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WEEKEND ESCAPE: ARIZONA

Tucson's Melrose

An avenue of colorful shopping under azure skies

November 22, 1998|LUCRETIA BINGHAM | Bingham is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

TUCSON — A perfect hybrid of cowboy, Latino and Indian, Tucson is the real Southwest. In the barrio historico, the dusty adobe walls, the piercingly blue sky, the pepper trees, the lavender doors evoke not only the historic West but also Mexico, which is truly just a long horse ride away over empty mountain passes and saguaro-studded plains. I had come alone to Tucson to explore its secondhand stores and historic downtown, and had made reservations at the downtown Arizona Inn.

When the inn was built in the '30s, it was surrounded by desert. Now, though it retains the charm of a historic adobe, it has been extensively refurbished and upgraded to accommodate modern necessities such as laptop computers. Autumn is the cheapest time to go because of the inn's fall rates, and probably the best anyway. Through Dec. 15 double rooms start at $120, then shoot up to $139 over the holidays and on up to $196 through the winter.

The 88 rooms are spread out in a labyrinth of gardens and courtyards, and the public spaces are charming. The library and dining room have high beamed ceilings, books and a classical guitarist at night. These rooms open up onto covered patios with gardens spreading out to a view of the mountains. A croquet setup and clay tennis courts beckon. To get to my room, I passed through a garden with a fountain to a large cast-iron gate, across a courtyard to another, smaller gate that opened into an adobe-walled alley, then through a painted wooden gate into my own private patio.

Guest rooms are beautifully appointed with antiques and skylights. The only sounds seem to be birds and the hissing rakes of gardeners keeping every corner free of dust and leaf. The pool area is sequestered in one corner of the property, surrounded by thick adobe walls painted in pink and indigo. At the pool bar, double cappuccinos were being served up hot with foam and nutmeg.

One of the waitresses at the inn's sunny buffet breakfast table--heaped with fresh raspberries, muffins, eggs with salsa and a peppery sausage--was full of hints about where to experience historic Tucson. The concierge was specific and courteous, and a bellhop helped me poke around some empty rooms, seemingly taking as much delight as I did. Best of all, the inn is located downtown next to the University of Arizona and a vibrant local scene.

All through my days in Tucson people stopped to talk, chatted with me and were altogether gracious. This is definitely a city where a woman can travel comfortably alone.

Near the university, several mellow blocks of 4th Avenue stores, cafes and bistros blend funky New Age sensibility with an authentic Latino flavor, producing some of the best thrift stores I've found anywhere. The Creative Spirit Gallery at 628 was the ultimate hippie store, with mirrored skirts, tie-dye and an East Indian beaded altarpiece, which, at $20, was a temptation. Most of the shop facades are colorfully painted; an appropriately decorated hair salon was called The Coyote Wore Sideburns. Desert Vintage at 636 had a double-breasted tailored camel jacket with leopard trim, sets of line-dancers' skirts and blouses for $20, and a real Confederate jacket hanging next to a mariachi jacket with a row of silver shells down each sleeve.

Though this city plays some of the same themes, there is none of the preciousness of Sedona or Santa Fe. The How Sweet It Was secondhand store is near Antigone Books (at 411), a large and airy feminist bookstore. Across the street, a smiling Ron Genta in his But It's a DRY HEAT Trading Company had hand-painted furniture and huge glass balls from Mexico.

The next afternoon, on a quest for a cowboy hat, I went farther uptown to Arizona Hatters, which had whole walls of them. A young woman was buying another young woman a cowboy hat because "she's always borrowing mine." When asked whether straw or felt was preferable, she sniffed, "True cowgirls wear felt year-round." Back downtown, across the street from the pleasant Tucson Art Museum, in the Old Town Artisans Building, Beth Friedman sells silk velvet dresses, along with beautifully tailored embroidered Mexican jackets in earthen reds and creams. Around this area, several blocks are filled with magisterial old territorial houses, built back in the days when houses needed to be more like little forts--both for protection and for the cooling properties of thick walls.

From 4th Avenue I drove my rented Neon a few blocks south to Congress Street. If 4th Avenue is sophisticated cowboy hippie, Congress is minimalist hip, from Stickley furniture in one store window to a live swing band at the Congress Hotel. I peeked into the original Poca Cosa, a narrow, one-room restaurant where you can poke into the kitchen and ask what's cooking. The owner's daughter has opened a bigger and grander Poca Cosa around the corner.

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