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Weekend Escape

Tucson's Park Place

Cactus-covered cliffs and a stunning waterfall await in Sabino Canyon.

April 08, 2001|LISA MARLOWE | Lisa Marlowe is a freelance writer based in Malibu

TUCSON — As Sabino Creek wound down the canyon in come-hither curves, two boys dangled their skinny legs over a ledge as they caught their breath between dives. Then they stood up side by side and leaped into the deep pool below, surfacing with yelps of exhilaration.

I briefly felt an urge to take the plunge, but I settled for a 10-minute dip of the toes. In a spot of such beauty-a place that turned out to be the highlight of a restful and relaxing weekend-I needed no other thrill.

The Sabino Canyon Recreation Area snakes through the Santa Catalina Mountains on the northern edge of Tucson. It's a stunning place where hawks fly over saguaro-covered cliffs, hiking and horseback riding trails, natural pools and 500-foot Seven Falls.

Funny thing, the canyon wasn't part of our original itinerary. My husband, Brian, and I had flown from Los Angeles to Tucson one Friday afternoon in the fall. Armed with golf clubs and walking shoes, we planned a couple of sport-and-spa days at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, about 20 minutes north of downtown. With two golf courses, tennis courts, yoga classes and a spa, it's a luxurious retreat in the middle of tranquil Coronado National Forest.

The 398-room resort is spread around 94 acres hugging a canyon whose name means "window" in Spanish, an appropriate moniker for a place providing endless views. An 80-foot natural waterfall plunges toward a paved trail below, and the water flows around the grounds and into a two-tiered lake at the main entrance. Hotel booklets list 130 species of birds on site, and we spied rabbits, whitetail deer and roadrunners along the jogging trail.

The architecture is reminiscent of cliff dwellings, and guest rooms are done in soft shades of sand and stone. (We paid $214 plus tax per night.)

After giving the grounds the once-over, I headed straight for the spa, which has nine treatment rooms, a beauty salon, steam and sauna rooms, and a lap pool. A body wrap incorporated peppermint and sea essences to great effect. Never mind that I smelled like a candy cane washed up on a beach; I felt fabulous.

Panoramic views of the Sonoran Desert almost enticed us to dine at the hotel's Ventana Room, but we were drawn to the more casual Flying V Bar & Grill, which overlooks the lake and the Canyon Course's 18th green. The restaurant serves Southwestern and Latin American food-and a potent prickly pear margarita. Brian and I shared a ceviche sampler appetizer of fresh tuna, scallops, sweet shrimp and mushrooms, served with plantain and tortilla chips. Brian dove into a tender, chile-rubbed filet mignon and garlic mashed potatoes. I picked at a sweet pepper loaded with shrimp and queso fresco. With two spicy sauces, it was a bit too hot.

Before calling it a night, I sifted through the guest amenities book in our room and chanced upon a description of Sabino Canyon, part of Coronado National Forest and only five minutes away. Saturday morning, after plying my anytime-is-tee-time husband with room-service buttermilk pancakes, I asked him to forgo golf in favor of the canyon. To my astonishment, he obliged.

A free shuttle went from our hotel to the Sabino Canyon visitor center, where we plunked down $6 each for a tram tour. The trams are the only motor vehicles allowed in the area. Ours offered a 45-minute, 3.8-mile tour through Sabino Canyon's cottonwoods, willows and sycamore, with stops along the way for picnickers and walkers. Another tram goes into nearby Bear Canyon and up to Seven Falls.

Along the way, couples and families got off to set up picnics by Sabino Creek and hikers departed on a half-dozen trails that head into the wilderness. We rode the tram all the way into the canyon, then walked back to the visitor center enjoying the late afternoon play of violet shadows on the canyon walls.

That night we dined at Janos, one of the city's premier Southwestern restaurants, at the Westin La Paloma Resort. The place was posh yet comfortable, pricey but not pretentious.

Brian and I began with a heady saffron mussel bisque. For a main course, Brian chose Habanero Pepita Pesto Stuffed Chicken, which was juicy, nutty and delicately spiced. I went with firm, sweet, seared sea scallops with smoked poblano chiles and exotic mushroom flan-exquisite. Desserts resembled postmodern sculptures. Dark Chocolate Jalapeno Ice Cream Sundae, anyone?

Sunday, after a quick swim in the pool under cloudless blue skies, we set out for Old Tucson Studios, about 25 miles southeast. It's a sprawling, slightly wacky "Hollywood in the Desert" where dozens of films and TV series were shot. Built in 1939 for the William Holden-Jean Arthur epic "Arizona" and open to the public since 1960, it still gets used as a film set. But Old Tucson is more popular these days as an amusement park, with Wild West stunt shows, stagecoach rides and mule treks into an iron mine.

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