Tucson – staying and shopping in the shadow of the Catelinas

Postcard perfect

Tucson is nestled in the shadow of the beautiful Catelina mountains. Once the site of gold, silver and copper mining in the 1850’s, it is now a protected area and a destination for outdoor activities including hiking and even skiing in the winter time. The Santa Catelina mountains (named after St Catherine) are on the northern perimeter of Tucson and the highest point is Mount Lemmon at 9,157 feet above sea level. I didn’t make it up the mountains on my recent trip to Arizona but I did get to admire them from a very good vantage point at the foot of the mountains at the luxury Inns at the Rancho Merlita

Cary Grant has stepped out for a moment

The ranch was originally the desert getaway of cosmetic queen Merle Norman and much of its hey -day style from the 1950’s and 60’s is retained. The huge living room with its leather sofas and cool retro décor, has a majestic rock fireplace of locally mined rhyolite, which is the volcanic equivalent of granite. The whole dining room looks just like something from the set of  Hitchcock’s film North by North West. I kept expecting Cary Grant to sweep suavely into the room in an impeccable suit and say something dry and witty. The ranch has a pretty, saltwater pool which I did try out, and the grounds are landscaped with cacti which always have a sort of sculptured look about them. There are lots of interesting design features and some gorgeous decorative items which I would very much like to have in my house at home.

Choices, choices

We are close to the border with Mexico here and much of the artwork and furniture in Tucson’s up market accommodation is influenced by this. I LOVE Mexican art and design, from the furniture to the ceramics to the tin ornaments to the beautiful recycled glass, it is all quite delicious and quite difficult to get hold of in the UK. In downtown Tucson there is a newish area which is basically one block in the warehouse district south of Broadway called the Barrio Historico.  It is a collection of spacious shops specialising in several aspects of pretty authentic Southwest/Mexican decor and furnishings. The rustic furniture is beautiful but rather large and so the ornaments and ceramics have the advantage of being easier to fit into one’s luggage home. It was the Day of the Dead when I was there (November 1st after Halloween)
The day of the Dead or ‘Dia de los Muertos’ – is a big deal in these parts.

Super ceramics from south of the border

More than 500 years ago, when the Spanish Conquistadors landed in what is now central Mexico, they encountered natives practising a ritual that seemed to mock death.

It was a ritual the indigenous people had been practising for at least 3,000 years and a ritual the Spaniards would try unsuccessfully to eradicate.

You can never be too rich or too thin


Although the ritual has since been merged with Catholic theology, it still maintains the basic principles of the original Aztec version, such as the use of skulls. You will see lots of decorated skulls and jaunty skeletons engaged in social activities. Yes, they are a bit creepy but they are also kind of cool as well. Death as a part of life is central to this ancient celebration. 

It’s a skeleton sleep over


Another shopping treat close to the Rancho Merlita is a fabulous wholesaler of marvellous Mexican items called Borderlands and I was also very excited at their not inconsiderable range of Mexican furniture, rustic home furnishing and Mexican pottery.






Relax at Rancho Merlita


 All gorgeous stuff. You may not need a huge jewel and silver encrusted tin cross or a beautiful Talevera tiled mirror but you really really want one after a visit there. I had to make do with a few bits and pieces I could fit into my rucksack hand luggage, as my weight limit for the plane


had already been somewhat exceeded. You can buy things on line, but once you’ve paid carriage and duty it’s not such a cheap option anymore, so if you do go to Tucson from the UK, make sure you have  a lot of space in your case. If you’re from the US you don’t have so much to worry about, as free shipping is common.


Copper cacti
 There’s an surprising amount to do in this  laidback sunny part of the southern United States. From cowboys and rodeos, to stargazing and shopping and native American culture this is a top notch vacation destination. While I was there I met quite a few Americans who had moved here from chillier and much more northerly states and while it does get very very hot here in the summer everyone was adamant that they weren’t going back to the cold. Long days of guaranteed sunshine are always a big attraction in themselves but Arizona, (the Spanish interpretation of “arizuma,” an Aztec Indian word that means “silver-bearing) the 48th state to join the union has much more to offer than that.




Crazy table tiles