George

Three things drew us back to Tucson, Arizona, this year: an amazing birding guide, awesome Mexican restaurants and easy access to southeast Arizona.

After our first trip here last year, we couldn’t wait to return. Our travel plans these days always include an overnight stay at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland, where they keep our car while we’re away and shuttle us to and from the airport. Trust me — this is the way to start your vacation.

This time, we got back into Portland very late at night, so we stayed another night there, allowing us to return home rested and refreshed the next day.

We spent two nights in Tucson at the Country Inn & Suites, with a nice suite, friendly staff and a lot of amenities, including cookies and fruit at the front desk, many books you can borrow and good breakfasts.

We arrived on day one in time to drive up to Catalina State Park and hike the birding trail, a favorite of ours from last year. We saw a lot of birds, including stunning Vermillion flycatchers.

That night we drove to a favorite restaurant that we discovered last year, Macaya’s, only to find that it is now Guadalajara Original Grill. It’s even better! They’ve completely renovated the restaurant, including beautiful art work covering the walls. Plus, their menu is amazing. My chimichanga, stuffed with slow-cooked pulled pork and topped with sour cream and guacamole, was great, and I enjoyed half of it for supper the next night.

The following morning we met our birding guide, Melody Kehl, at 6:30 and spent the day birding Mt. Lemon, spotting 59 species. Linda gave Melody a list of 9 birds we most wanted to see, and she found them all for us, including the red-faced warbler, a gorgeous bird that we had never seen. High up on the mountain, Melody guided us to a place where the birds were all around us. We didn’t even need our binoculars. It was an absolutely fantastic day, which included Melody’s gourmet lunch. Check out Melody’s website: www.melodysbirding.com.

The next morning, we headed to Patagonia for 11 days, along the way stopping at Madera Canyon, another favorite destination where we birded last year. We saw a lot of birds, enjoyed visiting with other birders, and spent some time at Cora’s shop half-way up the canyon, where you can sit on her porch and enjoy the birds at her feeders, some just inches from your face.

Linda

We crammed in a lot of birding and a lot of Mexican food on a quick two-night stay in Tucson. We ventured out for an early dinner and were initially disappointed to see that Macaya’s was gone. But all turned out well with a spectacular meal at Guadalajara Original Grill.

We noticed a server dressed in a traditional Mexican outfit making what I thought was guacamole for a table nearby. She asked us if we wanted her to make us something and we declined. Within minutes our server came to our table and said, “What do you mean you don’t want salsa? Of course you do!”

So this was something new, someone making fresh salsa to order at your table. She asked us if we wanted mild, medium or hot and what ingredients we wanted. We ordered medium and the salsa was great because it was so fresh. But next time we would get mild. No need pretending we can take heat when we are this far south!

The menu was lengthy and full of both Tex Mex and authentic Mexican choices. I selected Plato Ranchero, “a traditional dish the way an old-fashioned ranch would have it.” It included a chile relleno (my favorite), a pork tamale and a gordita topped with beef, beans, cheese and sour cream. It was a platter of food because all this came with rice and beans. Indeed the portions here are ginormous!

Combined with a margarita, this was the thing I needed after a long day of traveling, which began at 3:45 a.m. You sure can cram a lot into a day when you add three hours due to the time difference.

When we traveled around Tucson I discovered another Guadalajara’s at a different location. So I thought to look up the other locations of Tucson Tamale, the other restaurant we enjoyed last year. I fell in love with their tamales on that trip. Those I have tried since have failed to compare. So I chose the closest of the three locations to our hotel for our second night’s dinner.

A really funny story of how Tucson Tamale began can be read on their website at tucsontamale.com. Many people get orders to go. You can order the one-, two- or three-tamale plate which comes with two sides at extremely reasonable prices. Plates of two tamales — one pork and one chile relleno for me, one red chile beef and one chile relleno for George, were a perfect serving and very delicious.

While getting a little background info on the tamale place, I discovered you can order them online and they are shipped frozen. I followed up on that once we got back home.

Visit George’s website — georgesmithmaine.com — for book reviews, outdoor news and all Travelin’ Maine(rs) columns, found listed by town in the “Best of Maine” section.