Monday, June 25, 2018

Tucson offers a striking desert setting, history and culture


What kind of crazy person would choose to vacation in a desert city like Tucson in the scorching second half of July?

That would be me. And my husband. And we won't give you any of that "dry heat" stuff; it was hot. Not as hot as it could have been — earlier this summer Tucson had a record-matching (though not record-breaking) 39 days in a row of three-digit temperatures. By the time we arrived in late July, the monsoon rains had begun, cooling things down every afternoon so that temps crept over 100 only a couple of times during our weeklong stay.

Here's the thing: Tucson is a place that gets under your skin. One of its best known residents, the great environmental writer Edward Abbey (who died there in 1989), often said it was easy to leave Tucson — he'd done it many times.

My husband, John, has lived in Tucson off and on since his childhood, and he and I lived there together for 10 years early in our marriage. For both of us, the city's striking desert setting, unique history and richly diverse culture add up to a place that has a hook in our hearts. After 17 years back in Florida (where I have lived most of my life), we still, every few years, start getting a faraway look in our eyes that keeps turning westward. "Tucson," one of us will say, and the other will nod. And we'll fire up the search engine for flights.

Why go in the summer? It's like summer in Florida: The amateurs are gone.

Desert digs

We aimed for "only in Tucson" experiences. No chain hotels or resorts, thanks (although Tucson has a ton of them). We booked a room at the Inns at El Rancho Merlita, a bed-and-breakfast east of the city.

Only in Tucson indeed. The place was built in the 1950s as the vacation hacienda of cosmetics mogul Merle Norman, whose signature, etched in a huge slab of pink stone, hangs over the front door. Restored a few years ago with meticulous attention to detail and furnished in the deluxe version of Southwestern style, the inn is wonderfully comfortable. Its 13-acre grounds, desert landscaping punctuated by a handsome pool and a swath of green lawn, are a quiet haven populated by hummingbirds, Gambel's quail, ground squirrels and the occasional javelina (the Southwest's wild pig). Sit on the cool verandah and to the north you'll have a splendid view of the Santa Catalina Mountains, one of four mountain ranges that surround the Santa Cruz Valley in which Tucson lies.

The main house is called the Ranch House Inn; we stayed in the Arroyo House, set alongside a dry wash that ran full with monsoon rain several times during our stay. Our room, Arroyo Bonito, had rich slate and brick walls, lovely art, Navajo-style rugs and a comfy king bed, plus a desk, armchair and love seat. A walk-in closet led to the large bathroom, with a tall hammered-copper soaking tub, walk-in shower and double sinks. Outside our door was a private patio overlooking the arroyo.

We might not have left the room at all, but the temptation of breakfast got us going each morning. Innkeeper Pattie Bell, a longtime Arizona resident who has worked in the hospitality business around the state, is not only a gracious host and great guide to the area but a fabulous cook. Treats like blue corn-blueberry pancakes, pecan sour cream waffles and chilaquiles (a casserole of eggs, corn tortillas, chilies and other goodies) had John declaring that his new plan for retirement was to move into Arroyo Bonito and have Pattie cook him breakfast every day.

Rancho Merlita was the perfect place for us to get a dose of the desert, but if you want to be in the thick of things in downtown Tucson, there's an only-in-Tucson alternative there. Hotel Congress was built in 1919 to serve travelers from the Southern Pacific train station across the street. It had its moment in history when notorious bank robber John Dillinger and his gang holed up incognito there in 1934, with their luggage full of loot and weapons. A fire forced the hotel's evacuation, but members of the gang offered firefighters a very large tip to fetch their bags. The firemen saw a magazine story about the gang and connected the dots, and a few days later Tucson Police Department officers arrested Dillinger without incident at a house nearby. Hotel Congress marks the event every January with Dillinger Days, featuring re-enactments and costume parties.

Today it's still a hotel, with 40 rooms — its website notes their "historic authenticity," which translates to smallish spaces and funky charm. (The hotel did install air conditioning in 2010.) But Hotel Congress is more notable as a hub of the city's nightlife. Its first floor still boasts the Tap Room bar, opened in 1919. In 1985, Club Congress debuted and has become one of the top intimate live music venues in the region, with performances most nights. (Acts during August ranged from the Polyphonic Spree to the Tubes.) The Cup Cafe opened in 1990, serving what can be described as comfort food of all nations. Its retro decor, cool floor — tiled with 177,000 pennies — and notable pies draw diners into the wee hours, too.

Given that rockin' first floor, a room at Hotel Congress may not be restful, but it's a great location for exploring Tucson's core.

Sampling Sonora

Foodwise, first things first: Tucson is a giant fiesta of wonderful Mexican restaurants, many of them serving Sonoran style food but with many other cuisines of Mexico represented. Among Tucsonans, Mexican restaurant loyalties are often passed down through generations, and pretty much anyone who has lived there for more than a week has strong opinions about whose carne asada or posole or green corn tamales are best.

I won't address those issues here because I could fill this entire newspaper section just getting started. Short version: If you love Mexican food, you're unlikely to go wrong eating in Tucson.

But we did have one culinary adventure on our agenda this trip. When we moved back to Florida, the Sonoran hot dog had not yet crossed the border and galvanized the local food scene. Now it's a foodie must-bite, so we drafted our friend Greg McNamee as our guide to its goodness.

