I used to scrapbook. A LOT. I still have a closet full of scissors, paper, punches, and stickers to prove it. When I started blogging, I stopped scrapbooking, mainly because I didn't want to drag all of my supplies out and clean up after myself after a project was done.
A few months ago, I was invited to a dinner with a group of travel bloggers, hosted by Shutterfly. They showed us a new way to scrapbook our travels, using all those photos that are held captive on our computers. I finally tried one out and made a small book of my trip earlier this year to St. Lucia. After I received the book back, I was impressed with the quality of the printing, and how beautiful and professional my photos looked. Now, I'm hooked.
Shutterfly makes scrapbooking simple. Just upload the photos you want, choose a format or theme, and the software does the work of sorting and putting photos in layouts. If you're like me, and want to customize, you can customize, cut and paste to your heart's content. You can even add embellishments or "stickers" to your pages and make them as fancy or as plain as you like.
I may have a new addiction.
Visit Shutterfly.com to create your own personalized photobook.
Disclosure: I received some free samples of Shutterfly products. All opinions expressed herein are my own and not necessarily those of Shutterfly, Inc. Photos contained in the photobook are Copyright Glennia Campbell 2011. All Rights Reserved.
The White Sands National Monument rises up out of the scrubby brown New Mexico desert like a far off dream. You might think you're seeing the purest, whitest snow imaginable, but get closer, and you realize that it's a hot, dry white powder covering the landscape for as far as the eye can see, rimmed by mountains on the horizon line. The fine, white dust covering the landscape looks like a million tiny hands clapped chalk-laden erasers to form undulating dunes of glistening white fairy dust.
When my husband suggested we go there on our trip to Texas in December, we had been driving through the California, Arizona, and New Mexico desert for several days. My initial thought was, "another sand dune. Big whoop."
When planning our December roadtrip, a stop at the Saguaro National Park was an absolute must-see for my husband Frank. Frank loves cacti of all shapes and varieties. He has kept a cactus collection for more than twenty years through moves from California to Texas and back, with only a few casualties along the way. He loves cactus so much that Alex and I teased him throughout the trip by pointing at every wilted, dried out cactus we encountered and saying, "Hey, Dad, look! A cactus! Don't you want to take a picture of it?"
We thought it was hilarious. Frank just rolled his eyes, and endured.
Ever hear of Country Inns & Suites? I hadn't until about a year ago, when they generously offered us a voucher to stay in one of their fine establishments. We were not able to take them up on the offer until our Christmas roadtrip to Austin, and I was pleasantly surprised by the accomodations they offer at reasonable prices. We enjoyed a complimentary overnight stay at the downtown location in Tucson, Arizona, during our long journey through the desert.
Like many of the better highway hotel chains, they offer free Wifi in the rooms, complimentary breakfast, and a pool. What sets Country Inns and Suites apart are the little things, like complimentary cookies and bottled water on arrival, a full hot breakfast (not just microwaved sandwiches and cold cereal, but bacon, eggs, the whole works), and a homey, charming decor. We found the staff to be friendly and efficient, as well as knowledgeable about the area.
On our December roadtrip, we left the Salton Sea Recreation Area and headed east on I-8 through the dusty California border towns toward Tucson. We were hoping to be in Saguaro National Park before sundown. Unfortunately, we arrived too late for the park. I dubbed this our "Too Late Tour," since it seemed like we always arrived at our destinations just after the sunset so we couldn't see anything. Frank said that he planned a perfect itinerary for summer, or anytime the sun stays up a little past 5:00 pm.
Anyway, we arrived in Tucson after dark and couldn't get to the Saguaro National Park on time, so we went straight to the Country Inns & Suites. We were welcomed with freshly baked sugar cookies in the lobby, a homey fireplace, and some bottles of water, which were great after a long, dry drive through the desert. The front desk staff was extremely friendly and answered all of our questions. There were some kids running around the lobby, and the hotel seemed to be extremely family-friendly.
Our room was nicely furnished and large enough for the three of us. The furnishings and decor were nicer and more traditional than some that we encountered later on our trip at similar hotels. It seems that the latest trend in hotel decor is blinding florescent lighting and migraine-inducing neon green bedding with fuschia accents and large black and white photos of doorknobs and exposed pipes in the hallway. I was happy to find the room to be comfortable and not over-done, with more muted colors and soft lighting. During our trip, we used Marriott and Hilton loyalty program points to stay at Fairfield Inn and Hampton Inn in different locations along the way. We liked Country Inns the best for food quality, service, and general ambience, although the three were pretty similar in locations, space, and pricing.
