Coming to Tucson begins with an uncrowded airport terminal, where service people are often good-humored and given to practicing generosities. Which is extraordinary in itself. Get a rental car. Some of the best golf courses and places for an evening meal are outside the resorts. (Anyway I'm western, used to great spaces and must have my own wheels or I go crazy.)
So, now, where to have made reservations?First-string places to stay in Tucson can best be broken down into those that are inherently interesting and those that are simply comfortable. (The good places are all easygoing and service oriented.) My favorites are the Westin La Paloma, the Lodge at Ventana Canyon and the Omni Tucson National. All are connected to golf courses, but that doesn't count for much, since it's easy to play all over town. They are also connected to good restaurants, though not necessarily the best ones.
La Paloma is open-passage architecture, with a "swim up to the bar for another margarita" pool -- an American version of what must have been going on in the minds of Arab princes in Granada who created the Alhambra. Children whoop down the water slide, and adults wear Rolex watches while slowly swimming laps. In the evening I go down to the lobby for a nightcap and chocolate mousse while a pianist plays show tunes. La Paloma is both a convention hotel and home to a private Tucson golf-and-tennis club. If you have luck you might get to play with locals. Conventioneers, getting in some rounds between meetings, tend to lose a lot of balls. Belonging at La Paloma would force you to get your game together -- locals tend to be players.
What you're confronting is twenty-seven holes of relentlessly trapped early Nicklaus target golf. At sixty-six, with a ten handicap, I've found that playing from the back, unless you hit the ball 260, is a recipe for a lousy day. (Gold-tee slopes on the combinations of nines run a consistent 155.) You've got to play with balata and land it softly. From the whites, hitting seven- and eight-irons onto those greens generated as much pure tactical shot-making pleasure as I ever expect. Golf, like politics, is an art of the possible.
For dinner, I'd soon get myself to Janos, widely regarded as the finest eating establishment in Tucson. (It was still downtown on my latest visit but is scheduled to move to La Paloma this fall.) The menu is described as French-inspired southwestern. A recent "tasting menu" (five courses with wine, $90.00 per person) featured sea scallops marinated in citrus, honey and mint, pan seared and served on fruit salsa, with kiwi-and-mango coulis, citrus beurre blanc, salmon caviar and a touch of avocado mousse. I ordered green-tea smoked duck, stir-fried bok choy and spiced plums off the regular menu. Indoors or out, the meal is simple and elegant.
The Lodge at Ventana Canyon has forty-nine suites and no conventioneers. Privacy is absolute. Guests could be characterized as quiet and intent on sensible pleasures. (It would not be the place to go alone unless you enjoy talking to yourself.) Meals in the Hearthstone dining room were surprisingly undistinguished, though. For dinner, I'd go just up the hill to Loews Ventana Canyon Resort (elegant but more hotel than lodge) and its Ventana Room, one of the most consistently excellent restaurants in the Southwest. After a hot afternoon I went with pan-seared foie gras on challah toast, with kumquat compote, accompanied by a glass of Eiswein, Sichel, Rheinpfalz, 1994. My main course was chilled Maine lobster with oven-dried tomatoes, tart apples and sweet corn under a lemon basil vinaigrette. All the gods, for that evening, were secure in their heavens.