A Desert State of Mind

Featured in Travel Life Magazine, Winter 2016

Think of Tucson as a basin with steep edges. An urban desert, defined less by its architecture than by its natural beauty, benign climate, blue skies and the dazzling interplay of light and shadow.

A city of about a half million people, Tucson—a mere one-and-a-half drive from Phoenix—is surrounded by five mountain ranges. Here cacti stand at attention along sidewalks, in front yards, and in vast stretches of beige desert: when in bloom in April, they offer resplendent contrasts in purple, white, red and yellow.

For Canadians, the Grand Canyon and the red rocks of Sedona are likely the two most conjured images associated with Arizona. However the sprawling city of Tucson—part urban, part country —are where desert and mountains collide. Canyons are there to be climbed. Museums display everything from contemporary photography and desert wildlife to aerospace and Jewish history. And accommodations vary from dude ranch to upscale resort to historic inn.

The Dude Ranch Experience

Although having rarely ridden a horse, fantasies of the Wild West and life on a dude ranch was what first drew me to this town. Arizona ranches have been around since the 1920s, and Tucson boasts two of the best in the state.

Most dude or guest ranches began as working cattle ranches, and evolved into guest ranches that range from working to family to luxury. In the 1940s, there were some 100 guest ranches in Tucson, but this number decreased to about 30 in the 1960s and then gradually dwindled to two – as urban sprawl swallowed up the land from most of the ranches.

We stayed at one of these two remaining ranches: White Stallion Ranch, which Trip Advisor consistently rates number one of 130 Tucson accommodations. This place is the ultimate all-inclusive, but without the typical bikini-clad sunburnt tequila-guzzling guest that you think of on a beach holiday. Instead, guests roam around in jeans and cowboy boots when they’re coming from or heading out for one of several daily rides (except Sunday). All rides—they have a 3,000 acre property—are included in your stay, as are family-style meals, accommodations in 41 casitas and a four-bedroom house—and other amenities like an outdoor heated pool, sunken tennis court, spa, and recreation room with private movie theatre. (There are no TVs in the rooms.) And night-time entertainment includes a Wild West Show (think gun slinging, whip cracking and trick roping), an art class and cowboy singer. Does it get any better?

It does. Six p.m. is social hour, when guests gather around the bar and lounge area: our kids make a beeline for the saddle stools, I make a bee line for the prickly pear margaritas. (It’s an honour bar, but at $3.50 it’s a steal.)

Then 7:00 p.m. dinner is buffet style, and families are free to sit at outdoor tables. Conversation stops briefly as a railroad bell announces one of the owners, Russell True, who describes the rides for the next day. Depending on the day, this includes slow rides, fast ones, rides into the mountains, and ones that include wine and cheese, beer and Cheetos or breakfast.

Guests or “dudes” are recognized on arrival for their accents and “dimensions,” as one wrangler tactfully puts it, referencing the stats we provide on our height and weight prior to arriving, so we can be matched with an appropriate-sized horse for the duration of their stay.

Our last morning, we saddle up for our 7:30 a.m. breakfast ride. This is one of their slow rides, a leisurely amble amidst the still cool air of early morning, across the desert. Everywhere you see saguaro cacti and the low brush of mesquite and creosote bushes, and palo verde and ironwood trees. After about 40 minutes, we arrive, almost magically, at shaded picnic tables with blue and white checked tablecloths. We line up with our plates to get eggs with sausage, potatoes and blueberry pancakes – and a fresh cup of coffee, cooked on mesquite coals over a grill.

Breakfast is simple, hearty, delicious and plentiful, like everything else at the White Stallion.

I have little appetite in the morning before heading to my downtown office in Toronto. But here in the desert, the air is fresh, the wind is warm and the sun feels hot. And I’m famished.

Resorts merge with desert landscape

Riding the dusty trails with the kids not your idea of a vacation? Family resorts are another option. These resorts tend to be built in the foothills of the mountains, on large properties where desert and mountains are your backyard, and twinkling lights of downtown are simply spots on the horizon.

We chose the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, at the foot of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Featured in Architectural Digest in 1984, the Loews Ventana is one of the first green hotels built in America. There’s an 80-foot waterfall, a certified butterfly garden, and a six-mile hiking trail on site. Designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, its brown stone walls merge with the desert landscape, a pond flows under the main building, cooling the lobby through the summer months, and the rocks and minerals on display here are borrowed from the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum.

