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All The Many Reasons to Love Tucson

The golf at Ventana Canyon Golf and Racquet Club, on either the Canyon or the Mountain course (guests at the Lodge and Loews can play them on alternate days), is not so extreme as at La Paloma. The best eighteen is the Mountain, where the most famous hole is the tiny par-three third, 104 yards over an impassable ravine to a green hung between walls of huge boulders (the most photographed golf hole in the American West). It plays short. Recently I was thirty feet beyond the pin. My putt ran away in a most annoying fashion.

But blue butterflies were flitting everywhere. I was surrounded by beauty. Bogey. Nuts, I thought, my ecological instincts failing me at just that moment.

My favorite among the resorts, strung along a great desert wash, is the Tucson National. A decade ago, my true love and I lived in a casita alongside a fairway for several weeks. I found myself watching doves and quail, feeding ducks in the pond by the ninth green of the Gold course. Great horned owls called from the cottonwood trees.

People on vacation sometimes work themselves up, grow frantic; voices turn shrill; folks insist on small prerogatives. That sort of behavior doesn't happen much at Tucson National, where life is pretty relaxed. In the Legends Bar & Grill people watch ball games on television, and smoke cigars after 8 p.m. Recently I had a massage with hot stones in the men's spa, and it turned me hallucinatory with pleasure. Hard to imagine what women endure, with the herbal wraps, wax treatments, facials and all. My true love emerged glowing and limber in body and mind.

The golf course at the National, where they have recently been playing the Tucson Open, is not however my local favorite. The first good courses in Tucson -- like Randolph North Municipal Golf Course, a public course in the center of town, which is in shape to host an LPGA event each spring -- were built on a meadowlands model. (In an area short of water, this involves a lot of irrigating.) The Tucson National is also parklike, and not the desert golf I go to the Southwest seeking.

One of the first courses that confronted players with the desert as hazard was the Fred Enke Municipal Golf Course, built in 1983 on the far southeastern side of Tucson. Then came La Paloma and Starr Pass, target layouts with somewhat heedless degrees of difficulty. The recent trend has been toward "first-rate but more playable" desert courses (wider landing areas and greens you can actually run the ball onto). I'd start with the Raven Golf Club at Sabino Springs and the Golf Club at Vistoso before undertaking the rigorous demands of Ventana and La Paloma. If Tucson was my home, I'd cultivate a regular game (with pals, for money) at Vistoso.

For the overgolfed, there's upscale shopping at the Foothills Mall -- a Saks outlet, a Donna Karan Company Store. Or check out the boutiques in St. Phillips Plaza and have lunch at Cafe Terra Cotta. (Don't resist the crème brûlée -- life is short.) Or wander the old downtown quarter, and for lunch go to the Cafe Poca Cosa. Suzana Avila recreates her menu of vividly realized borderlands food every day. Always order the mole, whatever flavor. And hope the corn tamale soufflé is on the day's menu.

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