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Arizona: Bisbee mines its past and artful present

Give any Arizona guidebook a glance, and a few dozen locales will be described as "a former copper mining town." That's also true for Bisbee, nestled near the Mexican border in the state's southeast corner. But the similarities stop there. Bisbee boasts some of the best art galleries in the state, side by side with newly sprouted brewpubs and Zagat-rated restaurants offering Southwestern-influenced vegetarian food as well as gourmet pizza and pasta. Amid it all, Main Street's antique shops and galleries are surrounded with examples of Victorian architecture. The Copper Queen Mine that had supported Bisbee for nearly a century closed in the mid-1970s after the ore played out. The town withered but refused to die. Instead, starving artists and aging hippies purchased the then-inexpensive homes and land, transforming the hardscrabble mining town into an artist colony. Today the town is popular with art lovers and those seeking relief from the brutal Phoenix and Tucson heat in Bisbee's higher elevations. Excluding airfare from LAX, a two-night trip for a couple is about $400, including a meal at Café Roka, about $90 with drinks and dessert.

The bed

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Some of the Letson Loft Hotel's rooms sport bay windows overlooking Bisbee's narrow Main Street, which is populated with sister Victorians and other buildings from the turn of the 20th century. Letson Loft melds Victorian decor with modern conveniences in the heart of downtown near restaurants, art galleries and the Copper Queen mine.
Some of the Letson Loft Hotel's rooms sport bay windows overlooking Bisbee's narrow Main Street, which is populated with sister Victorians and other buildings from the turn of the 20th century. Letson Loft melds Victorian decor with modern conveniences in the heart of downtown near restaurants, art galleries and the Copper Queen mine. (Michael Mello)

The Letson Loft Hotel [26 Main St., (877) 432-3210 or (520) 432-3210, http://www.letsonlofthotel.com. From $115 to $175] is within walking distance of restaurants, art galleries, antiques shops and even the Copper Queen Mine. The brick Victorian's exterior grandeur is mirrored inside by the antique furniture and carefully modern conveniences that respect the building's historic nature. Many of the rooms look out over Main Street and the mountains surrounding the town.

The meal

Cafe Roka's gourmet offerings make it one of the most popular eateries in southern Arizona. Appetizers include prosciutto-wrapped artichoke hearts; roasted peppers stuffed with goat cheese; dates with gorgonzola and bacon; olives; and roasted bell pepper hummus.
Cafe Roka's gourmet offerings make it one of the most popular eateries in southern Arizona. Appetizers include prosciutto-wrapped artichoke hearts; roasted peppers stuffed with goat cheese; dates with gorgonzola and bacon; olives; and roasted bell pepper hummus. (Michael Mello)

Some people think small-town dining means casual, so-so food. Not in Bisbee. Café Roka [35 Main St.; (520) 432-5153, http://www.caferoka.com] stands out with its rack of lamb and roasted quail entrees, and appetizers such as goat cheese-filled piquillo peppers with a balsamic glaze. Dinners are served in four courses with soup, salad, sorbet and entree; gluten-free and vegan options are available. Open 5-9 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. Reservations recommended.

The find

Although closed since the mid-1970s, the Copper Queen Mine [478 Dart Road, (866) 432-2071, (520) 432-2071, http://www.queenminetour.com] is open for tours. Visitors can explore operation centers a half-mile deep in the hillside, where the temperature is about 50 degrees year-round. Retired miners point out copper and silver deposits while they explain what it was like working deep underground. Daily tours at 9 and 10:30 a.m., noon, 2 and 3:30 p.m. Tickets $13 for adults; $5.50 for children ages 4 to 12; and free for children younger than 4.

Lesson learned

Despite the modern cars that drive down them, many of the streets in Bisbee's old town look much like they did in the early 20th century when the city was Arizona's largest, and one of the biggest copper-producing areas in the world. The town is now an artists colony, with several art galleries and antique shops lining Main Street.
Despite the modern cars that drive down them, many of the streets in Bisbee's old town look much like they did in the early 20th century when the city was Arizona's largest, and one of the biggest copper-producing areas in the world. The town is now an artists colony, with several art galleries and antique shops lining Main Street. (Michael Mello)

Wear comfortable shoes and plan to get some exercise on the town's undulating hills. Narrow, steep staircases are common in Bisbee, a means to access properties at higher elevations. They were built to provide men work during the Depression and now are part of the Bisbee 1000, an annual fundraising walk around the town that brags of being "the 5K that feels like a 10K."

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