Ah, Tucson. I first caught a glimpse of you when I attended a writers' conference in 1997, and it was love at first sight.
You had me at the mountains - those five majestic ranges rising like magic from the desert floor. And then you reeled me in with the forests of saguaros that dot the mountainside in Saguaro National Park West. But, most of all, you had me at the sky - that vast ocean of lights and mystic colors that dazzles all the senses in every type of weather or season.
No wonder I've been coming back ever since, year after year, on an annual basis, to explore your mysteries.
And there's no better way to escape the grueling Midwestern winter than indulging in a trip to a town where sunshine reigns an average 350 days a year and winter highs average 64 to 75 degrees.
Part of the enchantment of staying in Tucson is finding a good home base, a place where you can restore and refresh your spirit while drinking in the beauty of the desert. One of my favorite places to stay is the beautiful urban oasis Lodge on the Desert (www.lodgeonthedesert.com), sparkling like a jewel after a recent $15 million renovation. This 74-year-old, 103-room boutique hotel is the perfect place to relax after a day of hiking along the Sabino Canyon Trail in the Santa Catalina mountains or an afternoon of grabbing fabulous finds while shopping at the many upscale thrift shops along Fourth Avenue. Although it's located in midtown Tucson, with easy access to the airport, the University of Arizona and many central attractions, the glorious backdrop of the Catalina mountains and the whimsical hand-painted tiles on the buildings tell you that you're not in Springfield anymore.
The Lodge on the Desert's culinary offerings are nothing to sneeze at, either. The new executive chef, Ryan Clark, favors a farm-to-table concept, starting with the freshest ingredients, most locally grown and sourced. The restaurant always offers a daily soup, the Chef's Whim, and it's far from tasting like it came from a Campbell's can. There are usually two or three different flavors to tempt your taste buds. The last time I was there, I tried the potato bacon soup, and was pleasantly surprised at the smoky taste and aroma. It was simply amazing, like nothing else I'd ever tasted before. When I remarked on the incredible flavors that just danced on my tongue, I was told that Lodge on the Desert smokes their own bacon.
Be sure to try the prickly pear lemonade at the Lodge on the Desert, which is made from the very sweet juice of the prickly pear. (If you should happen upon a tortoise with a very red mouth while hiking in the desert, you can be sure that he just had a grand feast of prickly pear fruit.)
Another hidden gem in Tucson is the historic Hacienda Del Sol Guest Ranch Resort (www.haciendadelsol.com), 34 scenic acres tucked into the panoramic foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Hiking trails, birding tours and horseback riding are at its doorstep, and spectacular golf is within minutes. The Hacienda del Sol, a Tucson landmark since 1929, when it was a ranch school for privileged girls, is secluded and intimate, with 30 quiet, luxurious guest rooms, suites and private adobe casitas, each one a work of art. The grounds are immaculate, filled with palm trees and cacti of every description, and the mountain views at sunset from the pool and hot tub are nothing short of magical.
Spa treatments at the Hacienda Del Sol include a marine algae mud wrap and hot stones massage.
Take advantage of happy-hour prices at the Terraza bar and indulge in the best tacos you've ever tasted. The carne asada tacos contain marinated prime beef, pico de gallo, cabbage, salsa verde, panela cheese, avocado and Alejandro's tortillas.
One of my colleagues in the travel-writing business raves about Westward Look Resort (www.westwardlook.com), and it's no wonder. Its Stargazer Spa Suites offer Tucson's only accommodations with private, outdoor, freshwater hot tubs. What could be more fantastic than soaking under the vast, starry sky?
The spas in Tucson are legendary, but the Westward Look Resort's Sonoran Spa stands out as a special treat. My colleague had the pomegranate body scrub with pomegranate body butter and pronounced it "too delish for words!"
I've also stayed at moderately-priced chain hotels in Tucson - the Radisson Suites, 6455 E. Speedway Blvd.; the Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites Tucson Airport, 4550 South Palo Verde Road; and Hotel Tucson City Center InnSuites, 475 N. Granada Ave. All three of them have great pool areas for family entertainment, but the Radisson Suites' swimming pool is oversized and inviting, with a raft and fun noodles provided for the enjoyment of small fry.
Where do Diane Keaton, Drew Barrymore and Julia Roberts shop when they're in Tucson? Well, naturally, they head straight for Fourth Avenue. Fourth Avenue is the place to be for thrift-conscious fashionistas, with its lighthearted ambience and a plethora of shops selling vintage clothing, accessories and costumes. You could spend a whole day here in intensive retail therapy - and maybe even snag one of Drew's cast-offs. There are also more than 100 merchants selling everything from glassworks to Southwest-themed art. When you've shopped until you're ready to drop, one of the nicest places to drop on Fourth Avenue is Delectables Restaurant, which offers bistro plates like spinach cream cheese quiche and brie and marinated artichoke hearts, as well as soup, salads, and Angus burgers.