Driving through the desert in Southern California is a study in contradictions. We drove from the opulent resorts of Palm Springs to the abandoned buildings and forgotten towns of Imperial County, where the unemployment rate is the highest in the state. The desert landscape is dotted with date palms, scrub, and not much else. When my son looked up from his video game player long enough, he looked up and said, "Hey, mom, is that the ocean?"
I was looking in the opposite direction and replied, "We're pretty far from the ocean." Then, I saw it: the calm, blue waters of the Salton Sea, looming on the horizon like a mirage in the desert.
The Salton Sea is on of the world's largest inland seas and one of the lowest spots on earth (-227 feet below sea level). The sea existed in ancient times, but dried up until 1905 when high spring flooding on the Colorado River crashed the canal gates leading into the developing Imperial Valley. For the next 18 months the Colorado River rushed into the dry seabed, creating the current 35 mile long,15 mile wide inland sea. The sea is saltier than the Pacific Ocean, but not as salty as the Great Salt Lake, and the increasing salinity over time has lead to changes in the ecosystem. The only fish that can be caught there are tilapia, but hundreds of gorgeous waterbirds make their homes and migratory stops along the shores of the Salton Sea.
About 14 miles of the shoreline is used for human recreation (boating, kayaking, fishing, and camping), but due to state budget cuts, most of these services are dwindling. There is a State Recreation Area near Mecca, California, and that is where we stopped for a visit.
We drove through a thicket of palm trees to the park entrance, where a friendly park attendant named Nick took our $5 entrance fee and gave us a sticker to put on the car. We drove to the lot by the Visitor's Center, which was closed when we arrived. There was one other family in the parking lot at the time, and a lone fisherman out on a jetty casting a line out to the sea. We decided to explore the beach a little, and could see hundreds of gulls and large white birds that looked like swans floating by in pairs.
If you're looking for a true oasis in the desert, with luxury spa, swimming pool complex that includes a mini-beach for the kids, and an excellent restaurant, the Renaissance Esmeralda Resort & Spa in Indian Wells, California is the place for you. Thanks to Klout Perks, we were fortunate enough to spend the night in this luxury resort, and enjoyed every minute of our brief stay here. We booked a special rate that included a "Kids Eat Free" promotion. We enjoyed two meals at the Cava Restaurant, with their fresh, well-prepared menu items and well-stocked buffets.
After driving all day into the wilds of Southern California and Los Angeles, we finally made it to Palm Springs on our Holiday Road Trip 2011. We passed through the glittering lights of swanky downtown Palm Springs, home of movie stars, golf courses, and Sonny Bono, and ventured a bit further to Indian Wells and the Renaissance Esmeralda. The lobby decor was tastefully simple, and I liked the display of candles in the entryway. The Renaissance Esmeralda was the exact counterpoint to the glitzy, over-the-top Madonna Inn we stayed in the night before.
Our room overlooked the massive swimming pool, with a view of the mountains in the distance. The room was decorated with clean simple lines in muted desert tones. The beds were comfortable, with plenty of soft, cushy pillows. We had a small balcony overlooking the pool area, and in the morning, could see the mountains off in the distance.
The hotel did not seem terribly busy, so the pool was empty most of the time we were there. It is heated year round, but the chilly air probably kept most of the guests at bay. Our son, who must have been raised by dolphins in a past life, is never deterred by a little cold when it comes to swimming. He insisted on trying it out the night we arrived. He was particularly fond of the little sand beach, a great place to build a sandcastle.
Renaissance Hotels are part of the Marriott chain, but on of the higher-end of the spectrum. Even so, the price for a night was only $129, including free meals for kids with the purchase of an adult entree. There is a separate resort fee of $25 that covers parking, internet access and other amenities. The prices vary from $99 to $329/night depending on the season and check-in dates.
Alex was so enchanted with the place he asked,"Can we come back here and stay for a week?"
I was inclined to agree with him, and would love to go back and check out the Spa and other restaurants, and see more of what the Palm Springs area has to offer.
Disclosure: Thanks to Klout for sharing a $200 gift card with us from Renaissance Hotels as a Klout Perk. I received no other compensation or incentive to write this post. All opinions expressed herein are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of Klout, Renaissance Hotels, or Marriott.
