A trip to American often evokes the feeling of stepping onto a movie set. But on the two-hour drive south from Phoenix to Tanque Verde Ranch, on the eastern fringes of Tucson, you are quite genuinely passing through Western country, with the area’s breathtaking desert landscape and spit and sawdust saloons featuring on countless Hollywood films.
It’s the perfect anticipation builder for pulling up outside the ranch itself. Sitting on 60,000 hectares, nestled between the Rincon Mountains and two national parks, Tanque Verde was established as a working cattle and guest ranch in 1862 by two Mexican friends, a whole half-century before Arizona became the country’s 48th state.
Needless to say, it’s lived and breathed authentic Wild West life, from the Apache wars to grizzly bears and outlaws seeking refuge (and has the scars from gun battles to prove it). It makes for a most memorable holiday destination.
The ranch’s guest salsas, casitas and haciendas of varying sizes are spread within an easy walking distance of the main buildings, off winding paths teaming with prickly pear cacti, bright birds and scuttling lizards. Pack a torch for navigating them at night.
Our pink walled salsa, one of the original accommodations built here, was rustic but comfortable, with quaint southwestern style hand-embroidered cowboy cushions and quirky light-fittings with an Native American motif. The double bedroom was spacious, while there were two daybeds in the living area that easily transformed into children’s beds at night.
There’s no distracting TV, simply a digital radio, comfy armchairs and a big fireplace to unwind beside (or loungers out front if you prefer). In fact, the only sound at night was the crickets chirruping.
The family “walk of fame” outside the main dining room at Tanque Verde tells you a great deal about its clientele and service. Multiple generations of the same family return repeatedly for their annual holidays, reunions and special celebrations, giving it a homely, welcoming atmosphere. Indeed, during our visit, there was a party who’d flown in from across the country to celebrate a 90th birthday, along with a wedding and a British couple on their 14th trip.
There’s a daily Kids Camp for 4-12 year olds, with children split into groups (Buckaroos, Wranglers or Outlaws) depending on their age. Staff offer a mixture of riding activities, arts and crafts, sports and group games, with parents (and grandparents) invited to join in, should they wish. Younger children can also attend if supervised.
Eating outdoors is essential to living the cowboy lifestyle, so twice a week, Tanque Verde hosts a barbecue at Cottonwood Grove, a clearing with fairy lights strung between the trees, checkered table clothes and live music. The atmosphere is magical and so is the food – we piled our plates high with jalapeno cornbread, ribs, beans, and mac and cheese.
If the dessert station doesn’t finish you off, staff will teach you to make ‘Smores around the firepit – a bizarre combination of toasted marshmallows, with a cube of Hersheys chocolate, sandwiched between two Grahams crackers. Trust us, it works.
When you’re not feasting al fresco, the big communal dining room at Tanque Verde hosts vast buffet breakfasts and lunches, with every kind of food you can imagine – enough to floor a buffalo. In the evening, timed sittings (early ones prioritised for those dining with children) and table service operates, where you an opt to dine alone or join a communal table with new friends.
Three ample courses can be enjoyed and I’m pretty sure the pie I ordered would have defeated Desperate Dan. Only able to manage a quarter, our concerned waitress Desiree insisted on boxing up the leftovers in case of midnight munchies, along with the remainder of our bottle of red.
Five nights a week, a supervised meal and movie session in the Kids Dining Room, is offered to allow adults to dine alone, should they wish. Take advantage and nip to Doghouse Saloon for the ranch’s signature pink margaritas, made with prickly pear syrup harvested on the land. Turns out those cacti don’t just look pretty, they taste pretty good, too.
THINGS TO DO
Horse riding is at the heart of this resort but you don’t need to be an accomplished jockey to saddle up. Even if you’ve never so much as mounted a mare, you can (and absolutely MUST) take part in the twice-weekly Breakfast Ride, an hour-long gentle trek through the wilderness in small groups led by a wrangler (or a little longer if, like my chestnut filly Skipper, your animal has a taste for cactus, no matter how much you chide them).
By the time the sun has risen, you’ve reached a special camp where the Tanque Verde team are cooking up a hearty breakfast, including manager Jim making his signature blueberry pancakes. Eating alongside the other guests, who hail from as far afield as Nova Scotia, France and Chicago, it’s clear how much repeat business this place gets. Indeed, there is now a “family walk of fame” outside the dining room to celebrate regular visitors.
Appetite now inevitably whetted for all things equestrian, lessons are available through the day, for all ages and abilities. Forget childhood memories of primly pony trekking in a hard hat. Here in Arizona they ride Western Style, with one hand hooked on your Levis (or lassoing cattle, as our real life rodeo riding teacher told us he preferred to do) as you encourage your steed to lope (canter to us Brits). Once the wranglers told us to handle our steeds as we would a preschooler, it was easier than we thought.
Creatures of the equine variety are not the only residents of the ranch though. At the Nature Center you can learn about the state’s native species of bird, spider and reptile. We attending the weekly rattle snake session and got up close and personal with these sinister sounding creatures (a little too close, if we’re honest), learning about their feeding habits and what to do in the event of a bite. It stood us in good stead when we found a Black Widow in our room when packing…
Fishing, yoga, tennis, biking and spa treatments are also on offer, depending on what you fancy. There’s also an outdoor pool for escaping that dry desert heat, if just for a moment. And don't forget to leave without visiting the ranch shop. Now you've earned your spurs, you absolutely must have a cowboy hat. It won't look at all silly back in Blighty, we promise...
Find out more about the ranch, and check out packages and rates, at www.tanqueverderanch.com
Find out more about Tucson and the surrounding areas at www.visittucson.org
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