Tucson | Tucson, AZ, USA

Posted by on May 24, 2000

It was a very long drive from San Diego to Tucson: seven hours at 75 miles an hour. (That’s the speed limit on Route 8 in California and Arizona.) Most of southern Arizona is really flat, punctuated now and then by a mountain range, which spikes up out of the desert. Talk about accessible; it’s hard even to get your heart rate up, unless you tackle one of those mountains. And yet, at least once, it was an worthwhile experience, perhaps to see Arizona as it was, before civilization got hold of it.

People were not meant to live in most of Arizona. The native Americans got along okay in this desert country, and they probably should have been left alone there. Now there are too many people, incredible growth, with massive housing projects in the urban and suburban areas. It’s really weird to see beautiful green golf courses, surrounded by lush exotic plantings, (all recent additions,) and know that all the water for keeping them up is being trucked in from some other place. (Often, it is the Colorado River.) It can make an environmentalist out of almost anybody. At least a water conservationist.

Tucson is hard to describe, especially after eight hours in the car, and at first I had nothing with which to compare it. I can tell you, however, that after a few days in the Phoenix-Scottsdale area, Tucson looks and feels like a small town. The only trouble was, that we went to Tucson first.

I am an Easterner by birth and desire, and I have trouble with endless crosshatched streets on a north-south grid in a flat monotone landscape. Every corner looks exactly like every other one. Such sameness is a challenge to the visually dominant. However, there is a wonderful mountain backdrop to the North and West of Tucson, and I must say that the desert colors are ever changing and stunning.

You can have a wonderful time in Tucson, if you seek out that which is authentic. (I found a lot more authenticity in Tucson than I did in Phoenix-Scottsdale, but that could be a subjective impression.)

So here’s the perfect weekend in Tucson: Stay at the old favorite Arizona Inn, set on 14 acres in the center of town. It is so full of charm, a perfect mix of elegant Spanish Colonial, spread out over several blocks. It looks very much like what I hoped the Arizona Inn would look like: painted stucco, dark Spanish colonial furniture, Mexican tiles, casual Southwest menu in the charming bar, wide lawns. In fact, this inn is in the National Register of Historic Places, and has a Zagat rating as one of the best hotels in the country.

Or stay at the charming Hacienda del Sol. This is a former girls school, which many years ago became a favorite hideaway of Hollywood stars, like Tracy and Hepburn, and Clark Gable. In those days it was far out of Tucson proper in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Now, it is surrounded by up-market suburban homes, but maintains its charm, and its views of the glorious mountains. It’s quirkier than the Arizona Inn, with some “historic” rooms around the old patio, and elegant generous modern cottages on the periphery. The parking lot seems to be a work in progress, and the gardens are tended by loving hands at home, bearing little resemblance to any English border.

On the other hand, its restaurant, The Grill, is extremely sophisticated. The first thing I would do upon arrival is to make a reservation for dinner there. This three year old restaurant has gained a fabulous reputation rapidly. It is certainly deserved, from our experience.

But, I fall in love too easily. Give me dry warm sunshine, a Mexican-style hacienda, great décor, a multi-floral garden, and solid gourmet fare in upscale sophisticated perfect-taste surroundings, and you guessed it, I’m a pushover.

Our dinner at The Grill was pecan-mesquite grilled chicken, with mashed sweet potatoes, and a mélange of roasted red cabbage, chayote, and spaghetti squash, pencil-thin asparagus, and one perfect baby carrot. We drank an Australian Hunter Valley chardonnay, in the flattering half-light of this charming venue. (In fact, I would have to say that the décor of this restaurant is faultless.)

The breakfast, included in the room price, was truly love at first sight for me: a table full of fresh fruit, REAL croissants, and fresh home-made muffins, fresh juices, GIANT cups for coffee, and good decaf.

Do what we did right after breakfast. Go to the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona. It’s worth a whole trip just to spend time at this museum, which is, in fact, one of the best man-made things in Arizona. And do take the time to find it. We needed the help of a campus policeman on a bicycle.

This versatile center was conceived by Ansel Adams as the ideal place for his own photographs and archive. It contains selected archives of many of the twentieth centuries best photographs.

Although I have been educated to prefer good black and white photography to color photography, the exhibit on display intrigued me when we were at the center. It was called Garden Passages, and featured the recent work of two artists who interpreted the botanical world of plants, trees and flowers, each in a totally different way. As the brochure said: “Their distinct but related visions are manifest as large scale color photographs that memorably revise and renew notions of the garden and its representation.”

Next we drove out to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a few miles to the West. It’s a zoo, but I can verify what the New York Times said about it: “Probably the most distinctive zoo in the United States…. It is a combination of museum, zoo, botanic garden, and nature trail…. One of a kind…. Not to be missed.”

My favorite feature of the museum was of course, the restaurants. We chose the Ocotillo Café, one of three available eating places. I have to say that it was the best meal of the trip. I ordered grilled salmon on salad, which is something I order a lot, but this one had very fresh grilled salmon and lambs’ lettuce, together with southwestern ingredients like julienned chayote and jicama, toasted pepitas, and tortilla strips. It was served with melon salsa, and fresh hot foccacia with cilantro pesto. A decadent chocolate cake of supreme density took away any semblance of a healthy meal, but was most satisfying.

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