Driving on Highway 101 from Los Angeles to San Francisco, there is an unmistakable midway-point that every frequent traveler knows: The Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. The glowing neon sign, complete with animated horse-drawn stage coach, beckons weary travelers into a giant themepark of a hotel, where each of the 109 rooms is unique. If you love Americana, kitsch and funky decor, this place is a must-see.
We're on the road again, this time on a holiday road trip to visit family in Texas. When plotting our course, Frank asked me what stops along the way would be on my wishlist, and the first thing that came to mind was the Madonna Inn. I have seen the neon sign and the sprawling property from the highway on a number of trips, and heard that some of the rooms featured showers shaped like rock waterfalls. I knew I had to stay there someday.
The Madonna Inn has been a mainstay of California hospitality since the late 1950's, when Alex and Phyllis Madonna opened a 12-room inn. Alex was an architect and Phyllis was an interior designer and the two of them had a vision of a new kind of hotel that featured a different decor in every room, on a larger scale than a traditional bed and breakfast. The Inn expanded over the years as it became a popular venue for weddings, parties, and honeymooners, and became an attraction unto itself. I have wanted to go there for years, and finally had my chance.
When my trusty travel agent (aka my husband Frank) tried to book a waterfall room, he was informed that these rooms only have single king beds. Since we're traveling with a child, we had to choose a double room due to their "no rollaway policy." We opted instead for the España Room, having no idea what we were getting into. It sounded vaguely European, and being adventurous sorts, we went for it. Frank read a bunch of bad reports on a certain travel website that I can't stand, but I convinced him that one night would not kill us. Frank told our 11 year old son Alex that the place was allegedly haunted. Alex was expecting a Ghost Hunters type of adventure, and was ready to film it, should anything go bump in the night.
Upon arrival, the first thing Alex asked the desk clerk was, "Is this place haunted?"
She seemed a little startled by this question, and abruptly answered, "No."
Alex was crestfallen. I told her he was looking forward to seeing a ghost or two, and she said, "Well, I haven't seen any, but who knows? Maybe Mr. Madonna is hanging around somewhere."
Encouraged by the possibility, Alex perked up and set out to find a bathroom while we checked in. There were a number of loud Christmas parties and a quicenera going on in the restaurants, and when he returned, he was elated and told us, "There is a bathroom AND a dance party going on down there!" He didn't see any ghosts, but teenagers doing the Dougie was way more fun.
The España Room was everything I imagined it to be, and more. If the name "España" evokes bullfighters, flamenco dancers, and Spanish style furniture from the 1950s, then this room is for you. The room features two very spacious bedrooms, and a bathroom with a large outer dressing room. While the bathroom did not have a rock waterfall, it was adorned with black, white, and teal tile that looked like something used for infant brain stimulation, and a gilded sink that looked like it was stolen from Elvis' boudoir. The toilet was the only non-Spanish themed piece in the rooms; instead, it a was a fancy Japanese Toto toilet with a heated seat and bidet. I almost expected it to play flamenco music when I sat on it, but it was remarkably silent. I was overcome by the urge to do the Paso Doble on the faux-parquet linoleum.
All of the furniture was ornately carved, and the window shutters featured a stained glass that made the room glow pink in the morning light. The walls were painted to look like stucco, with trompe l'oeil exposed brick in parts, to give it that "old world" feel, I suppose. I particularly liked the bullfighter painting in the bedroom, and the big resin bull statue by the bed.
Alex and Frank ventured out into the chilly night to the pool, which is heated year-round and has an adjacent jacuzzi. They returned and Frank, the skeptic in all this, declared it "delightful." We were sold.
Alex did not see any ghosts at the Madonna Inn, so he settle for a marathon of Ghost Adventures on the Travel Channel. My only complaint about the room was that the bed was not terribly comfortable, so I tossed and turned a great deal and could not get comfortable. He complained the next day that I was grinding my teeth like a chainsaw and was moaning and groaning all night...
Or was I?
We enjoyed our stay at the Madonna Inn, but I will warn you that a night in one of their themed rooms is not cheap, ranging in price from $179 to over $500. It's a fun place to stopover on a family trip, and if you have time, there are several restaurants and spa services available. The grounds overlook the mountains and a large fenced-in farm next door. It is definately worth the price, for a little bit of fun California history in a lovely setting.
The Madonna Inn is located at 100 Madonna Road, San Luis Obispo, California, just off Highway 101. For reservations call (800) 543-9666.