Albuquerque offers an affordable and funky queer vacation option
New Mexico’s largest city, set dramatically at the base of the Sandia Mountains, is an affordable base for exploring the Land of Enchantment. Albuquerque lies 60 miles south of Santa Fe and within an afternoon’s drive of countless Indian pueblos, beautiful hiking and biking spots and challenging ski areas.
The Duke City (named for its founder, the Duke of Albuquerque) enjoys a sunny, mild climate. It’s also home to New Mexico’s only gay bars and a handful of gay-owned B&Bs and eateries. Throughout 2006, Albuquerque celebrates its tricentennial with performances, events and museum exhibits that trace its vibrant history.
Albuquerque’s once-dull downtown has recently undergone an ambitious revitalization, with new shops, restaurants and bars along or near the main drag, Central Avenue between Second and Eighth streets and along parallel Gold Avenue.
From here, it’s a five-minute drive to historic Old Town, which was laid out in 1706 and contains Albuquerque’s earliest building, the San Felipe de Neri Church, which fronts a serene, tree-shaded plaza. The wares for sale at the nearby art galleries and boutiques run the gamut from fine to kitschy.
For an offbeat experience, step inside the small but venomous American International Rattlesnake Museum, which contains the world’s largest assemblage of live sidewinders.
Much of Albuquerque’s gay scene is focused in the retro-hip Nob Hill neighborhood, a short drive east of downtown along Historic Route 66 (Central Avenue), which glows with the neon signs of coffeehouses, bars, greasy-spoon diners, galleries and boutiques selling everything from cool home-furnishings to campy gifts.
The city sprawls a bit, and you need a car to venture out to some of the worthwhile outlying attractions. On the west side of town, visit Petroglyph National Monument to view some 25,000 rock drawings inscribed as far back as a 1,000 years ago.
Drive east across town into the city’s lofty foothills for a chance to ride the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway to the crest of the 10,600-foot Sandia Mountains. The 2.7-mile ride is the longest aerial tramway in the world. At the top are observation decks, hiking trails, a visitor’s center and the High Finance Restaurant.
On the north side of town, you’ll find the Sandia Casino resort, which in addition to extensive gaming areas contains one of the city’s best restaurants (Bien Shur, on the resort’s rooftop), a brand-new luxury hotel and spa.
The casino is close to Balloon Fiesta Park, home to the famed Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. This colorful hot-air balloon gathering (the world’s largest) takes place the first two weeks in October.
At any time of year you can visit the park’s Anderson-Abruzzo International Balloon Museum, which opened last fall. There are also a number of outfitters throughout Albuquerque offering hot-air balloon rides year-round. One of the most reliable is Rainbow Ryders.
Albuquerque’s already good dining scene has improved in recent years. In the downtown area, don’t miss gay-popular Artichoke Cafe for first-rate Continental cooking. Thai Crystal is one of the city’s top Asian restaurants, while the cozy Gold Street Cafe serves up some of the best breakfasts around.
When in Old Town, book a table at elegant Ambrozia Cafe & Wine Bar, known for its quirky dishes, such as duck meatloaf with truffled cream corn and lobster corn dogs with chipotle ketchup.
In Nob Hill, the swanky Zinc Wine Bar and Bistro serves a memorable Sunday jazz brunch and terrific French-inspired dinner fare: Try the crispy duck confit egg rolls or mango creme brulee. Next door, Crazy Fish serves tasty proof that it’s possible to find fresh sushi in the heart of the desert.
Talented chef Jennifer James is one of the leading new culinary stars of the Southwest, and you can sample her cuisine at Graze, which specializes in affordable tapas-style small plates (she also owns the more formal Restaurant Jennifer James, a few miles north).
Across the street, the upscale Gruet Steak House is run by the city’s acclaimed Gruet Winery, which produces sparkling wines, pinot noirs and chardonnays.
Pre-clubbing gays and straights mix it up at sophisticated Martini Grille, which is lauded as much for its tasty American fare as for the fancy drinks served up in the snazzy cocktail bar.
Hang out among University of New Mexico students at Il Vicino, which serves wood-fired pizzas and calzones. Sit on El Patio tree-shaded lanai for authentic (and fiery) New Mexican cooking.
The no-frills Frontier Restaurant is a 24/7 institution famed for its breakfast burritos and cinnamon buns it’s a real scene after the clubs close. Another must-do in Albuquerque is coffee and dessert at Flying Star, a bakery, coffeehouse and wine bar all rolled into one, with five locations around town (the gayest and coolest in Nob Hill and downtown).
Among Albuquerque’s six gay nightspots, Pulse draws the youngest and wildest bunch for cruising and dancing on the festive patio and compact dance floor. Fans of line-dancing and two-stepping head to sprawling Sidewinders Ranch, which is owned by the same folks as Sidewinders in Palm Springs.
Low-key Exhale (formerly Renea’s) is the state’s only lesbian pub, but it pulls in plenty of guys, too. The expansive Albuquerque Mining Co. caters to a diverse crowd with its several bars, small dance area and volleyball court.
The Albuquerque Social Club, a video bar across the street from Pulse, attracts a local following. Guests are permitted in this private club but must purchase a membership for $5. The parking lot at Foxes Lounge brims with beat-up pickup trucks, giving hints of the rugged and bearish guys inside. Exotic dancers are the main entertainment.
Although Albuquerque’s lodging landscape is dominated by generic chain hotels, you can find some distinctive historic properties and art-filled B&Bs. Among the latter, the beautifully restored Mauger Estate B&B sits within walking distance of downtown and Old Town. This gay-owned 1897 Queen Anne Victorian has an ornate redbrick exterior, antiques and period fabrics.
Another excellent gay-owned property is Hacienda Antigua, a 200-year-old adobe hacienda northwest of downtown, filled with claw-foot tubs, woodcarvings, Indian art and beehive-shape kiva-style fireplaces.
Among larger mainstream properties, historic La Posada de Albuquerque is the city’s grand dame, opened in 1939 by Conrad Hilton (who honeymooned here with Zsa Zsa Gabor). It’s a stunning 10-story hotel in the heart of downtown. A few blocks west, the art deco Hotel Blue has affordable rooms and a great location, making it one of the city’s best bargains.
Of chain properties, the Albuquerque Marriott has great views of the mountains. It’s close to two shopping malls and a short drive from gay nightlife.
Twenty minutes north in Bernalillo, the Hyatt Regency Tamaya offers the lavish accommodations. Amenities at this 500-acre resort on the Santa Ana Pueblo include a spa, horseback riding, tennis, golf and gaming.
If you’re looking for sumptuous Palm Springs-style glamour, look no further it’s the perfect place to celebrate a romantic desert getaway.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, March 17, 2006.