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Tucson's Year-Round Tourist Treats

June 22, 1986|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

TUCSON, Ariz. — The morning in early summer was aglow with the desert sunshine of southern Arizona. And when my wife and I got out of our car we put on our sweaters.

We had just driven up to the village of Summerhaven on Mt. Lemmon in the "Canadian life zone" at about 8,000 feet above Tucson, and we had already discovered other summer havens at lower altitudes around what is now presenting itself to the travel world as "the new all-year Tucson--a secret no longer."

Over a sip of champagne the previous evening, John Thacker, the creative young general manager of Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, had with a touch of whimsy put the new Tucson into focus for us.

"Wouldn't it be a great idea," he mused, "if all the desert resorts around Tucson would raise instead of lower their rates this summer?" Then he answered his own question: "It won't happen, of course, but it would certainly tell the world how much Tucson has come of age as an all-year destination."

Along with other resorts, hotels, inns and guest ranches around Tucson, Loews Ventana Canyon Resort has again dropped its summer rates. From May 23 to Sept. 13, doubles start at $75 in the setting of a Lakeside Spa and Tennis Club, 27 holes of golf, two pools, nature trails and a parcourse track. The high-season rate, Jan. 15 to May 22, was $155.

Such reductions as these are enhancing the summer attractions of Tucson.

Winter-Season Guests

The climate, sports, cultural, historic and scenic attractions of this city 60 miles north of Mexico have long drawn the winter-season "snowbirds" from throughout the United States and many other nations to its hotels, guest ranches and condominiums. Guest ranches such as Tanque Verde, which was a working ranch back in the 1880s, have become total resorts and spas.

Now Loews Ventana Canyon beneath the mountain rim of the city is one of several luxury resorts and spas helping to create a new all-year image for what is ranked as the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the United States.

The Tucson National Resort and Spa opened in January, representing an $18-million expansion of the famed Tucson National Golf Club and its many resort facilities.

In February the new Westin La Paloma golf, tennis and health resort added still another dimension to metropolitan Tucson as a year-around destination.

Like Loews, the Sheraton Tucson El Conquistador was already established as a resort complex for golfers, tennis players, sunbathers and fitness buffs.

Mayor Lewis C. Murphy, serving a fourth term in office, owes much of his popularity to a "firmly flexible" policy for establishing year-around tourism as the No. 1 economic resource in this Sun Belt city that has close to 600,000 people in its metropolitan area and is growing at about 2,000 a month.

'A Vital Complex'

"We have the University of Arizona, a vital complex of light industries and government institutions like the Air Force base," he said, "but the underpinning of our economy is the visitors who come here, and we've started a campaign to keep bringing them here every month of the year."

The recently completed $53-million Tucson International Airport prepares the city for its projected increase in tourism. Fifteen major airlines make about 120 arrivals and departures daily. A representative low air fare between Los Angeles and Tucson this summer is Western's $98 round-trip advance purchase fare.

During our visit we've been playing tennis in the early morning, and enjoying the pools, health spas, golf courses and cultural options of the city at any time of the day, always knowing that we could escape quickly from desert temperatures to the coolness of the five surrounding mountain ranges. The valley cools in the evening by dinner time.

In the summer, midday temperatures in the valley can hover around 98 degrees. Nighttime temperatures average around 70. However, July, August and September can also bring rains to cool the air and water the golf courses. In the Santa Catalina Mountains around Mt. Lemmon, the temperatures are generally 30 degrees cooler.

We've carried our skis on winter visits to Tucson for the contrast between the swimming pool and the slopes of Mt. Lemmon, southernmost ski area in the continental United States. Pausing in the middle of a run, we could look across the desert into Mexico.

Bird-Watching Wonders

A summer drive up the mountain replaces snow with wildflowers, whitetail deer nibbling on meadow grasses and more than 40 species of birds, including the broad-tailed hummingbird, Stellar's jay and the red-tailed hawk.

The two-lane road winds around mountains, canyons, sculptured rock formations and five life zones of growth for 25 miles of one of Earth's most scenic drives.

On most maps the road is designated as the General Hitchcock Highway in honor of the man who pioneered it. It is also known as the Catalina Highway.

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