THE soft-umber hills near Santa Fe beckoned us, as pure as plainsong, as vibrant as a Pompeian fresco. It was hard to believe they concealed two of the premier resorts of the Southwest, the Rancho Encantado and the Bishop's Lodge.
From afar, the Rancho Encantado, an artless cluster of adobe buildings, seemed as simple as the landscape. It is splendidly situated at the base of the Sangre de Cristo and Jemez mountains, its trails and patios sheltered by stalwart juniper and pinon trees.
Built in 1932, it was first called the Rancho del Monte. By 1967, when it was purchased by Betty Egan, who had moved to New Mexico with her children, it was in dilapidated condition. After extensive renovation, the ranch was reopened by the Egans. Mrs. Egan lamented that it would henceforth ``belong to everyone'' and not solely to the dedicated group who had worked to restore it. She might have added that the family would also belong to the guests, on whom they lavish individual attention.
The rooms are richly furnished with Spanish and Indian artifacts native to the Southwest. Gilded mirrors flank hand-carved wooden art objects; many rooms have fireplaces, and walls are hung with Indian rugs. The lobby seems a mixture of a European palace, a church, and a tribal chamber, with its sand paintings, cactus, horse bells, saddles, and carved chests.
Photographs of famous guests -- Peter Sellers, the Prince Rainier family, Jimmy Stewart, Johnny Cash, John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, and Maria Callas -- testify to the special appeal of the ranch.
Because of its location near the Santa Fe Opera, many local people dine here before attending a performance.
The Bishop's Lodge, a few miles away, has literary associations. In the mid-1800s, Archbishop Lamy, immortalized as Archbishop Latour in Willa Cather's ``Death Comes for the Archbishop,'' rode out to visit the Tesuque mission and discovered a mammoth apricot tree shading a small Mexican house, which he purchased.
He later rebuilt the house, planted an orchard, and constructed a small chapel, where, according to Willa Cather, he often went ``for rest and at seasons of special devotion.''
The property was sold in 1918 to James R. Thorpe, a Denver mining man; he built a guest ranch and opened the gardens and chapel to the public.
The atmosphere is faintly paradoxical, like a parish fiesta on a church lawn. The tiny chapel, reached by rocky steps through luxuriant gardens, dominates the compound.
The lodge welcomes guests in spacious rooms decorated in cheerful Southwest colors. Recreational facilities abound; the lodge is family-oriented and has a supervised children's (ages 4-12) program in summer. Guests take oddities such as the locally carved and painted phone booth on the front porch in stride; what would be baffling in some places seems quite natural in New Mexico.
Two other New Mexico inns are also notable for their amenities and historic associations: La Fonda, at one corner of the main plaza in Santa Fe, and the Sagebrush Inn in Taos.
La Fonda has long been known as ``the inn at the end of the Santa Fe Trail.'' The present building dates from 1919; it replaced an adobe inn which was prominent throughout the 19th century.
The original La Fonda sheltered many notable guests, including Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes.
Some centrally placed hotels encourage an invisible demarcation from their surroundings. Not so La Fonda. It's a hospitable thoroughfare and rendezvous for natives and tourists, situated close to walking tours and restaurants.
The Spanish-style structure covers a city block; the lobby is beamed, tiled, and filled with comfortable chairs.
La Plazuela, the main restaurant situated in an enclosed courtyard, has walls which are actually doors with windows painted to resemble stained glass. Many rooms have stenciled furniture, and all are colorfully decorated.
New Mexico has a penchant for rescuing old inns, but few have been saved with as much finesse as Ken Blair poured into his transformation of the declining Sagebrush Inn in Taos.
It was built in 1929, but by 1974 it had become a boys' school, battered and decaying.
Mr. Blair discovered it when he came to New Mexico from Massachusetts. He and his wife, Louise, purchased it, and assisted by their children, embarked on restoration. They helped many local artists, and received gifts of art in return. The lobby, consequently, looks like a small museum, filled with rugs, paintings, and carvings.
You can request the room in which Georgia O'Keeffe painted during a visit to the inn. She came to Taos in 1929, staying for a time in the guest house of Mabel Dodge Luhan (who also befriended D. H. Lawrence and his wife, Frieda).
``Well!'' she is said to have exclaimed about New Mexico. ``This is wonderful. No one told me it was like this!''
She became increasingly drawn to Taos and later purchased Ghost Ranch and a hacienda at Abiquiu.
Not everyone can resettle in New Mexico, nor can the state's atmosphere be easily exported. No purchase of rug or carving, no splash of rosy pigment can simulate the perfect bonding between desert, sky, and dwelling. But staying at one of these historic inns is the next best thing to living here. Practical information Rancho Encantado: On state route 22 in Tesuque, five miles north of Santa Fe. No single rates, doubles $95-$150. Closed from just after New Year's Day until just before Easter. For information, write the Rancho Encantado, Route 4, Box 57-C, Santa Fe, N.M., 87501 or call (505) 982-3537. The Bishop's Lodge: Also on state route 22, 1.5 miles north of Santa Fe. Rates for full American plan (three meals per day) range from $70 single to $238 double, according to season; two adults and two children would be about $310 for all meals and the children's program. Closed from the end of October until just before Easter. Write the Bishop's Lodge, Box 2367, Santa Fe, N.M, 87501 or call (505) 983-6377. La Fonda: On the plaza, Santa Fe. Singles $65, doubles $75. Write La Fonda, 100 E. Francisco Street, Santa Fe, N.M., 87501 or call (505) 982-5511. Sagebrush Inn: Route 68, one mile south of Taos. Singles $40, doubles $55; condos $95 for two, $105 for four. Write the Sagebrush Inn, Box 1566, Taos, N.M., 87571 or call (505) 758-2254.