If the past few months have found you bundled in layers of wool and dreaming of a trip to a sunny, sandy clime, here’s one destination you may not have considered: Tucson. Surrounded by five mountain ranges, most notably the Santa Catalinas and majestic Mount Lemmon to the north, Arizona’s second largest city offers visitors spectacular desert vistas, unusual wildlife, family-friendly excursions and some of the best Mexican food north of the border, all at surprisingly affordable prices.
Newcomers to Tucson will discover a laid-back, multi-cultural paradise where Anglo, Hispanic and Native American traditions meld, the sun shines 350 days each year and evening views are equally spectacular: An outdoor lighting ordinance insures that the Milky Way can be viewed with the naked eye. The city lies in the Sonoran Desert, a region rife with unique plant and animal species. A great way to get oriented is to visit the world-renowned Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a zoo, natural history museum and botanical garden all in one. Open daily, the museum’s living exhibits include more than 300 animal species and 1200 varieties of plants. While traversing its winding paths, one can smell the musky odor of a javelina, stroll through a hummingbird aviary, and get up close and personal with a colony of prairie dogs.
Breathtaking views abound in the city, as the land is blanketed by majestic saguaro cacti. These towering succulents, which can live for 200 years and rise to heights of 50 feet, are an iconic symbol of the American Southwest. Visitors can study these prickly giants at Saguaro National Park (there are two districts of the park — East and West — located on either side of the city). Plenty more saguaros inhabit Sabino Canyon. A part of Coronado National Forest and located in the Catalina Foothills, Sabino Canyon is a hiker’s delight. Adventurers should pay heed to the rangers’ warnings about mountain lions, but will delight in the roadrunners that streak across the paths. The less athletically inclined can enjoy an inexpensive ($6 adults/$2.50 children ages 3-12) 45-minute narrated tram ride through the canyon.
Another notable Tucson attraction is the San Xavier del Bac Mission, arguably the finest example of mission architecture in the U.S. Located on the reservation of the Tohono O’odham people, the “White Dove of the Desert,” as the mission is known, is a functioning parish open year-round to visitors. Admission is free (donations are accepted) and, on most mornings, members of the Tohono O’odham Nation sell tacos and other fry bread treats from makeshift stands in the parking lot.
For those willing to go further afoot, interesting daytrips abound. Tombstone, the onetime mining camp best known for the famous “Shoot Out at the OK Corral,” has preserved many of the town’s original 1880s buildings. Visitors who trek down for the day (about a 70-mile drive) will find several museums that present the town’s history, and there is even a daily reenactment of the legendary Clanton/Earp confrontation. Another optional sidetrip is a one-hour drive to Tubac. Once a Spanish fort, the town is now a thriving artist colony with dozens of art galleries, working studios and tourist shops.
Tucson offers a wide range of accommodations at every price point, from charming Route 66-style motels to five-star resorts with some of the country’s best golf courses. For this writer’s first visit, we wanted a peaceful, low-key retreat with spa amenities and selected the Westward Look Resort. The oldest resort in Tucson, Westward Look is nestled in the Foothills and offers unparalleled views of the Santa Catalina Mountains and downtown. Our posada suite was surrounded by manicured grounds ripe with mesquite, palo verde and citrus trees, agave and prickly pear cacti. The 80-acre grounds also include tennis courts and two desert hiking trails. Horseback rides are available, and the resort’s Sonoran Spa offers a bone-melting desert stone massage.
While not a “shopper’s paradise” like many larger metropolitan areas, Tucson will reward the savvy shopper. Old Town Artisans, located downtown in the El Presidio Historic District, features the wares of hundreds of regional artists; hand-crafted pottery, hand-painted tiles and folk art sculptures were a few of the authentically Tucson items we found. Mexican imports and Indian crafts also abound, and those craving a traditional mall experience will find it with a Sonoran twist at La Encantada: Anthropologie, Crate & Barrel and Tommy Bahama are just a few of the stores you’ll find at this open air shopping center. No trip to La Encantada is complete without a visit to AJ’s Purveyors of Fine Foods; one of AJ’s Boulangerie pastries is the perfect fuel for a bargain hunter.
For many travelers (this one included), a vacation is only as good as its meals, and Tucson’s cuisine offers something for every palate. If you are looking for good Mexican fare and an entertaining experience in a family-friendly environment, check out La Fuente. Meals are moderately priced ($10 to $25 for dinner), and a live mariachi band plays nightly. Be sure to order the guacamole, which is made fresh tableside. If your palate leans to more upscale flavors, try the nouvelle Tex Mex offerings at Cafe Terra Cotta ($13 to $28 for dinner). A table by the fireplace, or on the patio with its view of the city lights below, is one of Tucson’s most romantic spots, and the garlic custard appetizer is a standout. An unexpected find in the desert is the fine French cuisine served at the Arizona Inn. This hotel, a winter gathering spot for members of high society in the 1930s and 40s, features a dining room serving authentic Gallic fare. Prices are expensive, but it’s worth the splurge. Vegans should check out Govinda’s Natural Foods Buffet, a relaxing establishment serving gourmet vegetarian food at a modest price (all meals are under $10).
Tucson’s allure is strong year-round, but the city is especially inviting in winter and spring. Visitors looking to escape the cold and snow will find warmth both in the desert sun and in the embrace of its friendly people.
Getting there: Tucson International Airport is serviced by most major U.S. carriers. If you fly, you’ll need to rent a car to reach most of the city’s attractions.