PRAIS­ING ARI­ZONA

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

SPRAWLED low and lazy across the lush Sono­ran Desert and ringed by rugged moun­tain ranges lies the for­mer Wild West town of Tuc­son, Ari­zona. Sun-kissed in win­ter, sun­burnt in sum­mer, this city of a mil­lion res­i­dents rests in the foothills of the ma­jes­tic Santa Catali­nas, with the Rin­con, Tuc­son, Tor­tolita and Santa Rita ranges al­most com­plet­ing the pro­tec­tive cir­cle.

The re­gion’s sun­shine and scenery may ini­tially at­tract vis­i­tors, but Tuc­son’s quirky col­lage of rugged desert land­scapes and lush golf cour­ses, mil­i­tary bases and arts dis­tricts, hip col­lege scene and Wild West at­ti­tude en­tices many vis­i­tors, like me, to re­turn again and again.

Best stargaz­ing: While Tuc­son, with its warm win­ters and high-end golf and spa re­sorts, is a pop­u­lar get­away for mu­sic and movie in­dus­try celebri­ties (Paul and Linda McCart­ney had a home in the hills out­side Tuc­son), the best stargaz­ing is the heav­enly kind. Ari­zona’s clear, dark skies have spawned the world’s largest col­lec­tion of op­ti­cal tele­scopes at Kitt Peak Na­tional Ob­ser­va­tory, 90km south­west of Tuc­son, off State Route 86.

Barely an hour’s drive finds me 2100m above sea level, where the tem­per­a­ture is a de­light­ful 10C cooler than on the desert floor. Among the 19 op­ti­cal and two ra­dio tele­scopes is the world’s largest so­lar tele­scope, in­cluded in the first of three daily guided tours, each last­ing about an hour.

My tour, how­ever, takes in Kitt Peak’s largest op­ti­cal tele­scope, a land­mark vis­i­ble through­out much of my drive here from Tuc­son. Inside the domed struc­ture, we gaze at the 4m mir­ror above.

Then, with­out warn­ing, I find my­self clutch­ing the wall as the room seems to tilt and turn. I re­gain my bear­ings as the enor­mous mir­ror re­volves slowly into po­si­tion for that evening’s stargaz­ing.

A night-time ob­ser­va­tion pro­gram us­ing smaller tele­scopes at the vis­i­tor cen­tre is so pop­u­lar it re­quires reser­va­tions well in ad­vance. www.noao.edu/kpno.

Best Cold War relic: Plane spot­ters and mil­i­tary buffs will want to see the more than 250 air­craft at the Pima Air and Space Mu­seum, the largest in the west­ern US. www.pi­maair.org.

For my money, how­ever, the most chill­ing trip into not-so-an­cient his­tory is a visit to the Ti­tan Mis­sile Mu­seum, the world’s only pub­licly ac­ces­si­ble bal­lis­tic mis­sile com­plex. I take In­ter­state 19 south from Tuc­son to exit 69, then head west on Du­val Mine Road to the mu­seum.

A for­mer crew mem­ber guides an hour­long tour that in­cludes a sim­u­lated mis­sile launch. We de­scend 10m into the mis­sile silo and more than three decades into the past, to the height of the Cold War.

The silo, its launch door propped partly open, still holds the once nu­clear-tipped Ti­tan mis­sile, the last of its kind. It was de­com­mis­sioned in 1982 and has a 60cm hole cut in its now-empty nose cone.

Deep un­der­ground, we en­ter a com­mand post filled with retro green and sil­ver pan­els cov­ered in ana­log di­als, switches and flash­ing lights. This is how the world could have ended, yet it re­minds me of a cheesy 1950s sci-fi film.

For those feel­ing nos­tal­gic for the Cold War, $US500 ($553) and an ad­vance book­ing will buy an overnight stay in the crew’s quar­ters. www.ti­tan­mis­sile­mu­seum.org.

Best Span­ish mis­sion: I visit Mis­sion San Xavier del Bac on the To­hono O’odham reser­va­tion on my way back to Tuc­son. It was es­tab­lished by the Span­ish and is still op­er­ated by the Fran­cis­cans.

Of­ten cited as the finest US ex­am­ple of this style of ar­chi­tec­ture, the 200-year-old white­washed church with its or­nately carved fa­cade and sin­gle dome ap­pears in­com­plete yet strik­ingly beau­ti­ful, with the Santa Catali­nas a dis­tant blue back­drop.

