By: Scott S. Smith and Sandra Wells

The focus of this column is anything interesting to do within a five hour drive or flight from LAX. Surprisingly, Albuquerque, N.M., is just two hours away by air. That make it something of the new Palm Springs, where the stars once relaxed so they could be two hours away from the studios, but Albuquerque has become a New Hollywood. Netflix has a studio there and directors are attracted by the 300 days of sunshine, low cost of shooting long-term projects, and the wide variety of exotic terrain and historic buildings (from ski slopes to adobe pueblos). Aside from the cult hits “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul,” the great modern Western crime series “Longmire,” was filmed there (though set in Wyoming). But so have many box office hits, including “Easy Rider,” “The Andromeda Strain,” “True Grit,” “Independence Day,” “City Slickers,” and “No Country for Old Men.”

A fast-growing oasis for business (900,000 live in the metro area, supporting a vibrant culture), Albuquerque has recently become a hot destination We are highlighting it in advance of Hispanic Heritage Month September 15-October, since it has the same 50/50 split between Latinos and those of other ethnic backgrounds as Los Angeles (Albuquerque was founded in 1706 as an outpost on the road linking Mexico City with the northern territories of New Spain).

We stayed at the Albuquerque Hotel at Old Town, the classic luxury lodging in an area that is a hub of restaurants, specialty retailers, galleries, and museums. The highlight of our stay was its dinner show, Tablao Flamenco Albuquerque, a dazzling performance of Spanish music and dance (the city is the U.S. center of flamenco as the location of a national institute to preserve it and a festival in June that is the largest flamenco event outside of Spain).

We visited the National Hispanic Cultural Center the only cultural institute in the U.S. devoted to the study and presentation of this heritage, including language classes at all levels, art exhibitions, performing arts events, and festivals, such as Cinco de Mayo and Dia de los Muertos. At the Welcome Center with its Torreon, we looked up at the “Mundos de Mestizaje,” the largest concave fresco in North America, a spectacular depiction of global Hispanic history that took 10 years to complete (see photo). The NHCC also includes the Hispanic Genealogy Society Research Center, which can help trace ancestry back to 17th century Spain.

The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center offers guided tours of its excellent museum about the history and cultures of the 19 Pueblo communities, whose traditional buildings are made of adobe bricks. The Pueblos revolted again the Spanish conquistadors in 1680, the only successful revolution by Natives in the history of the hemisphere, in part because many villages were located on high mesas. Their artists are today best-known for their meticulously-created ceramic vases (see photo of one whose lines were painstakingly painted freehand with a yucca stem brush). You can witness ceremonial dancing daily. The gift shop is a good place to buy genuine Indian crafts, jewelry, and art to avoid the rampant counterfeiting.

The Indian Pueblo Kitchen offers dishes inspired by indigenous traditions with ingredients sourced whenever possible from the Pueblos. “You can experience a rich flavor palette from half a millennium ago with our pre-contact selections and gain meaningful insight into the wealth of flavors found in indigenous diets,” according to the menu. For breakfast, we loved the Native Superfoods Waffles made of blue corn, quinoa, amaranth, currants, pinion, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, triple berries, and maple syrup. Other diners said their faves included the Bison Cabbage Stew and the Monte Cristo (Pueblo oven bread, Swiss and cheddar cheese, roasted turkey and ham, red chile-infused raspberry preserves, and triple berries).

Albuquerque is most famous for having the world’s most perfect weather for hot air ballooning year-round and it holds an International Balloon Fiesta each October. Getting out to Rainbow Ryders (family-owned and operated since 1983) very early in the morning was not easy, but we eventually found a taxi (though much of the city is walkable, it’s best to rent a car at the airport). Rainbow’s balloons are incredibly enormous and just watching them being inflated is amazing. Each pilot is highly trained and experienced and the balloons rise over the Rio Grande Valley from 3,000 feet to 10,000, so wear a coat even when it’s warm on the ground. Even those afraid of heights will be thrilled (see photo).

Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway is another experience that takes you up to 10,000 feet and the tramway is a marvel of engineering (by the same firm that built the much smaller one in Palm Springs) that rises gradually over 2.7 miles through four ecozones to a ski resort, restaurant, and gift shop at the top in Cibolo National Forest. You can stay a while, hike around the area, or come right back down. The commentary on the way is informative and fun. Over 12 million people have ridden the tram since it opened in 1966 and it is very popular, so sign up and get there early.

A good place to appreciate of the culture of the region is the Albuquerque Museum, which has an important collection of Southwest Art (“no other place in the U.S. celebrates such an important and continuing history of art-making from prehistory to current experiments…innovation within our heritage”). Particularly outstanding is the collection of Georgia O’Keefee’s work. Among the exhibits depicting the history of the region’s peoples when we were there was a video about World War II’s Navaho “code talkers,” whose messages in their own language became the way U.S. military communications in the Pacific War were kept secret from the Japanese (see photo).

It’s a short walk to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, which is an educational delight for kids of all ages (there is also an interactive science center, Explora!, for children next door). A dinosaur statue in the lobby can startle visitors when it starts moving (see photo), there are fossils from digs in the Southwest, and recreations of the creatures that once lived there (the experience enhanced by a 5-story theater when it shows 3D films about them). There are also gems and minerals, including meteorites, on display and the Hall of the Stars which shows and explains what we see in the night sky.

The biggest surprise of the trip came on our way back to the airport, the one-of-a-kind National Museum of Nuclear Science and History The top secret Manhattan Project that produced the world’s first atomic bombs and laid the foundation for nuclear energy was developed in New Mexico. Even the most well-informed visitors learn a lot about everything from German attempts to build their own bomb and lesser-known contributors to the successful U.S. effort to how nuclear energy compares with alternatives and everything you should know about radiation. There are also aircraft designed to deliver the bombs and missiles (see photo).

Albuquerque is one of the most interesting cities we have ever visited.