What to do in Tucson, AZ

Tucson is a great town for tourists who enjoy the outdoors. While there are a few excellent museums located on the University of Arizona campus, the best activities are the ones that incorporate the outdoor activities and beautiful desert scenery.


The Sonoran Desert Museum

This is my all-time favorite Arizona activity. Located west of downtown Tucson and situated in the Saguaro National Park, this establishment is a cross between a zoo, botanical garden, and natural history museum.

A view of the Saguaro National Park

A view of the Saguaro National Park

Visitors can spy on animals such as mountain lions, javalinas, big horn rams, or wander through a hummingbird aviary.

This guy loved the camera.

This guy loved the camera.










Most of the exhibits are located outdoors with a few subterranean or indoor displays. Guests follow paths which wend through the open desert and showcase a variety of flora and fauna.

The desert in bloom.

The desert in bloom.

I recommend budgeting a good three to four hours for this – especially for first time visitors. There is so much to see and you’ll want to take your time soaking it all in.  There are a number of restaurants onsite, however most close by 3PM. After that, there is one option open located by the museum entrance. The museum gift shop is one of the best places in Tucson to buy souvenirs. From Native American pottery to upscale southwestern jewelry, this shop provides a wide range of possible mementos.



One of the many varieties of blooming cacti.

One of the many varieties of blooming cacti.

Adults: $19.50 Children: $6 Discounted pricing for Seniors, Youths, and Students available








Sabino Canyon

A kickin’ hiking destination located in the Catalina Foothills of northeastern Tucson, Sabino Canyon is a must see. Trails range from beginner to advanced, and the entire Sabino area features diverse wildlife and ecosystems. If you enjoy the outdoors, this is worth a full or half day trip. Just remember to stock up on sunscreen and water and eat a good meal beforehand, as vending machines are the only food options onsite. Be forewarned, some of the trails include dizzying heights (along with fantastic views) so vertigo is a definite possibility for those used to lower elevations. If hiking isn’t your thing, the Sabino Canyon visitor center offers an educational, narrated tram tour of the Sabino Canyon area. As with hiking, visitors taking the tram will have the opportunity to view different ecosystems and wild animals. The last time I visited, I was lucky enough to see a wild gila monster!

Entrance fees: $8 for adults, $4 for kids


The University of Arizona

A beautiful desert campus (although surprisingly green in some areas) with unique architectural elements and an enormous student union, make for an excellent visit. The University has a number of museums such as the Arizona State Museum (anthropological), Museum of Art (student and professional), Center for Creative Photography (exhibits and events are open to the public), and Mineral Museum (located inside the planetarium building). You can easily spend one or two days bumming around campus and taking in all the U of A has to offer. Just off campus, on E. University Boulevard, there are a number of lively restaurants and stores. Frog n Firkin and Gentle Bens are both considered institutions and the food is pretty solid pub fare. I’m especially partial to Sinbad’s located in Main Gate Square, for fantastic Middle Eastern food at very reasonable prices. While you’re in this area, make sure to grab an iced tea from the Scented Leaf Tea House and Lounge. Brewing practically any variety of tea you can imagine, this shop will definitely quench your thirst (iced lemon hibiscus green tea, anyone?) and offers a discount on refills.

Campus is free and open to public, admission varies by museum


Mission San Xavier del Bac

San Xavier exterior

San Xavier exterior

Known as the “white dove of the desert” this is a really unique establishment. The mission is located on the Tohono O’odham reservation slightly south of Tucson. The gleaming white exterior stands in stark contrast to the bright blue Arizona sky creating wonderful photo opportunities. San Xavier Tours are offered at set times throughout the week. The tours are very informative, covering the history of the church and describing its architectural elements and artwork.

The interior of the church is a rare melding of European and Latin American Catholicism with Native American tradition and design elements. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anything quite like San Xavier, and consider it a must see for the Tucson area.





Tucson also functions as a great base to explore other towns in southern Arizona. Tombstone is an hour and thirty minute drive away and a quintessential old west experience. Bisbee is also an hour and a half away and a former copper mining town. Today, Bisbee is well known for its eclectic arts scene and mine tours. There are several cave tours available around the Tucson area as well. While these are very interesting and fun activities (and a great way to escape the desert heat) they are not recommended for claustrophobic tourists. Also, make sure to take your tour with a licensed professional outlet. Two well-known tours are the Colossal Cave Mountain Park and Kartchner Caverns State Park. Hopefully your Tucson hotel has a pool. In my opinion, a day spent by the pool is one of the best activities in this hot and dry climate!