Its high-end restaurant, the Flying V Bar & Grill, is rated by Trip Advisor as one of the top two of 1,300 restaurants in Tucson. And it doesn’t disappoint. Our dinner began with its award-winning guacamole, prepared tableside, along with prickly pear lemonade and an amuse bouche for the kids— tequila and margaritas for my husband and me. This was followed up by tiger prawns escabeche and short rib tacos, and then veal porterhouse with bacon mac and cheese. Divine. Dessert was a lavish and delectable chocolate tasting that included a dark chocolate salted caramel tart, and a peanut butter ganache.

Executive chef Ken Harvey, in his tenth year at the Flying V, describes Tucson as “healthy balanced life with the seasons…” With fully-sleeved [tattoos] to hide scars from cooking burns, he talks about the “synergy in this town,” how Tucson chefs are congenially collaborative. (People flock here for his food, as they do at Ventana’s more casual Canyon Café, which draws anywhere from about 400 to 800 for their famous Sunday brunch.)

After our meal, happily replenished, the kids and I float on our backs in their beautiful outdoor pool while, next to us, a group is gathered around getting an astronomical tour of the stars.

A sidetrip to Bisbee

This town, a two-hour drive from Tucson and a mere four miles from the Mexican border, is a magically serene place, a quiet desert oasis, in the Mule Mountains, recently rates the most historic town in America.

From the 1880s to mid 1970s, more than $45 billion of metals were excavated here— primarily copper, but also gold (more than anywhere else in the country), and lead, zinc and silver. Then after the mines closed, Bisbee became an affordable haven—attracting artists, bohemians. free spirits and now retirees— people opting into a slower pace of life.

Think of Bisbee as old school Arizona. Unlike many other mining towns in Arizona that were abandoned and became ghost towns after the mines’ closure, “virtually ever house and business [in Bisbee] is occupied,” explains Gary Dillard. an historian, and our highly informed tour guide for Lavender Jeep Tours.

Dillard began by taking us up through the historic district of Bisbee, which is built up around hillsides, dotted with colourful old homes, and surrounded by red mountains— the red created from oxidized pyrate and copper deposits. We drive along High Road—with the startling blue Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico in the distance. And we then head out of town, through Warren, where wealthy copper barons and mine managers once settled, past an open pit mine, then an old ballpark—the oldest in the U.S. (where Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio once played), then a massive cemetery, and to The Shady Dell, a motel where guests stay in sleek restored airstream trailers from the 1950s.

Then leaving us back at the Copper Queen Hotel, we tour around our own. We join a tour of Queen Copper Mine, where we travel by underground trolley 1,800 feet into the mine, donning hard hats, bright yellow slickers and head lamps.

Then we settle in for a beer (root beer for the kids) at the Bisbee Brewing Company, before checking into the eminently charming Canyon Rose Suites (www.canyonrose.com), where our two-bedroom suite, in a restored turn-of-the-century building is more like a small house – perfect for family.

Sidebar: Our top 5 Sightseeing Destinations and Hikes:

  1. Order cocktails in the lounge of the Hotel Congress, built in 1919. Try the $5 Mexican ice water, the closest thing to a margarita.
  2. Visit the Creative Center for Photography. Started up by Ansel Adams at the University of Arizona, it boasts an excellent collection of mainly black and white prints in a few digestible rooms. Entry is free of charge.
  3. Hike Sabino Canyon (about a 15-minute drive from Ventana resort). There is a 45-minute narrated shuttle bus ride, which covers some of best scenery in the area.
  4. Roam along the meandering two-mile path through the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. See the mother hummingbird feeding her baby in the aviary, explore underground caves, visit their on-site art gallery, and check out the aquarium at the entrance.
  5. Constructed in the late 1700s by Franciscan missionaries, Mission San Xavier del Baco is a stunning example of Spanish baroque architecture.

Getting there: Fly directly to Tucson or take non-stop flights to Phoenix. If arriving in Phoenix, avoid the I-10 and instead, take a slightly longer but much more scenic route: take the 60 freeway east to Apache Junction, and then the 79 through the town of Florence, then the 77 into Tucson.