Intrastate rivalries are everywhere: San Francisco versus Los Angeles, Dallas versus Houston, Portland versus any other city in Oregon. One of my favorites is Phoenix versus Tucson, so my wife and I are always glad when we can partake of the bigger city-derided “outpost down south” with an artsy soul and culinary heart.
The tab: $224 a night, not including tax but including the resort fee, for a late-fall weekend and about $160, tip included, for two dinners for two with a shared starter, two entrees and libations.
The desert Southwest is big on big resorts. For the most part, Tucson has taken a different tack. Though the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort (7000 N. Resort Drive;  299-2020) isn’t a collection of adobe-clad bungalows out among the saguaros, its nearly 400 rooms and suites do wrap a low-rise, wide-armed embrace around the verdant Santa Catalina foothills. The mountains fairly tumble into the resort’s backyard. A multimillion-dollar refresh has added a modern lightness to the accommodations. Unchanged are loads of elbow room, lake-size soaker tubs and an orientation that prefers the mountains above instead of the cityscape below.
The Tucson culinary scene is on a rocket-like trajectory. Commoner & Co. (6960 E. Sunrise Drive;  257-1177), in the foothills a mile from Loews, is some of the propellant in the tank. The inventive cuisine is a blend of familiar bistro and American comfort food, tweaked and locally sourced. We had dinner here on successive nights, and everything that hit the table was on the would-order-again list. Its take on grilled cheese — Parmesan-crusted whole wheat bread, tomato jam, house-smoked ham, mozzarella curd and cheddar, with seasonal soup (on our visit, savory tomato) on the side — gets a shout-out. Oh, also the flat-iron pork (shoulder) on calabacitas with goat-cheese mousse and smoked-honey drizzle.
Although we did not ride in November’s popular El Tour de Tucson cycling event (Nov. 18 this year), we did take our bikes so we could experience the Loop, a 110-mile multi-use path that girds the valley, with fingers reaching to Marana, Oro Valley and South Tucson. When it’s completed, it will top out north of 130 miles, almost all of which will be grade-separated from traffic and routed along greenbelts and seasonal waterways. The Loop is ideal for anyone on any type of nonmotorized conveyance, be it footed, hoofed or wheeled. Check with Visit Tucson (811 N. Euclid Ave.;  638-8350) for information on bicycle rentals and maps.
The lesson learned
Tucson meanders across the mountain-ringed Sonoran Desert landscape. There are plenty of things to see, do and eat along all points of the compass, so having a car is usually a must. Sun Link, a streetcar that runs along a four-mile out-and-back track, is a viable though limited option, connecting five neighborhoods from the University of Arizona through Main Gate Square and 4th Avenue, and on to Downtown/Centro and the Mercado on the western side. We found easy parking near the university and hopped on and off the streetcar, noshing, sightseeing and shopping along the route.