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36 hours in Tucson | The Star

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TUCSON, ARIZ.—As Austin is to Texas, Tucson is to Arizona. In this outspoken university town, artists, intellectuals and athletes share their passions for good food and outdoor fun. In Tucson’s case, its location in the southern Sonoran Desert divides two sections of scenic Saguaro National Park where cactuses reside in multi-limbed groves. Two years ago, UNESCO cited Tucson as the nation’s first City of Gastronomy, highlighting its mix of Native American, colonial Spanish and border Mexican influences. That recognition seems only to have lit the fuse on new and adventurous breweries and distilleries as well as restaurants. With challenging urban hikes, other, more remote, trails nearby, and a new bike share system, Tucson makes for a calorically balanced weekend.

Friday

1) 1:30 p.m. Tour de Tucson

Reliably dry weather and a variety of terrain have made Tucson, newly home to a bike share system, popular with cyclists. For an overview of the city from the saddle, take an introductory ride with Tucson Bike Tours ($50). The owner, Jimmy Bultman, provides bright orange upright Civia bikes, helmets and commentary on city history and culture as he guides cyclists through neighbourhoods of vintage adobe homes that ring downtown. The route surveys Tucson’s history pre- and post-railroad arrival in 1880, when the city transformed from a sleepy town with a Spanish fort into a shipping centre. Risk adobe-envy in restored residential quarters such as Presidio and Barrio Viejo and cruise through the palm-filled campus of the University of Arizona.

2) 4:30 p.m. Prickly Pear Pint

Tucson’s strength in gastronomy, as saluted by UNESCO, does not solely belong to solids. Distillers and brewers are giving liquids a local accent. The tiny tasting room that fronts the brewery at Iron John’s Brewing Co. offers opportunities to sample owner John Adkisson’s rotating roster of sophisticated beers made with the likes of local mesquite flour, creosote blossoms or prickly pear cactus (flights of four 4-ounce samples, $8).

3) 7 p.m. Ranchero Beef

The owners of the 1922-vintage El Charro, which bills itself as the oldest continuously operating, family-run Mexican restaurant in the United States, recently expanded into the steakhouse business with Charro Steak. In a mash-up of Mexican flavours and cowboy fare, the menu includes guacamole made tableside ($10.95), tortilla soup ($8.95), and boneless rib-eye ($36.95) and bone-in strip ($30.95) steaks grilled on mesquite wood that scents the rustic room. Sides like chile-dusted creamed corn ($6) also have a south-of-the-border accent, while the mostly American wine list includes a blend from locally made Arizona Stronghold Vineyards ($13 a glass).

Saturday

4) 8 a.m. Natural StairMaster

To beat the reliable heat, Tucson is an early rising town. Join the jocks in a hike up Tumamoc Hill, an 860-acre ecological preserve operated by the University of Arizona and Pima County that functions as a public gym (free). Some run the 1.5-mile route that switchbacks uphill, but most find the 700-foot rise aerobically demanding enough to keep to a brisk hiking pace. A series of transmission towers and signs that say “Stop Walking” mark the top. But the views of Tucson, its surrounding mountains and the groves of saguaros picketing the hillside help distract from the challenge of the ascent.

5) 9:30 a.m. Chilaquiles and Trade

With whitewashed walls and a brick-paved courtyard, the Mercado San Agustin resembles a Spanish Colonial-era market, though it was built in 2010 to 21st-century environmental standards. The mix of restaurants and retailers includes the popular La Estrella Bakery, known for Mexican pastries and Presta Coffee. For a fuller meal, order the substantial chilaquiles ($9) from Seis Kitchen. After eating on the patio, browse the shops at the market, including Mast for locally made leather bags and jewelry, and San Augustin Trading Co. for handmade leather moccasins.

6) 11 a.m. History Beds

To gain a fuller sense of Tucson’s agricultural heritage — one of the key reasons the city won its UNESCO designation — make a stop at the Mission Garden. Open on Saturdays, the nonprofit 4-acre urban space re-creates a walled Spanish Colonial mission garden with desert-adapted orchards and vegetable beds that span local cultures from the ancient Hohokam people onward, representing more than 4,000 years of cultivation in the area.

7) Noon. Tokens and Tacos

Explore the city’s bohemian side along North Fourth Avenue, where a series of independent boutiques and restaurants line the blocks between roughly East Eighth and East Fourth streets. Spacious Antigone Books combines reading recommendations with gifts like notebooks and children’s toys. Tiny Town Gallery sells art prints, cards and T-shirts. Pop Cycle deals crafty goods from ceramic mugs to jewelry featuring mini horseshoes. Hit pause at Boca Tacos Y Tequila. The chef and owner, Maria Mazon, makes everything from the tortillas to the salsas, of which there are generally four daily, from scratch. Don’t miss the bistek ($3.60), featuring beef simmered in a savory ranchero sauce, and the Don Pancho, chopped steak atop a crunchy tortilla ($3.55).

8) 3 p.m. University Treasury

Among its many strengths, which includes the high-tech Mirror Lab producing massive telescope mirrors, the University of Arizona operates two small but significant museums. Photographers Ansel Adams and Harry Callahan are among the luminaries who have donated their archives to the Center for Creative Photography. Its ground-floor gallery (free) features rotating exhibitions from its archives. Across the street the University of Arizona Museum of Art (admission $8) holds an impressive Renaissance collection as well as a modern collection including a custom-lit Mark Rothko painting and a work by Jackson Pollock done on the back of a game board.

