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Destination of the Week: Tucson, Arizona

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Signs of fall and winter are slowly starting to show around the US, but not in Tucson! For today’s Destination of the Week, University of Arizona alum and TPG contributor Lori Zaino takes us almost south of the border to a city that boasts around 300 days of sunshine a year. Well known as a retirement community and a university town, our destination has so much more to offer than just that. We’re heading to Tucson, Arizona!

Tucson, Arizona has some of the most beautiful sunsets.
Tucson, Arizona has some of America’s most beautiful sunsets.

WHAT TO DO

Tucson is a unique city in a stunning landscape. It’s located in a valley surrounded by 5 different mountain ranges smack in the middle of the Sonoran desert. To the north you have the Santa Catalina and Tortolita Mountains, the Santa Ritas to the south, the Rincons to the east and the Tucson mountains to the west. This pretty much states the obvious, but if you like hiking, Tucson is paradise. One of the best hikes you can take is through Sabino Canyon. At certain times of the year, when there is a bit of rainfall, you can hike through the canyon to the beautiful Seven Falls. A nice aspect about this trail is there is a tram you can take through the canyon, where you can “hop on, hop off” at any point to hike.

Other popular hiking spots are Saguaro National Park and Mount Lemmon (you can even ski here when it’s nice and warm down in central Tucson!), or you can find more routes at EveryTrail. The best time to visit Tucson, especially if you plan on doing outdoor activities, is from October-May, as temperatures can get up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit in July and August, with the occasional monsoon storm. However, most of the other months of the year, Tucson is pleasantly warm and sunny.

Seven Falls
Take a hike through Sabino Canyon to Seven Falls.

You can also bike in a variety of places in Tucson, from easy riding on a flat surface to seriously intense mountain biking. Check out Tucson Bike Trails for more information. Due to perfect year round sunshine and weather, golf is also a popular activity in Tucson and there are so many courses to choose from, see a full list of here. If you want to take to the saddle, try a beautiful desert and mountain horseback ride with Spanish Trail Outfitters.

This Gila Monster, spotted during a hike through Saguaro National Park.
A Gila Monster, spotted during a hike through Saguaro National Park.

Once of the coolest things about Tucson is its natural beauty and miles of desert landscape, but that being said, keep an eye out for cactus, scorpions, rattlesnakes, lizards, coyotes and other wildlife when hiking, biking – or doing just about anything outside in Tucson!

This may look pretty, but it hurts. Don't touch!
This prickly pear cactus may look pretty, but it hurts. Don’t touch!

Tucson is also a family-friendly city with lots to do for kids. They will love the Sonoran Desert Museum, which is really more like a zoo. The museum has indoor and outdoor exhibits of desert wildlife, including an insect house, hummingbird garden and reptile house. Not to mention the adorable Desert Prairie Dogs.

Desert Museum
You can see beautiful birds among other wildlife at the Sonoran Desert Museum

Another great family activity is a day trip to Tombstone, Arizona, just over an hour’s drive from Tucson. This is the cowboy adventure your children have been waiting for.  As the actual historic site of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, you can see a reenactment of the gunfight, as well as other street performances, shopping, museums, and a visit to the Boothill Graveyard.

Finally, to add a little cultural history into the mix, The Mission San Xavier del Bac is just 10 miles south of downtown Tucson. This Jesuit mission was founded in 1692 and has a small museum in addition to a church you can visit.

The Mission San Javier del Bac is just 10 miles south of downtown Tucson.
The Mission San Javier del Bac is just 10 miles south of downtown Tucson.

If outdoor activities aren’t really your thing, Tucson still has a lot to offer indoors. Every February, you can check out the Gem and Mineral Show, which is the largest of its kind in the US. Tthe 2014 dates are February 13-16. The show is located in the downtown area of Tucson, which in the past few years has gone through some amazing renovations to make this area more enticing, like new restaurants, bars and cultural centers. The University of Arizona also has some cultural events to offer. The University of Arizona State Museum has some great exhibits on Native American pottery and weaving, among more, and there are always events occurring at the museum. The University of Arizona Centennial Hall puts on different kinds of concerts, dance events, theater and more.

U of A State Museum
The University of Arizona State Museum is located right on the University of Arizona Campus.

If you are looking for shopping, try La Encantada Shopping Center located in the foothills, or for vintage shopping and small boutiques and bookshops, try strolling down the historic 4th Avenue. There are often street fairs along 4th Avenue and it’s also a great place to hit up some of Tucson’s nightlife as there are many bars, pubs and clubs along the way. If it’s art, furniture or antiques you’re looking to buy, take a drive out to Tubac, Arizona. This little town located about 40 minutes driving from Tucson is the new “artist community” and it’s a cute place to visit for a day trip.

