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DESERT ROSE

WHY TUCSON IS THE SOUTHWEST'S GREATEST CITY

By ANDREA BENNETT

At the altar in the Mission San Xavier.
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April 24, 2007 -- IT is difficult to put this delicately, but one of the very best things about Tucson is that it is nothing like Phoenix. Don't get me wrong - the Valley of the Sun has its merits (some of my favorite resorts live there!), but a harmonious and appealing natural setting is not one of them. Phoenix, frustratingly, often likes to turn its back on everything that makes the Southwest great - the hybrid cuisine, the fascinating mix of cultures, that great Arizona outdoors.

In Tucson, being outdoors is a huge part of life, and much of the food is nothing short of excellent. In fact, you can't get much more Southwestern.

It's these reasons and more that have put the city on many a list of "Best Places" to do this and that - retire, golf, eat a burrito, visit a spa, what have you. None of those lists would be inaccurate.

A protected little pocket, its lines of demarcation are formed by the Catalina peaks up north, the Rincon range to the east, the mighty Tucson mountains to the west and the Santa Ritas just to the south.

The whole thing is patrolled by sentries of Saguaro, the huge cactus you may know only from old Road Runner cartoons (chunks of the beautiful Saguaro National Forest are found on either side of the city).

Within, it's one of the most easily navigable (albeit sprawling - you need a car) quadrants in the nation, with a young, energetic vibe (courtesy of the University of Arizona); fascinating architecture new and old (a natural consequence of its Hispanic, Native American and Anglo heritage); and fantastic food (Mexico being only 60 miles south).

It's also easier to get to than ever before. Continental and JetBlue now fly daily nonstop from Newark and JFK, respectively. So while you may not be ready to retire just yet, how about a long weekend? Here's what to do.

SHOP THE LOST BARRIO Though it's less than a mile from downtown (and past an underpass shaped like a rattlesnake), this three-block stretch of home-design warehouses really does feel lost.

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