Sandeman Sherry Bodega Tour – Jerez Spain


Sandeman popped my sherry cherry. On a recent trip to Spain, I ventured to Jerez and stumbled across the Sandeman Bodega located right next door to the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art. Convenience plus five.  Two major tourist attractions in one go.  As it turned out, Sandeman was the perfect bodega for a novice sherry drinker to visit.

Sandeman offers tours in English and our guide was adorable. This young lady was dressed in the official Sandeman outfit, resembling a 19th century spy with her cape and dark caballero hat. Since the temperature in Jerez was roughly 100 F in the shade, the entire tour group felt a strong measure of sympathy for her plight.

That poor girl.....

That poor girl…..

The Sandeman Bodega tour is very interesting with guides explaining production processes, harvesting, grape types, and so on. A broad overview of sherry wine is given as well as specific information relative to Sandeman. Southern Spain sherry producers all follow a production method called the Solera system. Barrels are stacked based on their age. The oldest vintages go on the bottom, the second to oldest on top of that, etc. When it comes time to bottle the sherry, a bodega will take one third from a barrel/row and then recoup the amount taken with the next youngest row. Basically, you can never have a true vintage for sherry. Producers will end up with a sherry that is around 20 years old, but the blending process ensures that there will never be a sherry dated with a specific year. In other words, consumers cannot get a sherry from 1995 harvest. Although it muddles vintages, the Solera method does allow for consistency. Each sherry from a given classification always tastes the same. This means that there is more of a focus on the production process and styles specific to individual bodegas rather than an emphasis on the qualities inherent to the grape. Apparently the grapes used to produce the sherries can be fairly bland on their own and require finessing.

Sherry wines are fortified with alcohol produced from distilled wine grapes. Adding in this alcohol cuts short the natural fermentation process and allows producers to create a specific flavor profile for different sherry varieties. Fortification also ensures that sherry will not spoil, or go bad. Given the extreme temperatures in the Jerez region, this makes sense. Jerez is also close to the port town of Cadiz and sherry was frequently supplied for long voyages at sea. Fortifying the wine meant that it would stand up to the extreme changes in temperature and motion found in sea voyage.

Sandeman’s iconic logo was created as a marketing ploy in the early 20th century. The ploy worked and Sandeman products are extremely recognizable worldwide.

Sandeman Barrels

Sandeman offers a variety of tasting levels to complete your tour. I chose the basic sherry tasting with food.


Nothing like some fortified wine during your first meal of the day!

Nothing like some fortified wine during your first meal of the day!


Along with the informational tour, Sandeman also features dioramas in barrels


Pretty cool.... in a slightly creepy way.

Pretty cool…. in a slightly creepy way.


Several Don Sandeman silhouettes


Just creepin'....

Just creepin’….


And a beautiful courtyard which can be rented for events


Complete with a ceiling of grapes.

Complete with a ceiling of grapes.


While I do not have a basis for comparison, I thoroughly enjoyed my Sandeman bodega tour and highly recommend it. It’s centrally located, informative, and fun!

The Sandeman Bodega turned me into a sherry convert and inspired my loyalty to the company.  Having tried several other brands, I still prefer Sandeman’s “Character” (medium-dry) sherry, although the Garrocha Amontillado is a delightful equivalent.  Sandeman’s medium-dry sherry is delicious. Not overly sweet, it has a delightful nutty flavor that would allow it pair well with game dishes or aged cheeses.  The Fino or dry sherry is not my favorite, but I can understand how it would complement fresh seafood – think oysters.  Armada Cream sherry is perfect for dessert, with a thicker, more viscous mouth feel, and will pair exceptionally well with a salty gorgonzola to contrast with the sweetness of the beverage. Like a good scotch, Sandeman’s aged Amontillado sherry is perfect for a cold winter night curled up in front of the fire. The intense oaky and tannic flavor ensures that Amontillado is savored rather than vigorously quaffed. I recommend that novices move on to this sherry after introducing their palate to the more user friendly varietals.

The Windmills of Consuegra Spain

Consuegra is a pretty cool place. A sleepy little Spanish town about 40 minutes southeast of Toledo, Consuegra is best known for its windmills. There are twelve in total, with ten lining the top ridge of the mountain on which they sit. As these windmills are purportedly referenced in Don Quixote, it seemed like a good place to stop by on my drive from Toledo to Seville during my Spanish road trip.

The view from the top of the ridge was breathtaking. The Castilla-La Mancha landscape stretches out as far as the eye can see, contrasting beautifully with the intense blue sky.

Now that is a view...

