Travel: Bisbee, Ariz. pours on the charm
To be, or not to be in Bisbee: That is the question my husband Bill and I ask ourselves as we pick and choose from the multiple destinations tempting us from our winter “getaway” base in Green Valley, Ariz. We’ve come to the area to hike and bike, but the highway leading to this former ghost-town-turned-funky-chic community is steeper than our normal bike routes, so choosing to check out the area requires a day-trip by car and a bright-and-early start. Tucked into a narrow valley surrounded by copper-colored hills, the century-old town has a decidedly San Francisco feel with its grand Victorian-style buildings situated along narrow, winding Main Street and more of them, along with modest miners’ cabins, on the terraced hillsides above town. Bisbee’s glory days date from 1877, when prospectors attracted the interest of some San Francisco investors, among them Judge DeWitt Bisbee, for whom the town is named. It was primarily copper (but also gold, silver, turquoise, lead and zinc) that made Bisbee’s fortune. Large-scale mining operations began in earnest within a few years and, by 1910, the town’s population had climbed to 25,000. According to chamber of commerce claims, Bisbee was the largest city between New Orleans and San Francisco during those years. It might have been one of the liveliest too. The reported presence of nearly 50 saloons and bordellos along Brewery Gulch seem to back up that claim. Today many artists call the town home, and aging hippies and other urban refugees have for many years been dropping out of the rat race to restore Bisbee’s old brick buildings and convert them into B&Bs, inns, art galleries and restaurants. Between the rough edges left over from its mining days and this new fringe culture atmosphere, it’s no wonder Travel and Leisure Magazine recently named the town one of the “Best New American Destinations,” and compared it to such arts destinations as Aspen and Santa Fe.
Bill and I start our one-day “overview” visit with a short steep hike up “B-hill,” the looming slope at the south end of town that’s crowned with a huge, white-painted “B.” From there, 360-degree panoramic views allow us to look deep into the old pit mine that stopped fueling the town’s economy in the late ’70s. The hilltop also provides a great view of the bustling village nestled below. A nice accompaniment: The tantalizing aroma of roasting beans from the Bisbee Coffee Company wafting up to us on an early spring breeze. Because time is short, we don’t actually sign on for the town’s biggest tourist draw – the Queen Mine Tour. Its participants suit up in yellow slickers, mining hats and headlamps for a train ride deep underground. Tales of life “beneath the surface” are provided by retired miners who are now tour guides. Since shopping and eating are the main recreational activities in the area called “Old Bisbee,” we dig in to do our part. While the four-hour foray is a feeble attempt to do the job right, I’ll throw out a few names of shops, restaurants and lodgings we ambled through, all in the pursuit of journalistic integrity. The rest of the sleuthing is up to you, and I’m sure the endeavor would serve up some fun and quirky surprises. Here goes: Christina Plascencia’s 55 Main Gallery displays original art, clothing and handcrafted jewelry. She even brings in psychics to entertain browsers in the gallery she describes as “a holistic venue for showing the essence of Bisbee.” Also on Main Street, Optimo Custom Hatworks sells Panama Hats (from Ecuador) to shelter your face from the harsh Sonoran Desert sun. The Killer Bee Guy offers locally-produced honey butters, as well as spicy Horseradish Honey Mustard, in a nook of a shop about two-bodies wide. Czar Jewelry and Bisbee Blue (just outside “Old Bisbee” on route 80) offer quality gemstones mined in the area, the latter the exclusive dealer of the acclaimed Bisbee Blue turquoise. The Bisbee Bicycle Brothel has a shop full of vintage road bikes, primarily from England and Italy, along with interesting modern bikes as well. Dining and lodging options are equally eclectic in this historic, hillside burg. Of the former, we could only personally test two venues: The delightful Cafe Cornucopia on Main Street where the breads, quiches and soups are all homemade, and the local’s favorite, Bisbee Breakfast Club. The latter is located in the Lowell district outside “Old Bisbee,” but the super-size cinnamon buns alone (breakfast served all day!) are worth the drive a mile south. Cafe Roka is said to compare favorably with fine restaurants throughout the country, but reservations far in advance are a must. As for lodging, the choices range from The Copper Queen, Bisbee’s grande dame hotel in the heart of the historic district, to a nine-room restored, 1918 red-brick schoolhouse. Bill might not have humored me, but if I had a reservation four months in advance I would have chosen the kookiest overnight accommodation of all –The Shady Dell Trailer Court. This cluster of nine restored, vintage Airstream trailers – mostly from the ’40s and ’50s – are furnished with period artifacts, chenille bedspreads and radios tuned to swing music. Another period treasure, Dot’s Diner, serves up standard diner grub right next door. For more information about attractions, events and lodgings, visit Bisbee’s official tourism website, http://www.discoverbisbee.com or call 1-866-2BISBEE.
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