La Encantada has the best luxury shopping in Tucson.
La Encantada has the best luxury shopping in Tucson.

WHERE TO EAT

Tucson, being so close to the Mexican border, has an abundance of great Mexican restaurants. There are so many it can be difficult to choose, but I’ve narrowed it down to three of what would be considered some of the top Mexican joints in town.

Mi Nidito, meaning “my little nest” in Spanish, serves Sonoran Mexican cuisine and although it’s located in a less-than-desirable area of town, it’s worth the trek. The best chimichanga I’ve ever eaten has been served to me in this establishment, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. The restaurant has had many famous guests – Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Steve Kerr and Enrique and Julio Iglesias have eaten here – among many more. It’s hole-in-the-wall atmosphere is authentic and charming and it’s one of my favorite places to eat at in Tucson.

Get some seriously authentic Mexican grub at Mi Nidito.
Get some seriously authentic Mexican grub at Mi Nidito.

For something more high end, try Old Pueblo Grille for American and modern Mexican food. This “hacienda” has a stunning patio for outdoor dining and a large indoor area as well. Their margarita list is extensive, and I highly recommend the prickly pear margarita. Don’t forget to order a side dish of the Hatch Green Chile Mac & Cheese too.

Old Pueblo Grille has a romantic and relaxing patio for outdoor dining.
Old Pueblo Grille has a romantic and relaxing patio for outdoor dining.

El Charro is a staple for Mexican food in Tucson. Although there are a couple locations, the one to visit is downtown. El Charro claims to have invented the chimichanga… is it true? Not sure, but the food is grand! The outdoor patio seating is quaint but get there early if you want a spot, this place gets full very quickly.

Try some tacos at El Charro.
Try some tacos at El Charro.

If Mexican food is not your thing, there are plenty of other options in Tucson for you. There are a few restaurants up at La Encantada which have great food and offer beautiful views of the mountains and the city of Tucson. North is my personal favorite, as it’s trendy and sophisticated. Serving Italian cuisine, North has a lovely outdoor lounge for after work drinks or a hangout after dinner spot. In the newly renovated downtown area, try HUB for American food. The Feast is quaint wine bar/restaurant that changes their menu on the first Tuesday of every month in order to provide the best seasonal dishes possible.

North is a trendy restaurant with a beautiful outdoor area with amazing views!
North is a trendy restaurant with a beautiful outdoor seating area.

YOUR EXPERIENCES

Destination of the Week pieces are not meant to be comprehensive guides to destinations since we don’t have the time or funds to visit all these places in person and report back to you. Nor are they endorsements of all the hotels we mention. They are simply roundups of top destinations that we have specifically pinpointed for the opportunity they present to use your miles and points to get to and stay there. As always, we welcome your comments to help enrich the content here, provide opinions and first-hand experiences of these destinations.

GETTING THERE

Tucson International Airport is relatively small but receives nonstop flights from several US destinations. The airport is located about 7 miles south of downtown. American flies to Tucson nonstop from Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles. Southwest also flies nonstop from Chicago (Midway), Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Denver, and San Diego. You can arrive nonstop from Seattle on Alaskan Airlines. United flies nonstop from Houston, Denver, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Delta will get you there nonstop from Minneapolis, Salt Lake City and Atlanta. However, it must  be noted that some of these flights are seasonal and only operate in the winter and springtime. You can also fly on US Airways from Phoenix – it’s only about a 30 minute flight!

Unfortunately, there is no way to get there nonstop from New York or several other East Coast destinations; you will have to have at least one layover. However, Tucson is only 110 miles south of the Phoenix airport, so it may be worthwhile (and cheaper) in some cases to fly into Phoenix and then rent a car or take the airport shuttle down to Tucson.

The amusing thing about Tucson International Airport is that there are actually no passenger flights that leave the US. There is currently one flight daily that takes cargo to Hermosillo, Mexico, hence the international portion of the name stays legit.

Once you’ve arrived at TIA, you can take a Sun Tran passenger bus into the city center, or a taxi.

WHERE TO STAY

Club Carlson

The Country Inn Suites.
The Country Inn & Suites.

Country Inn and Suites Tucson City Center: Located near the city center of Tucson, this 110-room hotel offers both room and suite options, and for $25 per stay, your pet is welcome here. Guest rooms feature a flatscreen TV, complimentary WiFi, coffee and tea maker, and a work desk and chair. The hotel offers a business center, heated outdoor pool and spa, and fitness center, and breakfast is also included in your stay. Parking is complimentary, as is a daily newspaper. If the munchies arise, free coffee and cookies are available in the lobby. Room rates start at $99 per night in early November. This is a Category 3 hotel requiring 28,000 points for an award night.

