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On the Culture Front: Exploring the Southwest in Canyons, Contemporary Art and Cuisine

08/23/2013 09:43 am ET | Updated Oct 23, 2013

"Don't look down," was the advice I should have heeded from my rugged guide who was securing a rope through a metal loop embedded in a nearby rock. I was standing on the edge of a massive canyon, so peering over the side couldn't be helped. I was, after all, about to repel down into an abyss. Glancing down, it looked far deeper than the hundred and fifty-odd foot drop that it was and being roped into a harness didn't provide the comfort I thought it would. The problem is that you don't feel the tension of the rope until you step over the side.

When I finally did manage to take the necessary steps back, my head flooded with panic as I stared at the rock that held my fate. My rational mind knew it would hold, but I kept having flashes of it flying loose from the ground and sending me falling to my certain death. What was I doing canyoneering anyway? I'm more likely the guy to write about James Franco trapped in a canyon in 127 Hours than actually do it myself. As a lifelong New Yorker, my idea of exercise is walking from midtown to the village on level ground.

As I got my footing on the side of the canyon, all those concerns washed away. Although I was 90 degrees from the angle I usually walk on, before I knew it I was on the ground and feeling quite satisfied. This was the easiest part. Scrambling through the canyon with its ragged drops and inclines proved a bit harder. The guides walked on this uncertain terrain like it was their household carpet and were always helpful with directions for the proper footing on particularly steep drops. The most humbling moments came when an eager kid looking ten-years-old passed me several times impatiently as I contemplated the proper footing for a descent.

While clearly out of my element, the experience was exhilarating and the views looking up at the towering red rock to giant blue sky was inspiring. The expanse of nature in the Southwest makes life seem wide open. Red Mountain Resort is situated in a particularly secluded stretch in St. George, Utah, two hours drive from the blaring neon of Vegas. Its buildings are colored the same as the mountains with an aim to blend into rather than compete with the landscape. High-end features like rain showers with pebble-covered floors evoke taking a shower near a waterfall and their hiker's massage proved to be the perfect coda to climbing out of the canyon. As an added bonus, the resort has free daily hikes in the morning and yoga, meditation and fitness classes throughout the day.

Six hundred miles southeast, I had the pleasure to see Santa Fe, which I'm now convinced is the ultimate southwestern city. Hundreds of galleries and restaurants line the city in unassuming adobe structures. The best are the tapas-driven La Boca and farm-to-table Il Piatto, where chef Matt Yohalem's giddily makes regular trips to the farmer's market located in the Railyard Arts district. Next to the market is Site Santa Fe, a contemporary art museum with a well-curated collection of inventive works. One whimsical piece was a simple mirror cut to resemble a cover of Time magazine with its title etched in big capital letters on top. The rest of the mirror was blank to be filled in by whoever stands in front of it.

Both the Georgia O' Keeffe and Contemporary Native Arts museums were closed while I was there, unfortunately, but the seemingly endless galleries on Canyon Road made up for it.

You don't have to drive too long to be in the middle of nowhere, which is a good place to be at night when the stars light up the sky. The high air quality allows for an unparalleled view, and it feels like the universe is expanding before your eyes. Great hiking abounds as well in Cerrillos National Park and La Cieneguilla Petroglyph site but also in the backyard of the Four Seasons' Rancho Encantado. On 57 acres in the Sangre de Cristo foothills, the well-appointed casitas are a slice of paradise. Cozy beds with views of mountain tops and standout restaurant Terra, featuring dishes like a poblano chile crab cake and pan-seared scallops with fois gras.

Our hiking guide, Hans, sums out what draws people to the Santa Fe: "You don't really move here to make a big living. You move here for the quality of life."