McNamee is a writer, foodie extraordinaire and longtime desert rat. Falling enthusiastically to the task, he offered to take us on a tour of two or three of his favorite Sonoran hot dog vendors. "Or maybe we could do four?"

Alas, we wimped out after two, but that was enough to convert us. Our first stop was Aqui con El Nene (which Greg translated as "Here at Grandpa's Place"), a food truck and mister-cooled tent on the city's west side, tucked between a gritty bar and a feed store. Our second was BK Carne Asado and Hot Dogs Estilo Sonora, a bustling restaurant in the same part of town.

Service at both was friendly and quick, and the Sonoran hot dogs were killer. Ingredients vary, but usually the bun is a soft, slightly sweet bolillo; the hot dog is wrapped in bacon and grilled; and the dog is served with toppings that include mustard, ketchup, pinto beans, chopped tomatoes and onions, shredded cheese, salsa verde and a drizzle of mayo. On the side, a roasted, slightly hot yellow pepper.

Any wonder we stopped at two?

If you're thinking of local flavors in a more upscale setting, Tucson has a terrific restaurant scene. One of its godfathers is chef and restaurateur Janos Wilder, a James Beard Award winner who has been cooking in Tucson since 1983 and doing the locavore thing since before it had a name. He began with French-Southwestern fusion based on not just local but native ingredients.

His latest restaurant, the warmly contemporary Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, branches out internationally with everything from Laotian chicken and green papaya salad to Caribbean-inspired rum-and-coffee-cured duck breast to "shrimp with a sense of place" with corn masa, spicy black bean puree, salsa fresca, cholla (a kind of cactus) bud escabeche and queso fresco. We had dinner there with friends on this visit, and we were happy to find Wilder's emphasis on locally sourced ingredients and delicious fare intact.

The Dove and the desert

Tucson has many attractions, including hiking and birding, scads of golf courses, the Western movie set-theme park Old Tucson, even skiing in the Catalinas in winter. The touchstones for us are two more of those only-in-Tucson places.

Mission San Xavier del Bac was founded in 1700, even before Tucson itself, by Father Eusebio Kino, a Jesuit who established 24 missions in the Pimeria Alta, what is now southern Arizona and northern Sonora.

The mission's church, known as the White Dove of the Desert, was built between 1783 and 1797, mainly by missionaries and Tohono O'odhams. Its site today is part of the tribe's San Xavier Reservation, 9 miles south of Tucson. (The main reservation lies west of the city and covers 4,340 square miles — just a little smaller than Connecticut.) Today the tribe's three Desert Diamond casinos draw bigger crowds, but San Xavier del Bac is unique.

The church, the oldest intact European structure in Arizona, is a dazzling white, elegant structure on the outside. Inside it's a Baroque riot of color and form, alive with statuary, frescoes and carvings that cover every surface — angels and saints, Madonnas and Christs, all created by anonymous artists. (Also, thanks to its thick walls, the interior was blessedly cool even on a sizzling day. Not so a side chapel where people light hundreds of candles as a form of prayer — it was so ovenlike we took one step in and had to back out.)

Although San Xavier has always been an active parish church, its structures had deteriorated over the years. Founded in 1978, an organization called Patronato San Xavier has raised money and undertaken a remarkable restoration effort over the last two decades. We hadn't visited the church in many years and were struck by its renewed beauty. We also noticed a new figure among the 18th century statues of saints: a prominently positioned carving of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, an Algonquin-Mohawk woman who in 2012 was named the first American Indian saint.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is, perhaps, misnamed — although it's part natural history museum, it's mainly a zoo and botanical park spreading across 21 acres of natural desert. We set out early for the drive 14 miles west of the city, winding up through the Tucson Mountains to Gates Pass and breakfasting there. Our perch overlooked the western segment of Saguaro National Park. The 91,000-acre park's two sections, about 20 miles apart, bracket the city and are home to one of the world's largest stands of the giant, majestic saguaro cactus, which grows only in the Sonoran Desert.

Nestled among those cactus is the Desert Museum, founded in 1953. Its 2 miles of paths offer sweeping views of distant mountains, including Kitt Peak and its observatories, as well as closeup looks at 1,200 plant species and 230 species of animals, all native to the Sonoran Desert. The newest addition to the museum, the Warden Aquarium, houses the region's marine species.

One of our favorite spots is the hummingbird aviary, where dozens of the tiny flying jewels zip past your head. When we came through the door this time, two of them — courting or fighting, we weren't sure — were locked in a dizzy mutual spiral that circled our legs for several minutes.

Mammals on exhibition include bighorn sheep, black bears, Mexican gray wolves, coyotes, javelinas, river otters and a new mountain lion cub named Cruz, all housed in large, open habitats. The "Raptor Free Flight" program is a thrilling glimpse of hawks, falcons and owls on the wing over the desert.

While we were strolling through one of the reptile exhibits, which features glass-fronted underground burrows for the snakes and lizards to retreat to during the heat of the day, a staffer busy cleaning the glass called out, "Hey, did you see the Gila monster?"

She pointed it out, tucked deep in a burrow, a fat fellow covered with a pink-and-black pattern that looks like beadwork, a creature dangerous but beautiful, found only in this part of the world.

The woman smiled like a proud grandma. "He's shy. But you wouldn't want to miss him."

Only in Tucson.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.

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