Another Club Carlson option is the Country Inn and Suites Tucson Airport.

Hilton

Take a swim at the outdoor pool at the Hilton Tucson East.
Take a swim at the outdoor pool at the Hilton Tucson East.

Hilton Tucson East: This 232-room hotel is located about a 20-minute drive from the city center of Tucson. Rooms feature a flatscreen TV, desk and work chair, Cuisinart coffee maker and the Hilton Serenity Bath Collection. The hotel offers complimentary WiFi and has a business center, outdoor heated pool and a fitness room. Parking is also complimentary and pets stay for a $50 fee. You can dine at the Vistas Bar & Grille restaurant, or the hotel shuttle will take you to any restaurant within 3 miles of the hotel. Room rates start at $90 per night in November. This is a Category 4 hotel requiring 20,000 HHonors points for an award night.

The beautiful Hilton Conquistador grounds.
The beautiful Hilton Conquistador grounds.

The Hilton Conquistador: Located at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains on approximately 500 acres, this hotel has 156 rooms with 42-inch flatscreen TV’s, complimentary WiFi, armchairs and ottomans, and balconies. Pets are welcome for a $50 fee and valet parking is $11. Activities include golf on their 48-hole course, tennis on the 31 courts, or simply relax in one of the four swimming pools, unwind at the Elements Spa, or work out in the 24-hour fitness room. Enjoy a meal at one of the Conquistador’s four restaurants: Sundance Cafe, Epazote Kitchen & Cocktails, Desert Springs Cafe or the Conquistador Lounge. Room rates start at $169 per night in November. This is a Category 5 hotel requiring 40,000 HHonors points for an award night. Keep in mind there is an additional $20 resort fee per night.

There are several other Hilton options in Tucson, and we recommend the Embassy Suites at Tucson Williams Center and the Double Tree by Hilton Tucson Airport.

Hyatt

The Hyatt Airport Tucson.
The Hyatt Airport Tucson.

Tucson Hyatt Airport Hotel: This hotel is located just half a mile from the airport in the southern area of Tucson. The hotel offers complimentary WiFi  and breakfast. Rooms feature complimentary WiFi with remote printing, a 42-inch flatscreen TV, a Cozy Corner sofa-sleeper, and a granite bathroom. There is a 24-hour fitness center available to guests as well as an outdoor pool. This Hyatt is also pet-friendly, and fees vary depending on length of stay. The Bakery Cafe serves snacks and drinks. Room rates start at $94 per night in November. This is a Category 1 hotel requiring 5,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points for an award night. 

IHG Rewards

A king room at the Holiday Inn Express.
A king room at the Holiday Inn Express.

Holiday Inn Express Hotel and Suites Tucson: This centrally located hotel offers complimentary WiFi, a coffee maker, microwave and mini-fridge in guest rooms. It has a business center, fitness room, and an outdoor pool. The only dining option available is the breakfast room, which offers complimentary breakfast. They will deliver a newspaper daily to your room as well. Room rates start at $88.99 per night in November. This is a Category 2 hotel requiring 15,000 IHG points for an award night.

There are a variety of other Priority Club/IHG properties in Tucson to choose from, mainly Holiday Inns.

Marriott

The Marriott Tucson University Park.
The Marriott Tucson University Park.

Tucson University Park: This 233-room hotel also has 17 suites and 10 meeting rooms. Accommodations feature a new Marriott bed – with down comforters, designer duvets and fluffier pillows – a coffee and tea maker, a flatscreen TV and WiFi for a fee of $9.95 per day. Located just 10 minutes from Tucson International Airport, the hotel has an American style restaurant on-site called Saguaro Grill, a fitness center and outdoor pool with a jacuzzi, along with a business center. Room rates start at $149 per night in November. This is a Category hotel 5 requiring 25,000 points for an award night.

Mountain views from the Ritz Carlton, Dove Mountain.
Mountain views from the Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain.

The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain: A far more opulent member of the Marriott membership program, this is one of the newest luxury resorts in Tucson and is nestled in the high Sonoran Desert against the Tortolita Mountains in Marana. The 253 rooms, suites and casitas feature mountain or pool views, mesquite woods, indigenous stones and Southwestern decor. On-site amenities include the Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf course, a luxury spa, tennis courts, mountain bike rental, three swimming pools, a hiking and adventure group and a fitness center. There are 6 dining options including CORE Kitchen and Wine Bar for Sonoran cuisine, and Ignite, which hosts live music three nights a week. Room rates start at $329 per night in November. This is a Tier 2 property requiring 40,000 points for an award night.

JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa
JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa

 JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa: Ideal for family vacations, this resort has 540 rooms and 35 suites adjacent to a 27-hole golf course. Rooms feature private patios and balconies, bathrooms with separate tubs, a flatscreen TV, WiFi for a fee, and a large desk. There are three pools including the Starr Canyon Lazy River and the Monsoon Falls Water Slide, a luxury spa and fitness center, plus jogging and biking trails. There are five on-site restaurants, plus a Starbucks. Room rates start at $179 per night in November. This is a Category 6 hotel requiring 30,000 points for an award night.

Starwood

A sunset over the pool at the Westin La Paloma.
A sunset over the pool at the Westin La Paloma.

Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa: This plush resort is set right in the desert and mountains for a relaxing stay surrounded by nature. The resort, which has 457 guest rooms and suites, offers 5 pools, 27 holes of golf, a waterslide, and a fitness center. Decorated with tiles, crown molding, and cherry-wood furnishings, guest rooms feature a flatscreen TV, WiFi, a private balcony or patio, a fireplace and separate bathtub with deluxe amenities. Relaxation can be found at the Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa, or in the Heavenly Beds that each room provides. The Westin Kids Club entertains your little ones so you are free to work, relax, and do as you please. Dining options include the Azul Lounge, the Azul Restaurant, Courtside Deli, Espresso Sunrise, and Sabino’s Pool Bar and Grill. Room rates start at $159 per night in early November. This is a Category 4 hotel requiring 10,000 Starpoints for an award night. Keep in mind there is a $20 resort fee charge per night, which also covers the cost of WiFi.

The Sheraton Tucson Hotel & Suites.
The Sheraton Tucson Hotel & Suites.

Sheraton Tucson Hotel & Suites: This hotel is located in the north area of Tucson and offers beautiful mountain views. All guestrooms and suites feature complimentary WiFi, a flatscreen TV, coffee maker, the Sheraton Sweet Sleeper Bed, and as this is a pet friendly hotel, Sweet Sleep Dog Beds are also available upon request. There is a fitness center and outdoor pool, and afterwards you can dine at the Fire and Spice Restaurant or snack at the Link Cafe. Shop for souvenirs at their gift shop, the Sundry shop. Room rates start at $89 per night in early November. This hotel is an Category 2 hotel requiring 4,000 Starpoints for an award night.

Other Starwood options include the Aloft Tucson University and the Four Points by Sheraton Tucson Airport.

Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts

Update: The offer mentioned below for the Platinum Card from American Express has expired. View the current offer here.

Update: The offer mentioned below for the Business Platinum Card from American Express has expired. View the current offer here.

Fine Hotels & Resorts is a loyalty program for Amex Platinum, Business Platinum and Mercedes-Benz Platinum cardholders who receive special benefits at participating hotels such as early check-in and late check-out, complimentary breakfast, room upgrades, and other perks.

Relax at the luxurious Lowes Ventana Canyon Resort.
Relax at the luxurious Lowes Ventana Canyon Resort.

Loews Ventana Canyon Resort: Located in the Foothills, Ventana Canyon has 398 guestrooms and 26 suites, each with their own private balcony with mountain views, a Keurig coffee maker, bathrobe, and LATHER bath amenities. The resort features two PGA golf courses, four tennis courts, the Lakeside Spa, two pools, each with a jacuzzi, the Coyote Club for kids, a nature trail on property complete with a waterfall, a business center, fitness center, and 6 retail shops. The resort is pet-friendly and charges $10.95 per day for WiFi in guestrooms, but it is free in the lobby. Enjoy drinks and food in the Canyon Cafe, Flying V Bar & Grill, or Cascade. Room rates start at $249 per night in early November.

The The Ritz Carlton, Dove Mountain resort is also part of the Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts program.

OTHER

The colorful gardens of the  the Arizona Inn.
The colorful gardens of the Arizona Inn.

Arizona Inn: A small historic boutique hotel, this 1930s-era property has 95 rooms on 14 acres of gardens that feature a flatscreen TV, coffee and tea maker, DVD player and complimentary WiFi. There is a main dining room as well as the Audubon bar, poolside dining or room service. The extensive amenities include a large swimming pool, tennis courts, sauna, badminton, croquet, ping pong and ice cream served by the pool. Room rates start at $199 per night in November.

The outdoor yoga deck at Miraval.
The outdoor yoga deck at Miraval.

Miraval: Miraval is located almost an hour from the city center in the mountains north of Tucson. This resort is pure luxury and their motto is “life in balance,” as they create programs of exercise, yoga, spa and healthy eating for their guests. The hotel has a beautiful pool area, fitness center with classes and golf courses. There are 117 “casitas” grouped into six different villages. Suites and villas are offered as well. The rates are inclusive, meaning they come with airport transfer, all meals and snacks, and each night comes with a credit which can be used for the spa or another type of activity, such as mountain biking. Room rates start at $768 per night per person in early November.

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