the name of the shop: “Bad Ass Coffee.” But that, in and of itself, is not a reason to come to Albuquerque … is it?  I resigned myself to an exciting week of golf, but not much else.

So, as I sat in the office of Derek Gutierrez, the PGA Head Professional at Twin Warriors Golf Club (host course of the championship), I asked him the obligatory set of golf-related questions about his course, and then I slipped him one at the end that I thought might stump him a little.

“Derek, what’s there to do in Albuquerque other than watch (or play) some golf?”

He gave me the look you might give someone when they continue to pull on the door that reads “push.” 

“John,” he said with a little bit of a smile and a little bit of head shake, “Albuquerque is one of the most happening places you will find.”

I waited for the punch line -- it never came. He then proceeded to reel off a dozen attractions, events and restaurants before I could even begin to write them down. If this golf thing doesn’t work out, he should get a job at the Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau.

I asked -- dared, actually -- him to pare the list to five. If he gave me his top five, I would find a way to visit his Albuquerque “must-do” items and at the end of the week, I’d give him (and the readers of PGA.com) an honest assessment of his picks and his future as a travel agent. They need not be in any particular order, just five things any visitor could do that would validate a trip to Albuquerque. He agreed and after a little thought, gave me his list.

Still a bit skeptical, I accepted the challenge with a determination to be honest, objective and a plan to order a gallon of margaritas at the hotel bar when I couldn’t take any more of some desert rock collection. See the rabbit?  See the snakes? Seriously, the people are extremely nice but Albuquerque had no chance.

Recommendation 1. Old Town: So Saturday evening, looking to stay a little low key, I decide to try out his first recommendation, Old Town, the historic hub of Albuquerque since 1706 (now that’s an old town!)

“The best representation of the history, art and culture of Albuquerque,” said Gutierrez when he spoke of Old Town.

Upon arrival, it is a good bit bigger than I expected.  I understand what Derek meant when he said that Old Town captures the spirit of Albuquerque better than any other area.  Yes, there are tons of shops, museums, galleries and restaurants (many of them are former homes dating back centuries) -- and at first glance, the thought does creep into your mind that this place could be a bit too “touristy.” But once you get past the commerce of it, you can actually see and feel the unique atmosphere the place exudes.

The architecture is the classic adobe style and you will certainly get a sense of going back in time as you stroll along the winding brick sidewalks. The first shop I visit is a classic country store -- complete with the big wooden Indian out front -- and I see the crafts and jewelry that is unique to this area of the country. It’s feeling a little more authentic now, a little less tourist-trap gimmicks, a little more “only in Albuquerque.”

The roaming mariachi band playing on the sidewalk adds some more flavor and the spirited price negotiations between some visitors and the sidewalk vendors gives it an added vibrancy. I talk to a number of tourists and merchants -- everyone is smiling and anxious to offer their recommendations for what I need to buy and where I need to visit next.

It is obviously designed for tourists, but at over 300 years old, it does have a very traditional feel. I’m enjoying this side trip a little bit more than I thought I might.

The main plaza is centered around a large church -- San Felipe de Neri church -- whose origins date back to the 1700s as well. The church, a still-functioning Catholic church that is open to the public, had a number of clergy and officials walking the grounds. Of course, nothing says “obnoxious tourist” like asking some men of the cloth to stop their work to pose for a picture -- but hey, I am nothing if not obnoxious.

Derek said that I would like the shops and things (maybe not as much as my wife might) but that the food options in Old Town were something that I would particularly love. With a plethora of choices, it was hard to decide upon one. 

I mosey in to High Noon Restaurant and Saloon and take a look at the menu. One of the managers recommends that I try the rattlesnake and crab fritters. Really? The menu looks good, prices are reasonable but now I feel compelled to order his suggestion if I stay.

I say I have to put some change into the parking meter and I’ll be right back.  Um, there are no parking meters in Old Town.  But hey, if it sounds good to you -- be sure to check this place out.  I’m just not ready for that yet.

Derek also told me that I had to be prepared to answer one question at just about any Albuquerque restaurant, particularly in Old Town: “Red or green?” That is actually the official state question!  It references the chile that you’ll want on your entrée. I don’t believe that “none” is an option, not if you don’t want to endure endless taunting by wait staff, other customers and probably your own family.

I move a block over and drop in on the Church Street Café where I order a good ol’ burrito with chicken and red chile -- excellent. Now I see what Derek meant about the food here at Old Town.

I talk to a few more people, I take a few more pictures and I visit a few more shops. I get it. This place exudes a culture and history that is unique to Albuquerque but welcoming universally. Derek’s first recommendation is a winner.

To top off the evening, I take a drive down the nearby and very historic Route 66.  There’s something about the desert, the mountains in the background, a brilliant sunset and George Strait crooning on my iPod that just makes the setting and the moment special. And I have four more days of this. I hope Derek is as on target with his other picks as he was on this one. Oh, the sacrifices I make for this job.
 

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