Paint­ings adorn­ing the in­te­rior walls and ceil­ings are vivid and or­nate, and while the retab­los (be­hind the al­tar) are breath­tak­ing, I find some of the carved wooden fig­ures with their gaudily painted faces vaguely dis­turb­ing. www.sanx­avier­mis­sion.org.

Best shop­ping: Barely a kilo­me­tre from down­town Tuc­son is the Lost Bar­rio, an eclec­tic re­tail dis­trict so named be­cause even many lo­cals don’t know it ex­ists.

I take Broad­way Boule­vard to Park Av­enue (be­tween Camp­bell and Eu­clid av­enues) and head south to ren­o­vated ’ 20s red-brick ware­houses packed with di­verse, high-qual­ity an­tiques, re­pro­duc­tions and ar­ti­san crafts for the home (from stair­cases to Ming vases) sourced from In­dia, Morocco, South­east Asia, Ti­bet, China, Europe and South Amer­ica.

For items more in keep­ing with the south­west, Rus­tica, also in the Lost Bar­rio, at 200 S. Park Ave, fea­tures Mex­i­can-style home ac­ces­sories, from ce­ram­ics to chan­de­liers.

Best art ex­pe­ri­ence: The Cen­tre for Creative Pho­tog­ra­phy at the Univer­sity of Ari­zona holds the coun­try’s pre­mier col­lec­tion of images taken by the gi­ants of Amer­i­can pho­tog­ra­phy, in­clud­ing Ansel Adams, best known for his black-and-white images of Yosemite Val­ley. In the Print View­ing Room, there is free ac­cess, by ap­point­ment on week­day af­ter­noons, to the so-called ‘‘ vis­i­tor’s choice’’ of more than 80,000 orig­i­nal images by about 2000 pho­tog­ra­phers.

If se­lect­ing just three boxes of prints from such a vast col­lec­tion is daunt­ing, staff can as­sist by sug­gest­ing pho­tog­ra­phers, tech­niques or sub­jects that com­ple­ment vis­i­tors’ in­ter­ests. www.cre­ativepho­tog­ra­phy.org.

Best traf­fic tip: With lit­tle pub­lic trans­port and no east-west free­ways, Tuc­son’s grid­pat­tern streets are time-con­sum­ing, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing peak hours.

A tip from a lo­cal soon has me giv­ing the sadly mis­named Speed­way and Broad­way boule­vards (the main east-west thor­ough­fares) a miss when driv­ing out of town. In­stead, I head north to River Road, on the edge of the metropoli­tan area and with few traf­fic lights, to es­cape into the foothills.

Best eats: The French-in­spired south­west­ern cui­sine at Janos and con­tem­po­rary Latin-fu­sion meals at its more ca­sual and af­ford­able sib­ling, the J Bar, are worth the drive to Westin La Paloma Re­sort on Tuc­son’s north­east­ern out­skirts.

I opt for the bud­get restau­rant, which shares the more op­u­lent Janos’s warm Span­ish-in­flu­enced decor and much of its dessert menu.

With Amer­i­can serv­ing sizes in mind and the de­sire to save room for those desserts, I or­der an ap­pe­tiser in­stead of a main. At less than $US10, the grilled Venezue­lan corn cake, stuffed with mush­rooms, toma­toes and cheese, and served with olive aioli and tomato vi­nai­grette, turns out to be an ex­cel­lent choice. I fin­ish with a Mex­i­can-in­flu­enced choco­late jalapeno ice-cream sun­dae that is a sig­na­ture dessert on chef Janos Wilder’s menus. www.westin­la­palo­mare­sort.com.

Best pic­nic sup­plies: An­other eat­ing op­tion is to take ad­van­tage of Ari­zona’s peren­ni­ally sunny cli­mate by cre­at­ing a pic­nic ham­per at one of sev­eral Trader Joe’s stores that spe­cialise in gourmet food and wine at com­pet­i­tive prices. Fresh, creative, prepack­aged sal­ads, such as mixed baby greens with grilled egg­plant, fetta cheese, pine nuts and tahini dress­ing, are about $US4.

