Two Oases of the Desert in Tucson, Arizona

Article and Photos by Noreen Kompanik

Exotic. That’s the one word we use to describe Tucson, Arizona. There are many others, but, each time we go back and visit, this is the one that rings truest in our minds.


The second-largest city in Arizona, Tucson is almost as old as the U.S. itself. Founded by the Spanish in 1775, Tucson was built on the site of a much older Native American village. The city’s name comes from the Pima Indian word chukeson, which means “spring at the base of black mountain.”

Known as the “Old Pueblo”, Tucson is located in the magnificent and vast Sonoran Desert, surrounded by five different mountain ranges, and book-shelved between two halves of the Saguaro National Park. Tucson represents a beautiful blend of Native American, Spanish, Mexican and Anglo cultures. Elements of these influences can be found in its architecture and its cuisine.


Though the area is a popular retirement destination, youthful energy abounds due to the University of Arizona, located right in the center of town. The city resonates a laid-back “take it as it comes” vibe. With its abundance of golf courses, spas, nature preserves and numerous hiking trails, there’s never a shortage of things to do here. Happily we were in two perfect locations to explore the immense beauty of Tucson.

Casa Vista de Gabriela could not have been a more ideal setting for our first visit. Surrounded by 3.5 acres of mountain desert scenery in west Tucson, the home has spectacular views from every side of the property. The expansive deck, with heated pool and outdoor seating forrelaxing or dining, was a perfect spot to star gaze and watch the twinkling of city lights. We loved walking out with our coffees to greet the sun the next morning as it rose over the Santa Catalina and Santa Rita Mountains.


Owner, Mark Hillmer, a retired mortgage banker, and his wife, Paget Mitchell, came to Tucson six years ago for a second place to call home during the cold winters of Minnesota. The couple lives in a small town on a farm owned by Paget’s greatgrandfather. Paget is an interior designer and Mark loves renovating. Though the house was purchased primarily for its spectacular views, the heart they put into this southwest home is evident when you first walk through the front door.


The tastefully decorated home has a Spanish mission motif that pays homage to Tucson’s authentic southwestern character. The master bedroom has a king bed, lovely private sitting area, large walk-in closet and private customdesigned tiled bath. The two other bedrooms each have a queen bed and beautiful hardwood floors. The hallway bathroom, with custom-made Mexican vanities and colorful Saltillo-styled (terracotta) floors, made us feel like we were in an authentic Mexican villa. All in all, this 2,600 sq. ft. three bedroom, two-bath home can easily sleep up to six, perfect for families or couples.


The kitchen has brand new stainless steel appliances, is fully stocked and then some with every possible amenity guests could need. Seating is available at the bar or in the separate dining area adjacent to the kitchen. Families can spread out between two large living rooms. One makes for a fantastic game and movie room located just off the kitchen, while the other sitting area is directly in front of the kitchen, giving the house an open-living effect.oases6

While the house is incredibly impressive and warm, it’s the outside that steals the show because it’s hard to compete with Mother Nature. And there are plenty of places to relax, chill, breathe, and enjoy the desert


If staying close to Tucson’s Saguaro National Forest and taking in some incredible sunrises and sunsets wasn’t awe-inspiring enough, we had the chance to stay in a charming, recently renovated guesthouse at Mark and Paget’s other property in north Tucson, with more stunning mountain, city and sunset views. The guesthouse is part of the homestead that once belonged to renowned southwestern artist, Noel Daggett.

Lovingly renovated in a fashion that retains the artful history of the home, this curved adobe and brick two bedroom, 2 ½ bath guesthouse is located on 1.5 acres of land in central Tucson. The kitchen and sitting area with fireplace is one open charming room, giving guests a warm, welcoming feel. Just steps outside the door, a large pool with a fountain is perfect to cool down on a warm, sunny day. And there are several areas for lounging and relaxing and taking in a beautiful Arizona sunset.


Noel Daggett’s touches can be seen in his inlayed art strategically placed in outside walkways surrounded by native landscaping and incredible views. Another part of the renovation process is the former artist’s main house, a classically designed, strikingly beautiful Tucson home containing special vignettes throughout created by the artist himself, also available for rental.


Exploring Tucson’s History
Mission San Xavier del Bac
There’s no better way to be introduced to Tucson’s fascinating history than a visit to what’s known as “The White Dove of the Desert” – Mission San Xavier del Bac. A National Historic Landmark, the Spanish Catholic mission was founded by Father Eusebio Kino in 1692. Construction of the mission church began in 1783, and was completed in 1797.

The oldest intact European structure in Arizona, the mission, with its white stucco exterior and classic southwest design is considered to be the finest example of Spanish Colonial architecture in the United States. Situated in the center of a centuries-old Indian settlement of the Tohono O’odham, Xavier del Bac is a pilgrimage site for thousands arriving by foot or on horseback.

Hotel Congress
Built in 1919 as a historic railroad hotel, vintage Hotel Congress is another throwback to Tucson’s colorful past. The lobby’s antique collection features an old phone booth, a table made out of copper pennies and
the hotel’s original switchboard. But it’s the capture of infamous bank robber John Dillinger right here in the hotel in 1934, during the Depression, which has made this hotel so richly famous.

El Presidio Historic District
The area once inhabited by the Hohokam Indians is today a mix of Spanish-Mexican and Anglo-American architecture with beautifully restored adobe houses. One of the main tourist draws in this area is Old Town Artisans, a restored 1850s marketplace in downtown Tucson which includes an entire city block of galleries, stores, and a restaurant, all set in unique buildings.

