Desert dream: Why you need to put this Arizona city at the top of your list

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Fall for the oasis of Arizona. Tucson has an incredible history that binds locals to the landscape. Discover why this distinctive city needs to be on your winter getaway list.

Georgina Wilson-Powell 10 December 2018

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There's more to Tucson, Arizona that just 350 days a year of sunshine a year. 

From desert blooms and biodiversity to incredible food eco-systems that have scored this city awards and accolades, Tucson is an oasis that draws the hipsters and hippies in in equal measure. The desert lifestyle calms city dwellers who fall for its compact size, cultural history (and craft drinks).

Cycle like you mean it

Forget what you think you know about the desert. Out of the high summer season Tucson is perfect for exploring on two wheels. The city itself is fairly compact and really well served with bike lanes. Actually, that’s an understatement. 130 mile The Loop connects the central city with the outer suburbs of Tucson and the Rillito is the best part of it - there are no hills or cars - so you can cruise along in the sunshine and take in some of America’s most incredible desert landscape, metres away from the path.

Criss cross the dried up Santa Cruz river (don’t miss the Rattlesnake Bridge). Once the lifeblood of Tucson’s indigenous farming community, it was a verdant fault line through the surrounding desert until the 1940s when development drained the groundwater. The city lost a huge mesquite forest and all the wildlife on the river banks. The empty river bed will soon be home to water again thanks to the Santa Cruz River Heritage Project which plans to divert recycled water along it and breathe new life into this hugely historic waterway.

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Cycle by the centuries old barrios that come in every colour of the rainbow

Going back to the bikes. A few hours with Tucson Bike Tours is a great introduction to the multi-coloured barrios and adobe dwellings of the old city, alongside the old train depot in downtown (which brought pioneers west in search of gold and good fortune). Arizona became a territory of the USA in 1863, the railway went in in 1880, so it is an iconic part of this city’s development.

Always a spring of creativity, Tucson has flourished recently in terms of arts, crafts and an eco-embracing way of life. Find makers and crafters in the Warehouse Arts District, the ‘Lost Barrio’ and 4th avenue.

Discover ancient farming

There have been constant agricultural civilisations in the valley surrounding Tucson for over 4,000 years. While Arizona is now facing more extreme desertification and water shortages, this valley has been the most consistently farmed spot in the USA. 

The Hohokam people grew various combinations of the 'three sisters' - beans, squash and corn - and ate many more species of the three than we get today. For a feel of cultivation over the centuries, head to Spanish colonial garden inspired Mission Garden, which sits on the site of the old San Agustin Mission. Walk amongst the tended plots dug out of the red earth, shaded by the rustic walls and discover how the different waves of immigrants have changed the face of Tucson and its food. The Spanish, here from the 16th century to look for gold brought citrus trees with them while the Chinese (brought into help build railways) who grew garlic, strawberries and watermelon and sold it to local restaurants that sprung up to serve the new railway trade.

Relax in the communal garden space that teaches people how to grow food in rhythm with the desert, preserving heritage crops and supplies a number of restaurants in the city.

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The crops at Mission Garden in the spring

Community baking

Bread and baking might not what you first think of when thinking about Arizona, but Tucson has become a hub for the micro-bakery movement. 

Don Guerra certainly didn’t think he was doing anything particularly revolutionary when he opened Barrio Bread. He combines a love of his community with heritage grains that are farmed locally and he and his team turn out incredible artisan loaves. 

From working in his garage to be named one of the US’s top 10 bakers, Guerro is a leading light of the food scene in Tucson, a man on a mission to create flourishing, local food networks that move away from homogenised crops and ingredients and back towards regional varieties that work in harmony with the land.

He works with local mills who use ancient desert wheats, local food co-ops and Native Seeds, one of the world’s premier seed banks which is dedicated to cataloguing and preserving the Sonoran desert’s ancient grains.

Pop by his no-frills bakery in Broadway Village for insanely good sourdough or pop by one of the 14 or so cafes and restaurants that sell it, including the (great for a hangover breakfast) Cup Cafe in the historic Hotel Congress or rustic, Instagrammable brunch spot Prep & Pastry.

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Don Guerra heads up community bakery, Barrio Bread

The Sonoran Desert

The Sonoran Desert which surrounds Tucson is home to the stereotypical cactus - you know the ones - with their arms up in surrender. Except for all their ubiquitousness in pop culture, the Saguaro cactus only grows here, in the Sonoran Desert, which runs from here to the south west of California. It’s one of the most biodiverse and green deserts in the world and the only place you can find (or hopefully avoid) jaguars in the USA. 

The Saguaro National Park ebbs and flows round Tucson, drive out on the Bajaro Loop to find easy access to 165 miles of trails that include plenty of short hikes for city slickers. Or book a stay at the JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort specifically for its dawn hike. Step into the national park, literally the other side of the car park and wind through gentle desert hills to watch the sunrise amongst the cacti. These prickly guys grow slowly, they don’t get their first ‘arm’ until at least 70 and they survive the harsh summers by storing rainwater in their trunk.

