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Tucson has something for everyone

After spending a week in Sedona, we headed south to Tucson for more leisure time.  Tucson is situated at the edge of the Sonora Desert, which stretches a long way into Mexico and also westward into parts of California.  Northerners come to Tucson during the winter months to soak up some rays and to enjoy the warm and dry climate.  We were in Tucson last year; we liked it so much that we decided to return.  Our timeshare casita was at the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains.  Every morning, I took my coffee out to the balcony and watched the sun rise over the mountain top - quite a pleasant way to start the day.   You can always sit by the pool or play a round of golf if you just want to relax.  However, there is a lot more to do and see in Tucson and its vicinity than you would think otherwise.  Here are my top ten picks.  They are in no particular order, although the selections are likely to be biased by my own interest. 

1.  Arizona Sonora Desert Museum

     This is not a museum as the word is conventionally defined.  It is in fact a botanical and zoological garden exhibiting a wide variety of plants and animals which are found in the Sonora Desert.  Docent guided tours are scheduled throughout the day to explain the reproduction, life cycle, and use of these plants by the native Indians.  I never knew there are so many different species of cactus.  We bought a picture book of Arizona cacti so that we would remember their names and what they look like.  The animal habitats are blended seamlessly into the desert landscape.  Lectures are also held in the auditorium about how animals adapt  to the arid environment.  I particularly like the talks on gila monster and rattle snake.  This is a fun and informative place to spend the day.

2.  Tohono Chul Park

     This is a smaller version of number 1, but without the animals and located in an urban area.  The park is beautifully laid out and dotted with fountains and ramadas.  The best part is the guided wild flower tour.  The person leading the tour is very knowledgeable and she herself is a master gardener.  I would never dream that there could be such a wide variety of vibrant colored wild flowers growing in the desert.  To top it off,  humming birds are hovering everywhere in search of nectar.

3.  The Biosphere

     The Biosphere, which belongs to the University of Arizona, is a research center designed to learn how a particular ecosystem recycles its air, water and nutrients in order to sustain plant and animal lives.  The entire complex, which is built of glass and steel, consists of 5 biomes: rain forest, ocean, savanna, desert and marsh.   A guided tour takes visitors to all 5 zones and explains how everything works, including a humongous bubble which serves as the "artificial lung" for the entire facility since the inside is air-locked.   If you are an environmentalist and are also into technology, this is the place for you.

4.  Titan Missile Museum

     Where else in the world would you find a real Titan II ICBM sitting in a silo?  The Titan II was the mainstay of our nuclear arsenal during the cold war era.  A total of 54 Titan silos were built across the country.  All of them were deactivated by the late 1980's.  Only the one near Tucson was converted to a historical landmark and open to the public.  A guided tour takes you deep underground where you can see the gigantic missile up close.  At the launch control center, I was chosen as the "commander" to run through a simulated drill of receiving the order from the President, authenticating a sequence of steps to ensure compliance, and finally turning the key to fire the missile.  What a blast!

5.  Pima Air Museum

     The museum at Davis Air Field has over 300 airplanes on display; most of them are from World War II and the Vietnam war vintage.  There is everything you can imagine - fighters, bombers, transporters, torpedo planes, rescue planes, reconnaissance planes, helicopters,etc.  We had a chance to talk to a 93-year old WW II veteran.  He served as a gunner in a B-17 Flying Fortress and participated in a number of bombing raids of Germany.  It was quite emotional to hear his stories.  I have been to several air museums in the past, but this is the first time I came across an SR-71 Blackbird.  It is a weird looking spy plane.  Apparently, most of the fuselage is  taken up by the fuel tank so that the plane can stay up in the air for a long time.  There is also a bus tour which takes visitors to a very very large area called the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, nicknamed the Boneyard.  Over 4,000 planes are parked on the tarmac, all covered with a special coating for protection against the sun.  About 30% of the planes are still in flight status, the rest are kept for spare parts. 

6.  Sabino Canyon

     Located in the Santa Catalina Mountains, this picturesque recreation oasis offers a long hiking trail on the canyon floor amid tumbling streams and an evergreen forest, as well as trails throughout the mountains.  It is a nice quiet place to spend an afternoon.  If you are too tired to walk back, there is a tram which returns you to the visitor center.

7.  Mission San Xavier Del Bac

     The mission was first founded by a Spanish Jesuit by the name of Eusebio Kino in the 1600's  when Arizona was part of New Spain.  The current church was built by Franciscans in the late 1700’s with the help of a large work force of O’odham Indians.  It is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona.   Following Mexican independence from Spain in 1821, San Xavier became the property of Mexico.  With the Gadsden Purchase of Arizona in 1854, the Mission was absorbed into the U.S.  This is a place where visitors can step back in time to contemplate the ebb and flow of history.   The mission has many beautiful statuaries and mural paintings, and still serves as an active parish church.

8.  Tumacacori (about 1 hour drive south of Tucson)

      In addition to establishing San Xavier, Father Kino also founded a mission here for the Pima Indians.  This one is not so well preserved; only the facades are standing today.   At this site, you  learn about the northward expansion of New Spain in the 1600's, the missionary work of the Spanish Catholic Church, and the conflict between the native Indians and the conquistadors. 

9.  Casa Grande National Monument (about 1 hour drive north of Tucson)

     You guessed it right, it is another Indian ruin, this one built by the Hohokam.   It is the largest ruin found in southern Arizona.  The most fascinating thing is that the  walls and openings of the 4-story big house were aligned according to astrological orientation.  The Hohokam lived in the area for centuries; they also built a very sophisticated irrigation system to divert water from the Gila River for farming.   The site was abandoned in the mid-1400's.  The ruin was first seen and named Casa Grande by Father Eusebio Kino  (the same priest mentioned above) in the mid-1600's .

10.  Tombstone (about 1 hour drive east of Tucson)

    Many of us probably saw the movie "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas.  Tombstone was the place of the action. The movie is about a true life story of a confrontation between Virgil Earp, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday on one side, and the Clanton brothers on the other.  There is a staged re-enactment of the gunfight at the OK Corral Ranch.   The streets and buildings in town have been re-constructed with a distinct frontier flavor.  The whole setup is a tourist trap, but it is fun.  


    If you feel famished after visiting all these places, I suggest you try a restaurant called Mi Nidito (My Little Nest).  President Clinton patronized this cafe late one evening when he was in Tucson.  The kitchen whipped up a new dish in his honor.  You can  order the same thing which is listed on the menu as the "Clinton plate".  It has a sample of several traditional Mexican fares; the portion size is huge (I guess Clinton must have been very hungry).   I only ate half of the serving, and I was full to the gill.  By the way,  it is not just the novelty that appeals to me; the food is fabulous.

-- By Clement Ip



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