Now that is a view…

A view of the town

A view of the town


Unfortunately, ascending this ridge was terrifying. As someone with a healthy fear of heights, there are few things I hate more than having to drive up a steep incline not made for cars. Despite the international fame of this area, the road up to the top of the ridge was not really wide enough for two vehicles. There was a flimsy guardrail – but only in certain spots. Some sections of the road were apparently not deemed dangerous or frightening enough to warrant the inclusion of a guardrail. Instead, drivers had the pleasure of avoiding the edge of the steep drop while praying another car did not approach from the opposite direction.

That flimsy wooden rail is all that stands between you and death.

That flimsy wooden rail is all that stands between you and death.


For those brave souls with a high level of physical fitness, there is the Ruta de Don Quixote hiking trail as a means of ascending the mini-mountain. I did not explore this trail, but I strongly suspect that there are areas which require a knowledge of rock climbing.

The hiking/rock climbing trail.

The hiking/rock climbing trail.


In the end, it was worth it. Spectacular views were heightened by the atmospheric old windmills. Two of these windmills were open and (for a price) allowed visitors to climb up to the top and see how these machines work.




Windmill Gears

What’s inside a windmill? Wooden gears. Not as exciting as I thought…


Yeah... I guess that's pretty picturesque.

Yeah… I guess that’s pretty picturesque.


Also, Don Quixote was a pimp, cause these things are freakin’ huge.

Note the size of the cars in relation to the windmill

Note the size of the cars in relation to the windmill


Also, a metal Don Quixote about to own a windmill.  You're welcome.

Also, a metal Don Quixote about to own a windmill. You’re welcome.


After my exhilarating literary field trip, I realized that I needed to eat. Luckily, I obtained a restaurant recommendation from one of the windmill guides and headed into the town. The town was pretty deserted, which made parking a snap. After getting slightly lost in the incredibly confusing labyrinth of streets, I found the chic and entirely out of place Gastrobar, Gaudy Taperia. This establishment looked like the type of hip, upscale restaurant you would find in Valencia or Madrid, not a small windmill town in the middle of nowhere.  However, the food was excellent and the staff friendly. Although it was the only Consuegra restaurant I experienced, I highly recommend it!

While I wouldn’t choose to stay in the town, Consuegra is an excellent stopover on any travels south from Madrid or Toledo. The views are spectacular, the food is good, and you can pretend to fight some windmills Don Quixote-style.

Guess what, folks?  A ridge with windmills on it is kinda windy...

Guess what, folks? A ridge with windmills on it is kinda windy…

Salem, Massachusetts: Four Fall Tips


This should probably come as no surprise to anyone who lives in New England, but around Halloween, Salem MA becomes an absolute mess.  I recently went up there for the day – mainly to check out an awesome bakery – and ended up questioning my sanity.  I thought, “Halloween is weeks away, how bad can it be?”  Bad.  It was very, very bad.  Although, once we parked it got a lot better and ended up being tons of fun.  Getting into the town center was an epic endeavor though, and took about 30 minutes from the highway exit.  In the end, I wish I had brought a “Tips for Navigating Salem” guide.  Alas, I didn’t have that guide.  But now you do!

#1 – Don’t go in October.  For those of you who are not American, or for any Americans who flunked U.S. history, there was a series of events in Salem during the late 1600’s that are commonly referred to as the Salem Witch Trials.  Given the commercialization of Halloween, it stands to reason that any town known for its horrific witch executions might get a little busy during the month of October.  Busy is a slight understatement though.  Salem seems to have an outdoor market during the entire month of October.  Combine that with all the tourists who want an authentic “spooky New England experience” and you have everyone and their mother boppin’ around Salem in October.  Everyone.


Even this guy.

Even this guy.


#2 – If you do decide to go to Salem in October hit  up the Salem Witch Museum.  Yes, it’s gimmicky and overly dramatic.  It’s also AWESOME.  You buy a time slot, sit in a dark room, and listen to a historic narration of the Salem Witch Trials.  Creepy dioramas are spotlighted as they relate to the narrative.  It’s a pretty cool experience and gives an excellent overview of the events that unfolded back in the day.  History can be fun!


#3 – Eat at A&J King Bakery.  This place is amazing!  Sandwiches are super delicious and include homemade condiments and fantastic bread.  The roast beef sandwich came on a French Baguette with cheddar cheese, roasted tomatoes and pickled red onions.  I added mustard and field greens, because everything is better with mustard and field greens.  The onions added an unexpected but pleasant tang to the sandwich.  Their acidity definitely helped to brighten the meal.

The bakery has a warm and homey atmosphere with aromas of brewing coffee, freshly baked bread, and pastries filling the air.  Although there were a fair amount of customers, we didn’t have any trouble locating a seat.  The staff was super friendly and able to answer any ingredient related questions.

