Monday, August 18, 2014

Roadboy's Weekend In Tucson - The Old Pueblo

A Spectacular 27 Mile Drive
San Xavier Del Bac - The White Dove
The Hotel Congress, Cup Cafe and Dillinger's Downfall
A Summer Evening Visit to The Arizona Desert Sonora Museum

I have always loved Tucson.  One of America's oldest cities, Tucson is filled with history, is home to lovely resorts, creative restaurants and the much cherished Arizona Desert Sonora Museum.

It is an amazing bargain to visit Tucson in the summertime when spectacular 4 and 5 star resorts (that have no problem selling rooms in winter for  $350 / Nt) offer rates that flirt with $100 / Nt. Now, having said that, beware, many of the resorts add hidden charges (like absurd $29 / Nt. "Resort Fees").

We left Phoenix Friday after lunch as I wanted to begin the visit with a drive on one of America's most scenic highways, the Catalina Highway. Officially, it is the General Hitchcock Highway that extends from the Tanque Verde area of Tucson up to Mt. Lemmon.

The highway, begun in 1933, was a dream of the former Postmaster General of the US Frank Harris Hitchcock. Hitchcock secured the approval for the road and its funding at the height of the Great Depression. 

The execution of the project began when a prison camp was established at the base of the mountain to supply construction labor to build the road. 

Sadly, during World War II the prison camp became an "Honor Camp" where Japanese Americans were incarcerated and forced to continue its construction. 

After 17 years of construction the highway was completed in 1950.  The highway was widened and greatly improved in 2007. 

The completed project delivered 27 spectacular miles of highway climbing to 8,000 feet while visiting several micro-climates. The views at every turn are truly breathtaking and the temperature at the top in Summerhaven was a refreshing 63° (it was 100° at the base of the road in Tanque Verde). 

Summerhaven, after more than a decade of rebuilding is coming to life. The community suffered almost complete destruction in the 2003 Aspen Fire. The Aspen fire burned about a month and destroyed over 84,000 acres. The price of the fire? Firefighting: $17,000,000. Erosion control: $2,700,000. Reconstruction of utilities: $4,100,000. Plus the loss of 340 structures.

The acrid stench of the Aspen fire drifts all the way to Washington DC. One year earlier, recognizing the fire risk, the Coronado National Forest requested $2,000,000 to implement practical fire prevention measures. Of course, Congress in 2002 was focused only on spending requests for the Iraq war. And, like nearly all upkeep related requests from the National Parks, National Forests and National Monuments during that time, the request was ignored. 

Midway To the Top 

 Spectacular Rock Outcroppings Along the Way

The Hitchcock Memorial
(Oddly - No Longer Accessible?)

The Plaque Dedicating the Highway 

A View to The North Among the Aspens 

Saturday morning was spent visiting Mission San Xavier del Bac (the White Dove of the Desert).

I had read that in summer the best time to visit the Mission is in the morning and that proved sage advice.  Construction on the church began in 1783 and was completed in 1797. At that time it was part of New Spain. Following Mexican independence in 1821, the mission became part of Mexico. The 1854 Gadsden Purchase resulted in the Mission becaming part of the United States. 

The church suffered earthquake damage in 1887. Lightning struck its west tower in 1939. Leaks in 1989 resulted in beginning of an ongoing restoration which continues to this day. 

San Xavier del Bac remains the oldest European structure in Arizona. 

Note The Restoration of West Tower
(The East Tower Awaits Full Restoraton) 

The Baroque Facade

An Exterior Detail

I had not visited the church since the Interior restoration was undertaken and it is spectacular.   Hundreds of years of grime have been removed from its frescoes and its statuary has been painstakingly been restored. The last time I visited the church its golden lions (flanking the altar) were missing (they were stolen in August 1982. Today new lions are in place. Thanks to Spencer and Gloria Giffords (parents of former Tucson Representative Gabrielle Giffords) who commissioned replacement lions from artisans in Mexico in 1983. The Lions, completed in 1985, were then aged in Gloria Giffords studio for 2-1/2 years prior to reinstallation.

The Chancel
(With One of the Golden Lions)

The West Transept

The Transept Dome

For lunch we visited downtown and ate at the Cup Cafe in the historic Hotel Congress. The Hotel Congress was built in 1919 along with the Rialto theater across the street from Tucson's 1907 Train Station. It is perhaps most famous for its fire on January 21, 1934. As it happened one of its guests was John Dillinger. He escaped the fire via a ladder and was identified by a firemen who went back to retrieve his luggage. He was arrested, escaped custody in Indiana and was killed 6 months later in Chicago on July 22, 1934.

