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TUCSON: Two Ways : At two Arizona resorts, would-be wranglers and poolside sybarites can play in both the old and new West

December 02, 1990|JERRY HULSE | TIMES TRAVEL COLUMNIST

TUCSON, Ariz. — Dust off the Bentley, Oliver. Polish the Rolls. Fire up the Mercedes. And while you're at it, saddle up the Mustang.

It's roundup time in Tucson.

Indeed it is the season when Easterners jet west to escape the cold and Westerners gather in Arizona in search of serenity. And although old Tucson is no more--when in heaven's name did the cow town become a city?--the earlier peacefulness still exists, although one must search it out, beyond the bright lights and into the haunting silence of the desert itself.

In this pursuit, one faces decisions: Join the Bentley crowd at a luxury resort? Or boot up and ride off into the sunset with the Levi Strauss gang? The only concern with the latter is that the options have been critically reduced.

No longer does Tucson claim the title of "Dude Ranch Capital of the West," as was the case in the '50s and '60s when would-be Hopalong Cassidys gathered at 35 guest ranches, this during a period when Tucson folded at sunset--save for a few grungy saloons. Afterward, tract homes, huge office buildings and chic resorts began choking off the ranches until today only three major ranches remain.

While drawn to the sybaritic pleasures of the new West recently, I found myself mourning the lost harmony of the old West. Confronted with a choice (old or new), I decided to compare Westin's palatial La Paloma resort with Tucson's premier guest ranch, Tanque Verde, a peaceful plot where dawns arrive with the silence of a falling leaf and night skies are misty with stars.

Before shifting to old Tucson, I checked in at La Paloma, which is near the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. One of Tucson's newest resorts, the $100-million hotel is wrapped around a swimming pool, with lush gardens that give the impression that an oasis of exquisite beauty had evolved quite naturally from the Sonoran Desert.

One drifts off to sleep listening to the shrill cry of distant coyotes as well as the moan of the wind and a chorus of crickets just outside the window. La Paloma is a low-rise resort whose adobe-colored walls blend with the land, which is in startling contrast to the green of fairways. Last evening, clouds boiled on the horizon, ignited by the setting sun. Later it rained, so that by morning the atmosphere was flawless, pure and clear to the horizon and, it would seem, to the the very brink of eternity itself.

Today a bobcat skittered ahead of me as I strolled at dusk across a golf green. In its path a couple of coyotes sprinted down the fairway, disappearing in a mesquite-lined gully, while in another corner of this verdant oasis a family of cottontails nibbled on the grass, much to the annoyance of the greenskeepers.

This is not unusual, this sighting of wildlife at La Paloma. Earlier, an acquaintance came eyeball-to-eyeball with another bobcat on another fairway, which is evidence that the wilderness and wildlife remain, even at a luxury resort rising dead center out of wide-open spaces.

Westin's La Paloma is a village-like setting, its 28 adobe units containing 487 rooms, five restaurants and three bars. There are jogging trails and a dozen tennis courts, four that are clay. Mariachis entertain at poolside and romantic melodies spill forth from a piano bar with cathedral windows that frame both desert and mountains.

To make room for the construction of La Paloma, thousands of saguaro cacti were transplanted out to the desert along with prickly pear and other growth native to the Sonoran Desert: the spindly ocotillo, barrel cactus and dozens of mesquite trees, which in turn are surrounded by brittlebush, desert marigolds and Arizona poppies.

In such a setting, guests hike nature trails and hitch rides on golf carts, photographing this flora and fauna that appears barely 25 minutes from the skyscrapers of downtown Tucson.

At La Paloma, as well as the Loews Ventana and Sheraton's El Conquistador, a battalion of concierges order up limousines for trips to the old Western towns of Tombstone and Bisbee, as well as tours by hot-air balloon above the desert.

La Paloma claims the distinction of being Arizona's only resort to employ forecaddies, which is to say young men and women who scamper ahead of players to shag wayward balls and perform other services intended to speed one's game. At La Paloma, chef Neil McLaren, formerly of the Arizona Biltmore and later the Century Plaza in Los Angeles, turns out a variety of delights ranging from eggs on a corn tortilla with tomato salsa and sour cream to New Zealand green lip mussels; shrimp with cilantro and tequila; scallops with caramelized shallots and baby corn; pork medallions with corn cakes, and poached salmon in apple cider. McLaren receives raves for his gulf snapper with black bean salsa, his grilled petrale sole in tarragon butter and duck breast with blackberry sauce.

Enough.

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