Dessert was the seasonal bread pudding in my absolute favorite flavor: Pumpkin.  Oh. My. God.  I died and went to heaven eating this.  It was the perfect ratio of gooey bread to pumpkin puree to spicy deliciousness.  Even ignoring my obsession with all things pumpkin, this was an excellent bread pudding.  I highly, highly recommend this place.


#4 – Leave time to bum around.  Unfortunately, due to the truly epic amount of traffic – and poor planning on my part – we did not have time to explore or wander about as much we should have.  Salem is a funky little town with all sorts of interesting nooks, crannies, and shops.  Definitely leave a fair amount of time to explore the area and its historic sites.  While the town center is pretty small it is packed with stores, cafes, and museums.  Yes, some of it is a little tacky and over the top but that just adds to the zany atmosphere that is Salem!



Taste Trekkers

Three weekends ago I put on my fancy academic pants, and attended the first ever Taste Trekkers conference in Providence, Rhode Island. Taste Trekkers is an organization and conference focused on the culinary tourism industry as well as enthusiasts. It pretty much rocks.

What is culinary tourism? There are several definitions and interpretations, but a willingness to learn and experience new things through food is the essential component of culinary tourism. Taste Trekkers provides these tourists with a unique opportunity to interact directly with vendors through hosted seminars.

The conference was divided into three one hour seminar blocks. Four topic options were given for each one hour block and attendees submitted their requests one week prior to the conference. I lucked out, and managed to get into my top three choices: Lamb Butchering, New England Rum, and Vermont Ice Cider! Other session options ranged from Peruvian Ceviche to Madagascar Chocolate. The seminars were very informative, discussing the challenges that vendors face while catering to the tourism industry, and highlighting the importance of supporting small, local operations. Fun demonstrations and delicious product samples were also included!

Following the sessions, participants hit up the Tasting Pavilion! Local culinary businesses and session leaders manned booths, distributing samples and answering consumer questions. The pavilion was a fantastic introduction to the Providence culinary scene, showcasing local restaurants, markets, and breweries. I’d never heard of companies like Foolproof Brewing, despite living only 50 miles away! Discoveries like this really highlight the versatility of culinary tourism. You don’t need to travel hundreds of miles to be a culinary tourist. You can find exciting new food experiences right in your own backyard!

Taste Trekkers was a great experience that provided tons of information on resources available to culinary tourists, while introducing them to an industry perspective. The conference was also an excellent opportunity for networking and highlighted interesting topics like tourism strategies, benefits, and emerging trends. Most importantly, Taste Trekkers was a fun weekend adventure and a great way to meet other people with the same interests!


Heartbreak Hotel

Ahhh… Montreal. The cobblestone streets, amazing food, fine fashion, nifty cultural opportunities, and the occasional infuriating hotel. This past weekend, I journeyed to one of my favorite vacation destinations: Montreal. Thankfully, there were no dwarves on this trip; however the weekend was slightly soured by our hotel. We stayed at the Centre Sheraton which was lovely. The lobby was spacious, the room was big and well appointed, and the staff was polite and attentive. The only problem was that we couldn’t sleep. Details, right? Take a look at the photo below and see if you can spot an issue (hint: there are two).

The curtain of doom.....

The curtain of doom…..

If you guessed that the lack of floor length curtains ensures that the room is SUPER BRIGHT at 6AM, Congratulations! You should consider a career in designing hotel rooms. You’re already light-years ahead of current designers! Shockingly, that tiny little half curtain not fully covering the window area let in TONS of light when the sun rose and shined directly into the room.

The other issue was more auditory than visual. You see that temperature control unit located beneath the window? Instead of attempting to maintain a temperature through incrementally adjusting the air flow, this unit had two settings: not cooling the room, and supercharged A/C. The result was that the A/C unit would turn on and blow extremely cold air for about 10 minutes, and then it would die. Actually, it would shut off. But in doing so, the unit made a noise similar to emphysemic camel in its death throes. Needless to say, it was difficult to sleep through.

We evaluated the situation after our (sleepless) first night and determined that this was not something the hotel could fix. The curtain issue was a permanent problem and the A/C unit functioned fine, it was just annoying. As a dedicated Starwood fan, it pains me when one of their hotels doesn’t measure up. Most of the time the hotels are fantastic. But every now and then, you stay somewhere and wonder “Why? Why would they ever think that was a good idea?”

Unfortunately, lack of sleep put a mild damper on some of the weekend’s activities. On the plus side, now I know not to deviate from The Westin, my typical hotel in Montreal. So unless you are a very heavy sleeper, or take copious amounts of sleeping medication, I would probably skip the Sheraton and stay elsewhere.