The store’s cheese case car­ries Tas­ma­nian goat’s cheese for a frac­tion of the price I’ve paid for it in Aus­tralian su­per­mar­kets. My favourites from the large se­lec­tion of sweets in­clude choco­late-coated dried cher­ries and peanut but­ter cups. www.trader­joes.com.

Best oa­sis: Agua Caliente in Roy P. Drach­man Re­gional Park is named for the hot spring that, with its cold-wa­ter twin, bub­bled from the base of the Santa Catali­nas for eons un­til white men, hop­ing to in­crease the flow, dy­na­mited them. They suc­ceeded only in cre­at­ing a sin­gle, warm flow.

Ver­dant stands of palms sur­round the 30C spring that flows into a se­ries of lakes and wet­lands in­hab­ited by nu­mer­ous wa­ter birds, fish and tur­tles.

Gnarled mesquite trees shade wide, pic­nicper­fect lawns where I en­joy my Trader Joe’s feast with some friends. A ca­sual stroll takes us through green tun­nels formed by younger trees, then around lakes and wet­lands.

The park is on East Roger Road, off the Catalina High­way lead­ing to Mount Lem­mon.

Best desert trails: Sur­rounded by desert parks, Tuc­son is a hiker’s par­adise. Top of my list, for ac­ces­si­bil­ity and choice, is Sabino Canyon Re­cre­ation Area on the city’s north­ern fringe, at 5700 N Sabino Canyon Rd.

Nu­mer­ous marked trails, from easy to dif­fi­cult, me­an­der through the Santa Catalina foothills and that most pre­cious of desert trea­sures, wa­ter, is usu­ally present. The paved 6km road that criss­crosses Sabino Creek on stone bridges is a great op­tion, en­abling vis­i­tors to en­joy the scenery with­out hav­ing to watch their feet on the rocky trails.

A shut­tle ser­vice also op­er­ates on paved roads within the park for non-hik­ers.

Sabino Creek nour­ishes a pro­fu­sion of flora, in­clud­ing daisy-like brit­tle­bush, shady mesquite, spindly ocotillo, prickly teddy-bear cholla and tow­er­ing saguaros. There is also a good chance of see­ing desert wildlife, in­clud­ing bob­cats and coy­otes.

Best for­est: Tuc­son is strad­dled by the dens­est stands of the world’s most recog­nis­able cac­tus, the saguaro. I visit Saguaro Na­tional Park West, tak­ing Speed­way Boule­vard, west from down­town, to scenic Gates Pass, then fol­low signs to the park.

Here, reg­i­ments of saguaros march down the west­ern flank of the Tuc­son Moun­tains. Vis­i­tors can choose from the 10km Ba­jada Loop Drive, leisurely na­ture strolls or a stren­u­ous, day-long hike.

With the sun high and the tem­per­a­ture in the low 30s when I visit, I savour the panoramic views of the for­est from Red Hills Vis­i­tor Cen­tre, then tune in to an in­for­ma­tive au­dio-vis­ual pro­gram about the fa­mous cac­tus. www.saguarona­tion­al­park.com.

Best wild mo­ment: On my re­turn drive to Tuc­son, I stop at Ari­zona-Sonora Desert Mu­seum. A com­bi­na­tion of zoo, botanic gar­den and nat­u­ral his­tory mu­seum, it presents more than 1200 plant va­ri­eties and 300 an­i­mal species from the Sono­ran Desert, which cov­ers parts of Ari­zona, Cal­i­for­nia and Mex­ico.

Wildlife lives freely here in eco­log­i­cal zones, or se­curely in sen­si­tively de­vel­oped ex­hibits. Bob­cats, ocelot and jaguarundi laze in Cat Canyon. A lizard sits mo­tion­less on a rock by the desert loop trail. There are coy­ote and javelina (na­tive desert pig) ex­hibits and play­ful prairie dogs en­ter­tain vis­i­tors wan­der­ing through desert grass­land. Gem-like hum­ming­birds dart and hover in their aviary, within arm’s reach. But the re­gion’s creepy crawlies, taran­tu­las, scor­pi­ons and rat­tlesnakes, are where I pre­fer them, safely sealed be­hind glass.

www.visit­tuc­son.org

Not just deserts: Clock­wise from top, Saguaro Na­tional Park West; Mis­sion San Xavier del Bac; Janos; Cen­tre for Creative Pho­tog­ra­phy; Kitt Peak Na­tional Ob­ser­va­tory

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