Front - The Cup Cafe's Dillinger Menu

Back - The Cup Cafe's Dillinger Menu

Light in the Hotel Congress Nightclub

Dance of Death Mural 
Nightclub Hotel Congress

The visit was sequenced for an afternoon and evening visit to the 98 acre Arizona Sonora Desert Museum.  The complex is part museum, part aquarium and part zoo (with 230 different species of animals). It is only open for evenings on a few Saturday nights each summer. And it is a special time to visit. The animals are more active, there are musicians throughout the grounds and the nightly monsoons frequently create something completely magical.

The Drive to The Museum
(Crossing Gates Pass)

Looking North Toward the Museum

A Mountain Lion

A Fox

An Ocelot

Bighorn Sheep

The Surrounding Views At Sunset

A White Lined Sphinx Moth
(Flies and Behaves Like A Hummingbird)

As if by Irony - A Chance Sighting of Gabrielle Giffords
(Taking a Selfie With Her Husband Shuttle Astronaut Mark Kelly) 

A Summer Storm Roared in Capping Our Evening

Tucson is an on-going story. It is a land of extremes. It owns a rich history filled with heroic people sometimes just living everyday lives. A history filled with joy, music, art and heartache. It offers centuries of myths and legends. And, despite its amazing growth, it remains a true one-of-a-kind.

And it is something very special in summer.

Roadboy's Travels ©2014

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Great Hotel Disappearing Act

Hey, Didn't There Used To Be?

Road warriors tend to notice every minute change in their hotel rooms. And in the past few years the hospitality industry has been busy in their test labs, looking at ways to change operational models, reduce costs and be more sustainable. This has resulted in a variety of new ideas. Many of which have very subtly been implemented.

1. Waste Bins
Where the heck is the garbage can? Since time began there were always two trash cans in every hotel room. There would be one at the desk and the other in the bathroom. Now, more and more the one at the desk is either gone completely or it has been reduced in size, or it has become a multi-compartment recycle / trash bin with both compartments too small to actually hold anything. The result according to the housekeepers? Piles of trash left where the trash can used to be.

2. Little Bottles of Shampoo and Soaps
My routine upon entering a hotel room frequently involves peeking at the amenities. Did they leave me nice soaps? Is the shampoo a premium brand or is it a house brand from China. Hands down the best amenities are provided by Langham Hotels. There you have a box in the bathroom that is filled with every imaginable item. Increasingly, however, I've noticed that many chains (Hilton's Home2 for example) are eliminating bottles of anything. Instead they put those perpetually leaking dispensers on the mirror and in the shower. YUK! There is always soap on the counter or in the tub below the dispenser. I know they say it is more environmentally friendly, but the bottles I take home never go to waste. Many go straight to a local homeless shelter that LOVES to get them.

3. The Minibar
I'm actually good with these disappearing. I can't tell you how many times after checking out a new bill arrives charging me for stuff I did not take.  It got so bad I'd inventory the minibar upon arrival and send a note to the front desk telling them what was missing. The good news is some hotels have now put in an empty mini refrigerator. That is a very good idea. I know lots of travelers who need to take their insulin etc. and those little units are perfect.

4. Morning Newspapers
It used to be if you checked off a little box when you checked in they'd deduct the price of the morning newspaper from your bill. If you didn't they'd deliver a USA Today each day to your room.  Now there is no refund they just leave a short stack of papers on the front counter. This intimidates infrequent travelers who assume they have to pay for a paper. Road Warriors just grab a paper, growl and go on to breakfast. 

5. Restaurants
Increasingly lobby restaurants at limited service hotels (like Courtyards) are being replaced with walk-up limited service cafe's (a la Starbucks). I can't say I miss the hotel restaurants as they were my dining spot "of last resort". 

6. Bathtubs
Make way for the walk-in shower, those soaker tubs are disappearing pretty quickly.

7. Pay Per View TV
On demand movie stations that hijacked the TV and delivered low grade smut are quickly disappearing as we all spend more time on the internet and less time watching television.

8. Phones
Yes even in-room phones are starting to go away. When I walked into the hip Palihotel Melrose in LA recently I was a bit stunned to realize there was no closet, no thermostat and no telephone..... 

9. Robes
Even on executive floors the robes are disappearing. Most of the "one-size-fits-all" robes sure as hell didn't fit Roadboy, I say good riddance.

10. In Room Coffee
The coffee makers are slowly disappearing. OK, this is my line in the sand. If I enter a room and there is no coffee maker I call the front desk and demand one be brought up. Conversely a hotel that delivers quality coffee goes way up in my book.  London's Doubletree Hotel West Ealing will never be mistaken for the Ritz, but it not only had a great tea set up, it had an in-room Nespresso machine! That one feature overcame the small size of the rooms and allowed that hotel to rise in my esteem well above the noisy, confusing, expensive and mostly disappointing new Marriott I stayed in a few days later at Canary Wharf.

11. A Front Desk
Now you walk up to smiling staff at little podiums. Or in the case of an Aloft the "Aloha Desks".

Wait a minute where did my in-room safe go.....

Roadboy's Travels © 2014