A few years ago, for her birthday, I promised my sister that I would treat her to one of her bucket list destinations, Miraval Spa near Tucson, Arizona (it was one of mine, too). It took a few years before I became financially solvent enough, but we finally made it.
Started from the bottom, now we’re here.
So, we packed our bags for the vast, arid landscape of the Sonoran desert to enjoy some pampering, national park sights and southwestern culture. Listen to the Blink 182 song, that you’ll beat to death in Tucson, okay?
In the desert, you can remember your name…
Even though I landed at TUS in the morning, it was already hotter than the surface of the sun. Tucson covers an expansive area of desert, so we found it best to rent a car. First order of business? Food, obviously. The Sonoran hot dog at El Guero Canelo is one of Tucson’s famous delicacies. This is a bacon wrapped frank smothered in beans on a soft bolillo roll. I could’ve eaten four of these bad boys, but I showed some rare restraint.
We made our way west of town to Mission San Xavier del Bac, aka the White Dove of the Desert, a Spanish mission founded in the 1700s. It is a pilgrimage site for some, and I can only imagine that this stark white structure probably looked like a welcome oasis for those seeking sanctuary in the barren wilderness.
Continuing North, we entered Saguaro National Park West, where the upheld arms of the cacti greeted us hello (so friendly!). Saguaro is split into two parks separated by the city itself. The West side (westside!) is the smaller of the two (and the free-r of the two), and their visitor’s center has an incredible vista that allows you to see across the desert plain for miles and miles.
There are also trails that leads you right in the midst of a cactus forest, where you find yourself surrounded by a sea of these prickly giants. It’s untouched and deserted, so you half expect Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner to run past you.
It just so happened that we were in town during Arizona’s largest gem and mineral show (late January-February), so you know we had to hit that up. And guess what, it rocked. Most convention centers are located centrally, so it also gives you a chance to explore the downtown; I always look at their calendars when I travel.
For an early dinner, we took a recommendation from a friend and went to Tucson classic, Mi Nidito (little nest). Even though it was early bird special time, there was still a considerable wait, but oh was it worth it to feast upon the cheesy goodness that is smothered enchiladas in this family oriented Mexican establishment.
Feeling stuffed and content, we walked down Congress Street and Fourth avenue, where there’s a littany of bars, restaurants and the famed Congress Hotel, where every musician has inevitably stayed. If there had not been a cheese brick in my stomach, I would have undoubtedly treated myself at the Screamery or HUB ice cream parlors.
Now the thing about Tucson is that a lot of the hotels are resorts, which is typically great. However, resorts mean space, and space means distance from downtown. We made the long haul to our Westin resort through the Central district, through the University of Arizona into the Catalina Foothills. Once you’re at your hotel, you’re probably stuck there since it’s a long way out from anything else–this makes sense, as it seemed the city went dark early anyway.
The next morning, we ventured out to Prep & Pastry, where they serve upmarket brunch items and pastries the size of your head. This provided sustenance us for our trek to Miraval. I can see why it is popular for people who need to get away..it’s far out in the middle of nowhere.
As with most interesting things in life, I think I first heard about Miraval many years ago from Oprah, the taste maker of taste makers. This is a beyond elevated spa experience; it’s so much more than that. This retreat is a secluded desert compound where a panoply of amenities and wellness programs are available to those in search of a little extra chakra aligning or aura cleansing. Okay, so it’s not as new age-y as you think, but you are definitely spending a good amount of money (read: a lot of money) to escape everyday hustle to a hideaway where you can work on whatever: stress relief, inner peace, physical and emotional strength, personal development.
I mean, don’t come expecting to have the same transformational experience as Homer Simpson did when he ate the peppers and wound up in the desert talking to Johnny Cash in coyote form. That will not happen here, but it’s cool nonetheless.
While there, we enjoyed hiking, yoga, swimming, massages, seeing a D list celebrity, healthy meals and all you can drink smoothies. There’s horseback riding, all sorts of fitness and culinary classes, team building obstacle courses, every meditative and rejuvenation program you could imagine against the beautiful views of the Arizona mountains. A day pass was enough for me, as I tend to get antsy when caged in one place (you can probably guess my goal wasn’t to work on tranquility or patience), and overall I thought the experience was luxurious and provided me the relaxation I sought.
It was truly the embodiment of “Treat yo self” mentality, which we continued by going down to La Encantada shopping center, filled with high end retailers and chain restaurants. Taking a chance on something we saw on the side of the road to continue the theme, we dined at a restaurant called Hifalutin. Super down home, super filled with locals. There was country music, large portions, and a whole lot of locals wondering how the hell we got there probably, but it wasn’t bad. Again, the resort area is far from downtown, so just take that in consideration when thinking about food options.
We woke up before dawn on Sunday and journeyed to Saguaro East National Park to catch the sunrise over the desert foothills before driving the several mile loop around the park. Everything was still, a peaceful, easy feeling (RIP Glenn Fry). Perfect for a contemplative Sunday morning.
Driving through town from the East side, we passed the Davis Monthan airforce base where lies the largest collection of skeletal remains of aircraft. Mercado San Agustin is a cozy, trendy public market located in one of the barrios in town and we devoured some pan dulce and churros there.
We discovered several more barrios on route to 5 Points Market and Restaurant where I absolutely demolished my farm fresh breakfast baguette sando.
Since we had many hours left of our trip, we decided to fly off the cuff and head south to the border town of Nogales, Arizona. Although we did not cross into Mexico (someone did not bring her passport–it wasn’t me), just seeing across the border at the lively Sonoran town was a great experience.
On our way back to Tucson, we happened upon Tumacacori National Historic Park, a 1700s mission where politics, religion and social issues all mixed amongst native people and Europeans.
Before my flight, there was one thing left on my to do list: to try an Eegee‘s slushie. As Tucson is literally seven inches from the midday sun, I can see why this icy treat is so popular amongst the locals, especially the refreshing pina colada. Yes, I like pina colada, and getting caught in the rain. Time to plan the next escape.
Tucson eats: Mexican food, Sonoran hot dogs, resposadas, Eegee’s
Listen to the Eagles, Calexico
Suggested souvenirs: southwestern arts and crafts, turquoise, ceramics