SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO — There are some places you recognize before you’ve actually seen them.
Your impressions, your dreamy imagined memories come from snapshots of scenery captured in movies, from the work of the great artists of the area and of the evocative foods and spices that define the region.
Before you actually see Santa Fe and much of New Mexico, you might half-believe you've been there.
The low-lying adobe houses and public buildings are just as you thought they'd be: sensual sweeps of clay that blend into the surrounding terrain. The soft hues of the sunsets over the mountains seem familiar, as does the rush of the Rio Grande, even if they only conjure up vague snippets of a John Wayne movie.
The starkness and beauty of the unforgiving landscape outside the cities brings back Georgia O'Keefe, the legendary, uncompromising artist who summoned so many other painters and photographers to this state.
And the food -- the drying chilies that hang in long, languorous strips on many buildings, the delicate mole sauces and the soft, spicy give of a fresh corn tortilla -- make you regret every second-rate "Mexican" meal you've ever consumed.
But until you've actually visited, walked the streets lined with art galleries, stopped in small restaurants and grand hotels and decided a bolo tie might be a necessity, you're only dreaming about this place that nears perfection.
The hour-long drive from Albuquerque to Santa Fe is a perfect introduction. The air is dry. A straight-from-the-movies tumbleweed blows across the highway. Suddenly, drinking beer from the bottle and buying a cowboy hat seems like the natural thing to do.
Santa Fe is a neatly compact city that holds a wealth of history, art galleries, hand-crafted jewelry, restaurants that make you beg for recipes and spas that are the equal of any others in North America.
It manages all that in an area where a car is barely a necessity, where a tourist is just a stroll from one discovery to the next.
There are almost 400 years of history in Santa Fe, with 2010 marking four centuries since Don Pedro de Paralta moved a group of Spanish settlers to the banks of the Santa Fe river and officially established the city.
It is now the oldest capital city in the United States.
The city is a fabulous amalgam of the descendents of those Spanish settlers, Native Americans and an Old West spirit that is still obvious around every corner.
Every city in the world tries to find a tag to hang on itself as a way of defining its culture or attractions. Santa Fe can't do with just one.
It's the city of markets, from July's International Folk Art Market to the winter Spanish Market. Even a neighbourhood organic-food market offers a selection of artisanal cheeses, lamb lovingly tended before they were butchered and vegetables so fresh they have the morning dew still upon them.
The main part of the city centres around the plaza, an area dating back to the area's 1610 founding. Much of the history of the region can be found in the Palace of Governors, a low adobe building that is the oldest public building in America.
The dominant Pueblo Indians, who face a challenge keeping their young people engaged in their language and culture, are a strong presence in the plaza.
The city has a vendors' program, where 4,000 Native American artists compete by lottery every morning for 80 spaces outside the Palace of Governors to sell their crafts and jewelry.
"To me, this is one of the prime attractions of Santa Fe," says Steve Lewis, a public relations consultant.
But that's just one draw in the plaza. From the second floor of the Ore House, a local eatery, you can sip local beer and load up on guacamole and chips while watching the tourists below.
You can walk the plaza in an hour or a day, stopping at the New Mexico Museum of Art, the Basilica and Cathedral of St. Francis of Assisi and the Georgia O'Keefe Museum.
At the Basilica, look for the statue of the oldest Virgin Mary in America, perhaps the only religious icon with more than 300 changes of clothing made by devout church members.
Santa Fe is also the city of art galleries. The tony Canyon Road is a street lined with scores of worthy shops selling sculpture, contemporary art, jewelry and collectibles.
At night, Canyon Road is abuzz with restaurants filled with art lovers and gourmands alike. Friday and Saturday nights there are "gallery crawls," where doors are flung open to celebrate new exhibitions.
Museum Hill is home to the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, Museum of International Folk Art and the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. With lunch at the winsome Museum Hill Cafe, this can be a day's outing.
While it's almost impossible to leave Santa Fe, a drive through the countryside of New Mexico is a necessity. Day trips are popular for visitors and the direction you point your rental car is up to you.
Head west, be brave and a winding mountain road will take you to Bandelier National Monument. The park is massive with 112 kilometres of trails but, in a hour of two, you can see the remains of ancient pueblo dwellings and peer into cavates (cave rooms) via modern ladders. They look like bee hives, with porous holes that used to shelter ancestral pueblos.
From there, science buffs will insist on a visit to Los Alamos, where the Manhattan Project created the world's first atomic bombs during the Second World War. Again, the road seems death-defying and only the passenger is going to enjoy the scenery.
Another day, head north to Taos. The road there demands frequent stops for photographs and declarations that this is where retirement will be spent. You can take a small side trip to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge.
Taos, another lovely art-filled town, deserves its own multi-day visit. If you're only there for the day, walk, window shop and meet some of the friendliest people in America.
While there are galleries galore, two standouts are Enger-Cordova Fine Art, primarily because Amy Cordova is a delight and the Farnsworth Gallery, housed with Caffe Renato, a restaurant that will feel like your own private sunroom if you time it right.
This summer, Taos will celebrate the 2009 Summer of Love featuring the 40th anniversary of actor Dennis Hopper's 1969 classic film Easy Rider.
If that doesn't make you feel too creaky for words, it's going to be a great time to hit Taos.
"If you're looking for something different and relaxing this summer, then Taos is the place to be," said Town of Taos public relations manager Cathy Connelly. "We're offering visitors a positive, authentic Taos vibe, and a lifetime experience they can't get anywhere else," she said.
The 2009 Summer of Love will feature concerts, festivals and an exhibit of Hopper's own artwork from May through September.
And if you live that visit like it's the '60s all over again, your memories might actually be dreamy, half-imagined and still wonderfully familiar.