Old Tucson Studios
Yes, it’s a make believe western town, but, it is definitely a slice of classic western Americana, famous as the principal film location for more than 300 western movies and TV shows over the last 70 years. This “Hollywood in the Desert” has been the movie setting for classic motion pictures starring John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman and Kirk Douglas and long-running television productions like Gunsmoke, High Chaparral, and Little House on the Prairie.

Exploring a College Town
Tucson is home to the University of Arizona, established here in 1885. Located in the heart of Tucson, the university’s Wildcat crowd brings the buzz and high-voltage energy of youth to this historic city. Among the 179 buildings located on campus is the Arizona State Museum, the oldest anthropology museum in the southwest, highlighting the cultures of Arizona, the American Southwest and northern Mexico.


Exploring Nature
Saguaro National Park
If Tucson has a host, it’s the image of the giant saguaro cactus with its outstretched “arms” that instantly comes to mind. Saguaro National Park, part of Arizona’s vast Sonoran Desert, extends both east and west of the city, covering over 91,000 acres. The park was established to preserve its stately, slow-growing namesake – a true and living symbol of the American west and native only to the Sonoran region. Numerous hiking trails take you past an abundance of varied flora and fauna, which surprisingly flourish even in Arizona’s summer heat.


Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. By far, this is one of the most beautiful outdoor museums we have ever visited and, not surprisingly, one of the top ten zoological parks in the world. This 98 acre museum is a zoo, natural history museum, aquarium and botanical garden all in one, celebrating the unique beauty of the Sonoran Desert. And if that’s not impressive enough, it has one of the world’s most comprehensive regional mineral collections.


Exploring Southwestern Cuisine
Mexican restaurants have been and always will be a characteristic and elemental part of Tucson just like its dependable summer monsoon rains. We’ve had some of the best Mexican food in Tucson, no surprise considering the city’s close proximity to the border of Mexico. There is a multitude of authentic, reasonably priced establishments catering to those who crave some of the area’s more spicy local fare.

Bison Witches Bar & Deli
When you’re looking for a good restaurant, it’s always wise to trust the locals- even the college kids and young urbanites. Located on downtown’s energetic and happening Fourth Avenue, Bison Witches (which is actually pronounced “buy some wiches”), is a casual, eclectic neighborhood hangout featuring non-traditional gourmet deli sandwiches, salads and bread bowls. We were pre-warned about the size of the deli sandwiches, so, when we ordered The Beef and Brie, made with imported brie melted over thinly sliced roast beef served with tomatoes, sprouts, and homemade honey-based spicy Russian mustard, we were glad we split the order. There’s no holding back on the amount of ingredients in this incredible sandwich. Food and service at this deli was exceptional.

Dante’s Fire
Who can resist a restaurant by this name? Again, a local recommendation which panned out perfectly. Somewhere within this neighborhood bar setting lurks the heart of an extraordinarily creative epicurean. Their impressive cocktail list includes drink combinations and names we’ve never seen before like Dante’s Inferno, made with Habanero Cilantro Tequila, Cointreau, Fresh Sour, Sriracha and a house made Bloody Mary mix. The gastropub’s philosophy is to be a “scratch kitchen” offering unusually creative dishes utilizing the freshest local ingredients possible. Their resounding success was obvious in our shared appetizers like Grilled Jalapeno Poppers with candied bacon, Sriracha cream cheese, Asiago foam and red pepper, and Grilled Spicy Shrimp with Chorizo. I’d say heavenly – but perhaps devilishly delicious would describe the experience even better.

Fascinating Towns Worth the Drive
Only 30 miles north of Mexico’s border and a 50 minute drive from Tucson, the small town of Tubac is one of Arizona’s largest art communities. Established as a Spanish presidio in 1752 to protect European settlers and local Indian tribes from savage Apache raids, the historic town draws visitors from around the Southwest to browse through 100 studios, galleries and craft boutiques, many owned and operated by the artists themselves. Luckily our visit took place during the Tubac Festival of the Arts, featuring magnificent exhibits and performances by a host of additional artists, craftsmen and musicians from across the country.

A walk through Tubac Presidio State Historic Park provides a fascinating trip back through history as we explored ruins and crumbling adobe structures of the oldest Spanish Presidio site in Arizona, San Ignacio de Tubac, and the park bookstore highlighting the rich heritage of the surrounding region.


An absolute must-do is a drive to the land of Wild West infamy, where legends were made – and died. That’s Tombstone Arizona, the site of the famous and yes, infamous Shootout at the OK Corral in 1881. Gunfight re-enactments still happen daily. A great place to cool off is Big Nose Kate’s Saloon, named after Doc Holliday’s girlfriend. It’s a fun, rowdy cowboy bar with live music and drink specialties include names such as Sex in the Desert and Cowboy’s Dream.

We had to make our way to historic Boothill Graveyard on our way out of town. This dry, dusty burial ground is named for the gunfighters who died “with their boots on”, though other Tombstone residents are buried there as well. Here we visited the actual burial site of the four cowboys killed in the gun battle at the OK Corral.


A final thought
In one of the shops in Tucson’s historic district, we came across a piece of artwork in which poet Elaine Tabios wrote “My favorite color…the seam of a desert horizon”. This couldn’t be truer after witnessing the spectacular desert sunrises and sunsets of Tucson and experiencing its rich, fascinating history.


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