By Christine Tibbetts
CNHI News Service
A desert in downtown. The fragile and famous Sonoran Desert. Aquarium inside a shopping mall. Paddle boarding on a city lake.
This is Tempe, Arizona.
METRO light rail starts it all from the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and connects Tempe from end to end.
Desert is the scenery I wanted in Arizona, and it’s accessible from any Tempe hotel.
Bike paths, 170 miles of them, include desert preserves.
Papago is one name to remember, and “A” Mountain for desert, park, mountain, visible from city center.
Claiming to be America’s largest municipal park, South Mountain Park/Preserve has 58 miles of hike, bike, horse ride trails.
That’s Tempe’s style: big park, city location.
Camelback Mountain is here too with strenuous hiking trails.
Sports not mandatory. Food, drink, theater, concerts and exhibitions fill walking-distance districts and neighborhoods.
Universities add zest to destinations; is it students or faculty supporting restaurants, bars, music and performances?
Doesn’t matter to visitor-me; lots of strong, local businesses means travelers have choices.
Arizona State University with 70,000 students isn’t a hidden-away ivy covered entity.
ASU is downtown, the fabric of Tempe, with museums and galleries, 20 free, concert halls, sports stadiums and an arboretum.
Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Gammage performing arts hall on campus; I recommend seeing what’s showing when you go to Tempe.
Mall visiting never tops my list of things to do, but that’s home to Sea Life so Arizona Mills is the place to access 5,000 sea creatures.
Easy stroll past 30 display tanks, kid-friendly with pop-up viewing tubes to insert your face into the habitats.
One tank is a 360-degree experience with water overhead, underfoot and all around, called Ocean Tunnel.
Makes sense that Sea Life is an engaging kind of place; its owner is Merlin Entertainment, a British company that also owns LEGOLAND amusement parks and Madame Tussauds' wax museums.
Lots of Aquarium info about dead-serious issues too: ocean pollution, animal rescue, rehab and release, plus sanctuaries when release is not possible.
True shoppers would find specialty stores, restaurants, IMAX movies at Arizona Mills.
The Tempe restaurant I chose was all about history; steaks and mac and cheese tasty too, but I wanted Western history and Monti’s La Casa Vieja served ample portions.
Rambling place with dozens of rooms. Adobe walls: mud and straw put together in 1871.
Animal admiration in Arizona took me to the zoo. Phoenix is the address, minutes from the airport.
My traveling partner in Arizona was 12-year-old grandson Will Rowland.
We started at Stingray Bay where Will fed and photographed rays, and then we hopped the safari train for an overview of 1,300 animals at Phoenix Zoo.
I appreciated the red rock hills and Papago Park desert botanical gardens since desert views were my goal.
Conservation matters to the zookeepers who are quick to point out the oryx. Only nine living when four were brought here.
Now 7,000 reported in the world, some in zoos and sanctuaries, others in the wild.
That’s future thinking but I got stuck in my memories because there are two camels with saddles and they gave me little-girl memories at the Bronx Zoo when my sister and I rode a camel.
Haven’t been anywhere since to do so again.
Christine Tibbetts is a travel writer for the Tifton (Ga.) Gazette. Contact her at www.TibbettsTravel.com