In Tucson the desert wraps around the city, there's almost no distinction between urban and rural Tucson as you wind in and out of national park and different neighbourhoods. A short drive from Downtown sees you up in the crevices and rocky outcrops, the city disappears in moments and is replaced with the timeless beauty of Arizona.

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The desert seeps into every part of Tucson

To learn more about the Sonoran Desert, call by the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. It’s more botanical garden than museum (and cacti fans will be in heaven on the winding paths through pretty succulent gardens). Birds of prey shows and a desert animal zoo add some movement to the 100 acres of beautifully laid out botanical park.

The museum has really only cultivated what was already here and made it accessible for people who want to learn about this incredible environment without having to take on a hike. Potter between the prickly pears, snap the saguaros and marvel at the many, many wildflowers and forget what you thought you knew about Arizona.

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Discover the incredible biodiversity at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The desert drinkers

Tucson isn’t all cacti and tie dyed hippies. Over the last decade, this mid-sized city has proved that it is collaboration not competition that makes a place really worth discovering, whether that's bakers, brewers or distillers. 

Head to Iron John’s Brewing Company where it's about small batch, seasonal, hand-bottled craft beer that reflects the flavours of the desert. Head brewer, John Adkisson is more like a gourmet chef who uses beer to base his concoctions. He uses everything from mesquite to Saguaro fruit to shaved Palo Santo wood to infuse the brews which can be sampled and bought in the tiny, low key taproom on an industrial estate on S Plumer Ave Ste.

Local wood mesquite isn’t just found in the desert though. There’s a stack of it inside Hamilton's Distillery. It’s slowly being fed into a smoker which infuses the malt barley with a rich, spicy touch that’s seen Hamilton’s craft whiskey win golds at the 2018 San Francisco World Spirits Competition and from American Craft Spirits Association this year.

Away from the coloured barrios, this warehouse distillery could be anywhere in the US, but the taste could only come from Tucson. Originally Stephen Hamilton was a furniture maker (if you’re lucky sample the whiskeys around his long mesquite table) who loved grilling over the mesquite offcuts and drinking whiskey. His wife suggested he mix the two and the furniture maker became a master distiller.

Every ingredient used in this rich whiskey is sourced sustainably and the entire process, much like a Scottish single-malt, is done in-house here in the desert. What comes across even after a few moments with Stephen, there is a huge respect for the desert and the surrounding landscape - it seeps into your soul within days. For those living and working here, the desert isn’t a location, it isn’t a separate entity - it’s a way of life.

"For those living and working here, the desert isn’t a location, it isn’t a separate entity - it’s a way of life"

Desert to dining table

Tucson was awarded the first UNESCO World Heritage City of Gastronomy in the USA in 2015 which really cemented the city's under the radar commitment to food sourcing, a collaborative culinary scene and a commitment to saving heritage foods.  That accolade has brought in tourists and media attention but the city’s chefs keep improving, adapting and meshing what was here before them with the global flavours we’re now lucky to be able to embrace.

Chef Janos Wilder, of Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, has been committed to sourcing locally for over 30 years. He is the active chair of Native SEEDs and has been instrumental in bringing some of the ancient foods of the Sonoran Desert like the tepary beans and cholla buds back to our tables. 

For a taste of the modern desert try his Sense of Place menu - which this autumn includes the Hamachi tostada (spicy peruana beans, radishes, red onion, cilantro, roasted garlic cloves, roasted chiles, lemon citronette, corn emulsion).

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Don't skip trying the delicious tacos at BOCA

At the other end of the spectrum is Welcome Diner, which taps into another era of Tucson. Housed in a classic Atomic style ‘Googie’ building, walking in is like stepping back in time. You could be in Back to the Future, walking into a 1950s diner for the first time. Don’t let the relaxed vibe fool you though, the food here isn’t just any old diner staples. Welcome Diner have applied farm to table local sourcing and scratch cooking to casual eats and boy, is it good.

Order up a vegan ‘Three Sisters’ burrito jam packed with tempura battered squash, local tepary beans, roasted corn, smoked pecan ‘cheese’ with ranchero sauce, guacamole and pico de gallo or go big with a Chicken Biscuit sandwich, featuring fried chicken, local honey and house made mustard and pickles.

But it’s not all about the restaurants. Tucson’s street food is hot stuff. 

Start at Mercado San Agustin, a small Mexican food market development around a shaded open courtyard and devour freshly made pastries from traditional La Estrella Bakery or stop for a brew at Hermosa Coffee Roasters. And of course you can’t come this far south without tacos. 

BOCA Tacos Y Tequila is in the hip 4th Avenue neighbourhood and serves up 24 varieties of Sonoran inspired Mexican mmm-ness. This is where the humble taco gets a little fancy (try the Mole de Pollo or the Rajas (Fire roasted anaheims, poblanos and corn simmered in a cream and cheese sauce ) and while you’re waiting don’t hold back on the house made chips with a range of spicy salsas. Sink a couple of craft beers and plan your pub hop down the street.

If you're not convinced by now that this oasis in Arizona is where you need to ride out the long, soggy British winter, then we have no hope for you. Embrace the desert living in Tucson - it's never felt so diverse.

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