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Home, Home on the Range. . . : where the dudes and the sybarites play

March 01, 1987|JERRY HULSE | Times Travel Editor

TUCSON, Ariz. — You may be invited out for a picnic in your jeans at a desert state park, but when you do, your waiter will be gussied up in a tuxedo and serve your hot dogs, watermelon and caviar with white-gloved elegance.

Introducing the Mild, Mild West.

What would an old cowpoke feel about snails tossed in butter with wild mushrooms? Or duckling salad with pecans? Or mousse of salmon?

Or for that matter, how would old Leather Britches feel about a Russian bath or a Finnish sauna or an herbal wrap?

Only a short time ago Tucson meant horses, hayrides and steak fries. Now it's golf, tennis, aerobics and high tea.

Forgive us our self-indulgences.

All this began a little more than four years ago with the appearance of the Sheraton El Conquistador, a snazzy resort that seems more in tune with Beverly Hills or Bel-Air than the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. This isn't to deny a certain Southwestern appeal. Indeed, with the adobe touches it appears from a distance like one of those Navajo villagesin a Western flick.

Once inside, though, it's strictly glitz.

Scattered about the grounds are 289 hotel rooms of which 47 are suites. This plus 150 casitas, each with its own wood-burning fireplace. Give Sheraton credit. It's strictly low-rise.

And while there is riding, the emphasis is mostly on golf and tennis (16 lighted courts), biking and racquetball.

Sheraton's swimming pool is surrounded by waterfalls and lagoons. And while no one expects to bump into the Lone Ranger, a sense of the Old West surely survives. Guests are delivered by buckboard to the Last Territory, a steak house with entertainment that's strictly country-Western. Or there are picnics at Catalina State Park where vacationers wearing jeans are served by waiters all gussied up in tuxedos and white gloves.

Now that's class.

As Sunday fades, out comes the Bromo Seltzer following a brunch Sheraton puts on that numbers 142 dishes, including 22 desserts. Afterward, to shake off the calories and assuage the guilt, patrons are given the option of working out in Sheraton's fitness center.

Of late, Tucson is promoting a European-style spa image. Why travel clear to Baden-Baden or Montecatini when one can shape up at home, ask the resort operators?

Over at the Tucson National Resort & Spa the offerings include herbal wraps, Finnish saunas, Scottish showers, Swiss showers, Russian baths and a variety of other services aimed at helping the guest get on with the glow.

Under the supervision of Doris Hogue, formerly of La Costa, customers are dunked, rubbed, punched and scrubbed in a brand-new multimillion-dollar fitness center 20 miles northwest of downtown Tucson.

Guests fill their lungs with the fumes of a eucalyptus-scented sauna ("it's like living inside a cough drop," said one wag) and relax in what could only resemble an iron lung. They soak rays in tanning beds and work out with weights. The spa does pedicures, manicures, facials and provides rubdowns. For $98 they'll put you through a routine that takes in everything from an herbal wrap to a shampoo and the artificial suntan for a total of 14 encounters with the gang from the Fountain of Youth.

For 15 years the Tucson National Resort & Spa was the staging area for the annual Tucson Open, a scene familiar to millions of Americans via the tube.

When owner William Nanini opened his one-time private golf club to the public, he added the spa to give golf widows a break while their husbands were running about with their carts and clubs.

The $20-million addition includes both men's and women's gymnasiums, a conference center, a gift shop and a ring of new poolside villas. Casitas with private fireplaces are spread across wide-open spaces where only jack rabbits once strayed.

A few miles away as the vulture flies, Loews 400-room Ventana resort backs up against the Santa Catalina Mountains with a natural waterfall that flows beneath the hotel into a man-made lake.

High tea is served in the lobby where pianist Sherry Hoffman (she appears like a character out of the pages of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel) plays show tunes and light classical melodies for guests nibbling on finger sandwiches and spooning gooey desserts.

If that's a trifle ho-hum, dusk signals the opening of the Flying B Bar & Grill with a disco that rocks till 1 a.m.

Loews occupies a stunning site, what with the Santa Catalina Mountains as a backup and the lights of Tucson twinkling a dozen miles away. Surrounded by mesquite, squaw brush and sage, the Loews property is properly proud of a gourmet restaurant that turns out snails tossed in butter, crayfish with mushrooms in a cream sherry sauce, mesquite-broiled duckling with cactus pear sauce and venison smothered in wild mushrooms and a Cabernet Sauvignon sauce.

Vacationers work out on 10 tennis courts and zip around a2 1/2-mile jogging trail that encircles the resort's 27-hole golf course. Inside the Loews spa they do laps in a pool, pump iron in a gym and soak out the kinks in a sauna.

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