Visits to Tucson always bring unexpected pleasures but never more than the two days we immersed ourselves in the vibrant arts scene - formal and informal - and we only touched the surface. While there are many fine museums, we stuck to the culture of the Southwest. Here are the must-see excursions:
Arizona State Museum of Art: On the University of Arizona campus,
this historic building focuses exclusively on art of the Southwest, with deep respect for the history of the peoples. Adriel Heisey's breathtaking arial photography of Southwest canyons and mesas, curated by Archaeology Southwest, presents low-impact archaeological research without excavation. These settings exist in nature but beyond easy access, and Heisey captured them with a hand-held camera while flying his airplane with his right leg. The visual perspective is beyond description. The early 20th century photos by Henry Curtis of Native American peoples are haunting in their expressiveness. Heisey's show leaves in September 2014 and Curtis' in 2015 but there is so much to see whenever you go - including the exquisite preservation of significant pottery of the Southwest.
Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block: With a permanent collection in the American West, Latin America and contemporary art, this stunning architectural jewel easily absorbs an entire afternoon, if not a full day.
Old Town Artisans: Before or after the Tucson Museum of Art, a casual lunch at La Cocina in the garden oasis and strolling through local artists shops and studios over one downtown block connects you directly and personally to artisans themselves. Shelago's Artwerks features James Shelago's custom lapidary and silversmithing. The stones he has found regionally and from around the world to display in his gorgeous jewelry helps you understand that "turquoise" is just one of dozens of exquisite stones extracted from the earth in Arizona and New Mexico. Check out the beautiful red-laced "Sonoran Sunset Chrysocolla."
The Turquoise Trail: This historical walking tour of downtown Tucson is a 2.5 mile loop that takes from 1.5 to 2 hours if you complete the entire journey. It's replete with churches, gardens, historic buildings of the Presidio San Agustin del Tucson, including the Fox Theatre - where Linda Ronstadt's family, Ronstadt Generations, still perform. Even on brutally hot days, there are many cool stops for refreshment - including the beautiful Congress Hotel and chef-prepared quick food at Maynard's Market in the Historic Railroad Depot.
Mission San Xavier del Bac: Ten miles south of town toward Nogales, the carved and painted chapel interior of this church, built in the late 19th century, is cathedral-like in size and a stirring artistic and spiritual experience. Originally a Jesuit mission, the present building, constructed under the Franciscans, is now the parish church of the Tohono O'odham Native Americans. built of fired bricks and plaster made of sand, lime and prickly pear cactus juice, the edifice has no wood in its construction, except for portico ceilings linking adjoining buildings and combining materials such as wood beams from large mesquite trees and ribs from dried saguaros, the tall, imposing cacti that march across Sonoran Desert landscape.
Additional lunch or dinner recommendation - the famed Haciena del Sol, the Spanish Colonial historic inn and "best of" award winner, The Grill restaurant. This beautiful property, part of the Historic Hotels of America registry by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is nestled up close to the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains to the north of Tucson.