Sunday, October 16, 2011

Travel: Kid-ding around Tucson, Ariz.

Sure there was the heat, but the Arizona city has so much more to offer both young and old(er) alike.

The J. W. Marriott Starr Pass resort is about 15 minutes away from downtown Tucson and is surrounded by desert flora and fauna.

Photos by Kathy Lu | The Roanoke Times

The J. W. Marriott Starr Pass resort is about 15 minutes away from downtown Tucson and is surrounded by desert flora and fauna.

A view from the desert/grasslands part of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

Kathy Lu | The Roanoke Times

A view from the desert/grasslands part of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

The J. W. Marriott Starr Pass resort is about 15 minutes away from downtown Tucson and is surrounded by desert flora and fauna.

Photos by Kathy Lu | The Roanoke Times

The J. W. Marriott Starr Pass resort is about 15 minutes away from downtown Tucson and is surrounded by desert flora and fauna.

Despite the heat, the Tucson area is alive with both plant and animal life. And starting this month, the weather there becomes more manageable. The down side? There's no direct way by air to get from Roanoke to Tucson. Expect a few layovers.

Kathy Lu | The Roanoke Times

Despite the heat, the Tucson area is alive with both plant and animal life. And starting this month, the weather there becomes more manageable. The down side? There's no direct way by air to get from Roanoke to Tucson. Expect a few layovers.

Reid Park Zoo featured giraffes that visitors can feed. Three-year-old Evan learned how long their tongues are.

Kathy Lu | The Roanoke Times

Reid Park Zoo featured giraffes that visitors can feed. Three-year-old Evan learned how long their tongues are.

It was 5:30 p.m. after a long day of sightseeing in Tucson, Ariz.

After my husband, Tim, parked the car (in front of a shop that had something to do with marijuana), I picked up my hungry toddler and decided to look for a place to eat while Tim stopped by the co-op to grab Arnica cream for his bruised hand (more on that later).

We were in what my Tucson-based friend called "the hippie district" on 4th Avenue.

I happened upon The Surly Wench, a pub I had seen listed in a brochure at the hotel. Based on the name alone, I wanted "to go to there."

Paying no mind to the two guys sitting out front, I read the menu, liked it and decided to step inside.

That's when the guys stopped me.

"Sorry, they won't let you in with a kid," he said.

Oh, right. The kid.

I thought maybe at 5:30, a pub's 21-and-older rule wouldn't apply. But then again, one look through the open door showed black walls, a black floor and black booths.

"Is there somewhere else we can go around here for dinner?" I asked.

And they pointed me to the Bison Witch (a play on the words "buy sandwich"), just up the street. It has "huge" sandwiches, one guy said. Sold.

Feeding giraffes

The Surly Wench notwithstanding, Tucson is a great place for kids.

We were there at the end of August, when I was attending a features journalism conference. We turned it into a family outing by adding a few days onto the four-day conference.

While I was working, my husband found lots to do with our toddler, Evan.

At Reid Park Zoo ($7 adults; $3 ages 2 to 14), they got to feed carrots to giraffes ($2 extra) and watch elephants scoop up hay into their mouths.

One morning, they took advantage of the three-hour time difference and left early for a 2-mile hike right outside the hotel. On the trail, which is dotted with educational placards, they saw cacti and a few birds.

I did this same hike with Evan a few days later and was amazed by how quickly I felt swallowed by the desert. I also learned that it's not easy to hike with a 32-pound toddler who doesn't want to walk in the desert heat.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Speaking of heat, we were there in late August, in time for a heat wave. Temperatures were 100-plus degrees most days of the week. When the local forecast on TV showed 98, it actually looked like a cool-down.

This is why many attractions, especially outdoor ones, open at 7 a.m.

We intended to get to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum ($12, general) early, but it had already been open for two hours when we drove up at 9.

The living museum's mission is "to inspire people to live in harmony with the natural world by fostering love, appreciation, and understanding of the Sonoran Desert," according to its website.

The museum featured a desert grasslands area, a large aviary, a man-made cave and incredible wildlife - from tarantulas, scorpions and lizards to mountain lions, coyotes and a hummingbird sanctuary.

The museum is mostly outdoors, so we decided to hit the most exposed areas first.

It was hot, so I was grateful that the zoo had installed water fountains throughout the park, and that each one pumped chilled water. Also, every restroom had a free sunscreen dispenser.

During our trek, we saw a coyote and lots of lizards — both wild and captive.

By the time we walked through half the zoo and caught a show that featured animals (including a pelican and a porcupine) trotting across the stage, it was time for lunch at the zoo's cafe, which featured modestly priced grill fare.

Afterward, it took us another hour and a half to see the aviary, the hummingbird enclosure (the birds will fly right up to you) and the reptile and cave exhibits.

By the time we got back to the car, it was 2 in the afternoon. But it was the best money we'd ever spent.

Where we stayed

The conference was held at the J.W. Marriott Starr Pass resort, about 15 minutes from Tucson proper and 15 minutes from the airport.

The resort was wonderful and offered a great conference rate (because who really wants to go to Tucson in late August), and it featured several pools, including the lazy river - an oval ring pool with a current and a water slide. People loved to float on the "river" on tubes provided by the hotel. There were also two midsized regular pools and a lap pool.

We pretty much hit the pool every day. We also liked the fact that the resort allows area residents to enjoy the pool on weekends.

On Saturday and Sunday, the pool was packed with teenagers and families, giving it a nice community feel.

Downsides

Obviously, visiting Tucson in August is not ideal. While it was a dry heat (you'd feel cold the instant you got out of the pool because the water would evaporate off your skin so fast), it still felt like walking around in an oven during the day.

My Tucson friend said starting in October, the weather is gorgeous. But you may have to pay a little more for hotels then, too.

Also, there's no direct way to get from Roanoke to Tucson. We had three layovers on both legs, the toughest being the one going out (Roanoke to Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles to Tucson). So be prepared for some airplane/airport time if you're leaving from here.

Other highlights

As our first official vacation with our son, I loved all that Tucson had to offer. Places were easy to find, and people were friendly. Tim had no trouble finding things to do over the week; and he took two mountain bike rides (bruise explained) thanks to a rental from one of the many bike shops in the area.

I wish I could say more about the food in the area, but we only hit a few restaurants. The Bison Witch is worth visiting - it serves soups and salads in homemade bread bowls and the chili was deliciously spicy. My friend took us out for Mexican on two separate occasions, and that was helpful because there seemed to be about five Mexican restaurants per block.

Los Portales Restaurant featured "real Mexican food," my friend said, and he didn't lie. I loved how they grilled the fish tacos like paninis. Plus, there was a mariachi band to entertain the dinner crowd.

He also took us to El Guero Canelo, famous for its Sonora Style Hot Dog. The menu said it was "wrapped in bacon, sausage, beans, grilled onions, fresh onions, tomatoes, mayo, mustard and jalapeno sauce." Plus the homemade bun. I can't tell you if I tasted all of these ingredients distinctly, but I hardly knew I was even eating a hot dog.

El Guero also featured a self-serve fixings bar, which included piles of roasted jalapenos. They looked really good, so I took four. But, despite my tolerance for things spicy, I could only eat one. I found out afterward these were grown in Mexico; maybe that's the difference between them and store-bought jalapenos.

So yes, I recommend Tucson to families. And if you visit without kids, let me know what you think of the Surly Wench.

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