Other great shopping scenes in Tucson are Plaza Palomino, Park Place Mall, Tucson Mall, La Encantada and St. Phillips Plaza. (The El Con Mall seems to be permanently in a state of renovation.) The Bamboo Club Asian Bistro, located at the south entrance to Park Place Mall, features cuisine from the Pacific Rim and signature cocktails. RA Sushi (in decidedly upscale La Encantada) has an upbeat and stimulating atmosphere "where 'Iron Chef' meets 'Girls Gone Wild.' " They guarantee their sushi is "the best damn sushi in the ocean." Vivace Restaurant in St. Phillips Plaza serves fine Italian fare and boasts an extensive wine list.
Other restaurants that I recommend in Tucson: Rigo's Mexican Restaurant, 2527 S. Fourth Ave., for the lunch buffet; Yoshimatsu Healthy Japanese Eatery, 2660 N. Campbell Ave., for bento boxes; Sushi Garden, 15 South Alvernon Way, for the bargain lunch buffet; Old Pueblo Grille, 60 N. Alvernon Way, for the "Off the Skewer" half-pound of shrimp; Cattletown Steakhouse & Saloon, 3141 East Drexel Road, for its hokey, Old West ambience; Ha Long Bay, Wilmot and Broadway, for authentic Vietnamese cuisine; Chopstix Asian Diner, Palo Verde, for tasty, economical lunch specials; El Charro Cafe at El Mercado, for the great Tucson-style Mexican food and the chance to hear a mariachi band; Fronimo's Greek Cafe, 3242 E. Speedway Blvd., for some of the best Mediterranean food in Tucson; Seri Malaka, 6133 E. Broadway Blvd., for fine Malaysian cuisine; Brawley's Restaurant, 6367 E. Broadway Blvd., for amazing breakfast items; Blue Willow, 2616 N. Campbell Ave., for fabulous breakfasts, lunches, dinners and baked goods; Pastiche, 3025 N. Campbell Ave., for Chicken Soup for Tucson's Soul (this Tucson Originals restaurant donates $2 to the community food bank for every bowl of soup ordered); Kon-Tiki, for happy-hour appetizers and a Trader Vic's atmosphere; Guilin, 3250 E. Speedway, for healthy Chinese fare; Ike's Coffee & Tea, 3400 E. Speedway Blvd., for free Wi-Fi, gooey grilled cheese sandwiches and prickly pear iced tea; Baggin's, 6342 N. Oracle Rd., No. 8427, for fresh, quick sandwiches; and Choice Greens, Campbell at Limberlost, for its many chopped delights.
Need any more proof that Tucson is magical? The night-blooming cereus (Peniocereus greggii) looks like a dead stick most of the time, but on one night of the year, it puts out beautiful, waxy, white blossoms all across Tohono Chul Park. More than 1,100 people come out to the park on that special night to see these 300 mystical flowers (dubbed Queen of the Night) and smell their powerful aroma. Tohono Chul also hosts a very female-friendly tea room, serving breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea and featuring shops filled with colorful curios and gifts.
Nature-loving families can surround themselves with hundreds of the world's most exquisite tropical live butterflies in the Tucson Botanical Gardens' greenhouse (on display every year from early October through the end of February), come eye-to-eye with Gila monsters and javelinas at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, or explore the Flight Connection (a full-flight, walk-through aviary) at charming Reid Park Zoo.
Did I also mention that Tucson is a college town? You should definitely take advantage of special exhibitions at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, with its regular collection of more than 5,000 paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings, with an emphasis on European and American art from the Renaissance to the present.
For an introduction to Tucson, take Gray Line Arizona's (www.graylinearizona.com) four-hour Old Pueblo City Tour. You'll visit a restored adobe structure (circa 1860) that houses downtown's fabled Old Town artisans and finish off your journey with a pilgrimage to the "White Dove of the Desert," the San Xavier del Bac Mission.
While in Tucson, you'll also want to pay a visit to DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun, a legendary landmark of art and architecture. (Ettore DeGrazia's fame soared when UNICEF chose his 1957 oil painting "Los Ninos" for a 1960 holiday card that sold millions worldwide.) Be sure to spend some time in the Little Gallery and the chapel.
A new attraction in Tucson that merits attention is The Mini Time Machine, a Museum of Miniatures (www.theminitimemachine.org), a 15,560-square-foot, state-of-the-art museum displaying an entertaining and interactive array of antique and contemporary miniatures.
The visual effects in this museum are mesmerizing. Children will be especially delighted with The Enchanted Realm, a special area that features woodland creatures, snow villages, fairy castles and a witches' compound.
The Gaslight Theatre (www.thegaslighttheatre.com) is another family pleaser in Tucson. Bring the kids to view old-time melodramas and stage musicals while filling up on pizzas, ice cream and sarsaparilla sodas. Or take them to Little Anthony's Diner (in the same building) for cheeseburgers and fries or all-you-can-eat pancakes. Both venues have hearty, fun atmospheres.
West of Tucson, along Speedway, is Gates Pass, the bridge between Tucson and the Saguaro National Park, and one of the best places in Tucson to view a spectacular sunset. Or drive up Mount Lemmon, the highest point of the Santa Catalina Mountains at 9,147 feet, to witness scenery that will take your breath away. Bring a sweater, as the temperatures will have dropped 30 degrees by the time you get to the top.
Anywhere you look in Tucson, magic is bound to happen. All you have to do is let it in.
Story published Friday, December 3, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 7 )