9) 5 p.m. Stars and Gems

The skies above the southern Arizona desert attract stargazers both amateur and professional (Kitt Peak National Observatory is about an hour’s drive from town). To gain an appreciation for what’s up there, visit Flandrau Science Center & Planetarium (admission $16). Shows projected in the newly renovated theatre explore the solar system in general, the night sky above Tucson specifically and sometimes veer off into the psychedelic arena with a Pink Floyd soundtrack. Don’t miss the basement where the University of Arizona Mineral Museum houses fantastically colourful rocks with names like Variscite and Mimetite, as well as pieces of meteors.

10) 7 p.m. Downtown Craft Crawl

Ten years ago, downtown Tucson had a handful of restaurants and a lot of parking space. Now the equation has been flipped, and the city’s most walkable neighbourhood makes it easy to taste and tour on foot. Dine on the Baja gardeners tostada ($12), grilled quail with roasted tomatoes ($25) and a serrano-infused gin Vietnam ($9.50) at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails from chef Janos Wilder. Then take a digestif tour of some of the city’s more interesting cocktail bars, including the Tough Luck Club in a basement once used as a morgue. Have a gin-and-port Tin Lizzy ($9) and a seat in a pew at the Owls Club lodged in a former funeral home. The raucous Hotel Congress, earsplitting as a hotel but essential on the night life circuit, offers four bars, a spacious outdoor patio and even a coffee shop for late-night tacos ($3).

Sunday

11) 8 a.m. Architectural Feast

Farm-to-table fare meets Googie design in Welcome Diner. A spinoff of the original Phoenix restaurant, Tucson’s version reinvigorated a mid-century-modern diner complete with sky-blue stools at the counter and window-lining booths with varnished wooden tables. For all the fun of the setting, the cooks are serious about their provisions, and list their local farmers on the walls and in the menu. The roasted vegetables topped with eggs ($12) and the burrito with squash, corn and tepary beans ($13) does them justice.

12) 9:30 a.m. Cactus League

The two divisions — east and west — of Saguaro National Park bracket Tucson in forests of cartoon-like cactuses. Hike the 2-mile, round-trip Mica View Loop in the east region to get up close to saguaros with arms that seem to point, salute and even hug. If the temperatures are too hot — and even if they’re not — take the 8-mile Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive that winds up hills and down dry sand beds with plenty of opportunities to pull over and appreciate the drama of the desert.

Lodging

The new 136-room AC Hotel by Marriott Tucson Downtown offers sleek style, a well-equipped gym, small pool, restaurant and bar. Its best asset is its central location that puts many downtown bars and restaurants within walking distance. Rooms from $299; Marriott.com.

Many of the luxury resorts that draw visitors to Tucson lie north in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains. Among the most atmospheric, the 59-room Hacienda del Sol retains its territorial character as a former 1929-vintage girls’ school with antiques-filled public rooms and flowering courtyards. Rooms from $149; Haciendadelsol.co.

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Travel & Escape

Dealing with baggage on your trip

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(NC)Nothing is more embarrassing than having to unpack your baggage at the airport. It’s common to overpack because you want to make sure you have everything you need for your trip – the right shoes, a jacket in case it’s cold, a bathing suit in case there’s a pool. But you must be mindful of the baggage restrictions. So, how can you be smart with your baggage when travelling?

The first thing to do is talk to your TICO-certified travel agent about the weight restrictions and number of bags you are allowed to take. Some airlines charge per bag, while others may offer one bag for free depending on weight.

You’ll also need to know if there are security requirements for carry-on and checked baggage. For example, there may be prohibited items such as gels and liquids. These limitations vary from airline to airline and depends on if your flight is international or domestic, so you’ll need to check the policy of the airline you’re travelling with.

Naturally, you want to avoid incurring baggage fees, so talk to your travel agent, or contact the airline directly. You can also visit their website to review the luggage policy.

Here are a few more tips to help you manage your baggage when travelling:

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You can’t carry everything with you, so be smart when you pack. Take only necessary items and focus on your trip.

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(NC) It’s two weeks before you’re scheduled to attend a destination wedding and then you get the call. The wedding has been called off.

Sure, you’re upset for the couple, but now you’re faced with plane tickets and hotel reservations. So, what can you do?

There’s no reason why you can’t go and enjoy the trip, but bear in mind you may face a price increase, especially if this was part of a group booking. Group bookings often include a minimum number of travellers to get the discounted price, as well as terms and conditions regarding changes or cancellations.

You could ask other travellers to come along to keep the group discount. But name changes often count as cancellations based on the terms of the vacation package and premium charges may apply. If you booked with a TICO-registered travel agency, website or tour company, it’s better to contact them and ask about options before making any decisions.

While it’s devastating for the couple who planned the destination wedding, the fact is that the cancellation affects all the confirmed guests. So, it’s important to know your options so you can salvage an unfortunate situation. Always book with a TICO-registered travel agency, website or tour operator so you can circle back and find out what they can do for you.

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Be safe not sorry when booking travel online

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(NC) With so many travel websites available these days, many people are choosing to book their vacations from the comfort of their own home. Many travel websites are easy to navigate, and offer great vacation packages, so it seems to make sense.

But before you hit “submit”, it’s important to know what you’re getting into. Here are a few tips that can make you more aware when booking travel online:

  • Look for the TICO registration number or logo. All Ontario travel agencies and websites must be registered with TICO, the provincial travel regulator that provides consumers with protections if they don’t receive travel services. The registration number or logo is usually found in the About Us or Contact sections of the website.
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  • Review the terms and conditions, particularly those that relate to cancellation, changes to bookings and refunds. Know what the travel agent or tour operator’s responsibilities are.
  • Keep a paper copy of your transactions, correspondence and confirmations.
  • Double check which currency the prices are quoted in. You could be paying in Euros instead of Canadian dollars.
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