Where to Go, What to Do in Southern Arizona

Sunday, February 8, 2009

GETTING THERE: American, Continental and Northwest offer connecting service from the Washington area to Tucson. Round-trip fares start at about $231 (Northwest from BWI).

GETTING AROUND: You need a car to explore southern Arizona. Bisbee is 93 miles southeast of Tucson, via Interstate 10 and State Route 80. Kartchner Caverns (see "What to Do" and Page P7) is 47 miles southeast of Tucson on State Route 80. Consider taking the scenic route to or from Tucson, through Sierra Vista, Sanoita and the Empire Mountains (state routes 90, 82 and 83).

WHERE TO STAY: In Tucson, the Arizona Inn (2200 E. Elm St., 888-812-4758, http://www.arizonainn.com) is an oasis of fine service, food and atmosphere just north of downtown. The boutique hotel has 95 casita-style rooms spread over 14 acres of lawns, gardens and courtyards. Budget extra time to explore the property: The grounds, restaurants, bar and library virtually demand self-indulgence. Doubles from $329.

For a cheaper but equally authentic experience, try the Hotel Congress (311 E. Congress St., 800-722-8848, http://www.hotelcongress.com), a historic hotel built in 1919 that features one of Tucson's best lobby bars (high ceiling, stools, tables and comfy chairs, and stellar margaritas) along with excellent food and hot live music. Phone calls are still routed through a 1920s-era switchboard, and the rooms and quaint, somewhat sober decor will make you feel like an Old West player. Even if you don't stay here, drop in for a drink or a show. Doubles from $79 per night.

In Bisbee, we stayed in the Eldorado Suites Hotel (55 OK St., 520-432-6679, http://www.eldoradobisbee.com), with quiet, apartment-style rooms (full kitchen) two blocks from the center of town. The third-floor rooms provide a nice vantage. Doubles from $115 per night.

For a more central and historic location, check out the Copper Queen Hotel (11 Howell Ave., 520-432-2216, http://www.copperqueen.com), the oldest continually operating hotel in Arizona and a featured stop on the popular Bisbee ghost tours. The hotel has a classic Old West saloon and pleasant restaurant, with indoor-outdoor seating. Doubles from $89 per night.

WHERE TO EAT: In Tucson, El Charro (five Tucson locations, http://www.elcharrocafe.com), the city's iconic Mexican steakhouse, opened in 1922. The smoked and grilled meats are El Charro's signature, and the tequila selection runs a close second. Reservations strongly recommended. For a more stereotypical but still excellent Mexican meal, drop in to the Guadalajara Grill (1220 E. Prince Rd., 520-323-1022, http://www.ggrill.com), a couple of miles north of the Arizona Inn. It's an unassuming building on the side of an eight-lane boulevard, but the atmosphere inside is rocking, mariachi-style. The serenading trio that roves the tables is surprisingly good, especially the guitarron player. Hand them $5 and let the mournful strains transport you to an old Mexican neighborhood. The nicest table in Bisbee is at Cafe Roka (35 Main St., 520-432-5153, http://www.caferoka.com), a ruggedly upscale restaurant with a menu that could stand up in most major U.S. cities: New Zealand rack of lamb, roasted quail, Norwegian salmon and more. The wine list is decent, and the service is attentive. The funkiest place in town may be Dot's Diner (1 Douglas Rd., 520-432-1112, http://www.theshadydell.com), an authentic 1957 diner by Valentine Manufacturing Co., now moved to Bisbee's Shady Dell, a collection of nine fully restored vintage aluminum travel trailers (Airstreams and the like) available as overnight or weekly lodging. Dot's is good for burgers and other breakfast and lunch fare.

WHAT TO DO: Kartchner Caverns State Park (State Route 90, Benson, 520-586-2283 for reservations, 520-586-4100 for information, http://www.azstateparks.com/Parks/KACA/index.html) offers 90-minute tours of its Rotunda/Throne Room (October-July, ages 14 and older $18.95, ages 7-13 $9.95; August-September, $16.95 and $8.95) and its Big Room ($22.95 and $12.95; Big Room tours Oct. 15-April 15 only). The park's free discovery center includes a video of the caverns' history and a gift shop; the park also offers short hiking paths, a picnic area and a small cafe.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (2021 N. Kinney Rd., Tucson, 520-883-2702, http://www.desertmuseum.org). The key to this zoo/museum is to arrive early, when the animals are most active: It opens at 8:30 a.m. October-February and 7:30 a.m. March-September; closing time is 5 p.m. (10 p.m. June-August). The museum is about 15 miles west of Tucson. Expect to spend at least four hours here. Admission September-May, adults $13, ages 6-12 $4.25; June-August $9.50 and $2.25.

-- J.B.

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