Travel Blog Exchange

 Travel Blog ExchangeLast Sunday I attended the first Travel Blog Exchange meeting in Chicago. I was in town for BlogHer and had already planned to stay Sunday to do some sightseeing. Instead I decided to attend the meeting to get a better flavor of the travel blogging community.

The organizers did a terrific job. They managed to get sponsors for the entire thing, making cost to attendees zero. The panels and speakers were excellent – how to write a lively successful travel blog, working with PR (a topic that comes up in every blogging community), the difference between travel journalism and blogging, and podcasting/videocasting.

I wasn’t surprised to hear that the travel blogging community is also concerned with the proposed revisions to the FTC guidelines for endorsements and testimonials. As a panelist pointed out, you can’t return a trip or offer it as a giveaway to your readers. As a result, travel bloggers need to be even more careful about what they accept from marketers and make sure that it fits their blog.

This was a very focused audience, and the sponsors were part of the community, not big brands. As a result, the few short sponsor presentations were fairly organic to the content and quite interesting to me, a travel blog newbie. Every preregistered attendee also got a terrific swag bag, including a High Sierra travel backpack from Hertz, Ask Arthur Frommer: And Travel Better, Cheaper, Smarter Travel Blog Exchange, gift cards for Gogo Internet and Boingo, a coupon for a level 1 Rosetta Stone course  and an Energizer reusable battery recharger. Gogo Internet also shared their special offer for the month of August: Save 50% on Gogo Inflight Internet access with promo code 158FLF7365, thru 8/31/09

I was also able to meet a few BlogHers who are also travel writers, @MomMostTraveled, @KitchenGadgetGirl and @CajunMama, as well as spend a little time with friend @KimMoldofsky. So, while I wish I had booked the sold-out architectural boat tour for the afternoon in advance (next time!), I don’t regret spending part of the day getting to know the travel blog space a little bit better.

An unexpected bonus (in an otherwise disastrous trip home that night) was meeting Jessica Spiegel from Bootsnall.com at the airport, and recognizing each other by virtue of the brand new backpacks. We shared a power strip and alternately guarded the other’s belongings as we searched for food and flight information.

Leaving the desert behind

The time had come that our travels would start to take us back East, closer to home.  I’m not sure what it was that changed the energy just a bit but you could sense something was different.  Maybe it was that we were starting to lose an hour with each time zone we crossed instead of gaining one?  Maybe it was because we had started to recognize time as days left instead of days to go.  Maybe we were just too darn hot! 

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Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona

Our New England bodies weren’t adjusting to the 100+ degree temperatures quickly.  Most likely, the energy shift was because we knew we had three days of driving in front of us with very little sightseeing and R&R along the way.

Our drive north out of Arizona was lovely.  Climbing into the mountains with the red rock in the background gave us the last look over Sedona as we left the city limits.  We decided we would “stop by” the South Rim of the Grand Canyon because it was only 2 hours out of our way.  What’s another 120 miles between family?!  Our drive by Mather’s Point brought to light two good decisions we made.  First, seeing both the North and the South Rims was worth the drive.  Both were very different, both beautiful in their own way.  Second, I’m glad we camped in the North Rim.  The number of visitors and volume of traffic in the South Rim was 10x more than we experienced in the North Rim.  We had lunch on the east banks of the South Rim before we continued our journey east.  It was goodbye to another treasure of the desert.

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Four states at once!

Up next was the lamest tourist trap of them all and I was so excited to finally go there in person!  When planning our trip, we had a few must see stops and the Four Corners was #1 on all our lists!  The Four Corners is the only place in the country where the four right angles of four states, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah meet at a central point.  It’s the only place in the country where one person can stand in four states at the same time.  Recently it was discovered the monument about a mile off the actual spot, making it even more fabulously lame.  It costs $3 per person to experience 5 minutes of vacationer paradise.  I wouldn’t have missed it for the world!  I even got in the picture for this one-Luke in Utah, Den in Arizona, Cam in Colorado and me in New Mexico.  Before the flock of wild Girls Scouts swarmed into the area, the boys and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to physically touch four states at once.  Like their mother, they can now tell people they’ve been in Colorado even though it was just one foot!

The next camping stop wasn’t until Arkansas, several hundreds of miles away.  Three days of driving brought us through New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas before we hit the state line for the Clinton’s home state of Arkansas.  Most of the drive was uneventful, long straight roads with little descriptive scenery.  A few highlights were the ancient Indian ruins perched high in the hills throughout New Mexico and parts of Texas. 

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Shiprock Pinnacle

You can only imagine the history that lies in the doorways of the towering rock formations.  In hind sight, I would have set aside time to visit and learn more about this fascinating culture.  At another point, Dennis and I reminisced about the past when we passed Shiprock Pinnacle, most likely the inspiration for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, even though the real New Mexico fixture holds deep spiritual solace for the faithful believers.

Regretfully, Route 40 East passed through several poverty stricken areas and hundreds of unusable acres of Indian Reservations in New Mexico and northwest Texas.  I’m sure our limited perspective isn’t indicative of the entire area but it wasn’t until eastern Texas that dry, barren fields were replaced with cattle roaming green fields and seeking shelter under a single shady tree.  It was easy to say goodbye to that facet of the desert but will be hard to let go of the images.

We ran into some of the worst weather of the trip on the Oklahoma/Texas border.  Driving directly into a lightning storm ahead, my imagination ran wild with thoughts of tornados throwing cows and trucks through the air!  I watched “Twister”, I know what I’m talking about.  Trailers and RVs are always the first to get hit!  It was a rough but short lived storm and we made it through untouched.  We spent the night in a skin-crawling, nasty Days Inn in Elk City Oklahoma and were up and out very early the next morning.  We slept with one eye open that night but at least it gave us a chance to charge up all our electronics before our next stop.

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Southern Missouri

Buffalo National River was just outside a small town called Yellville.  It was only about a 5 hour drive from Oklahoma but we took a planned detour into Kansas and Missouri so I could cross them off my list of states visited!  In the three days of driving, the most beautiful views came from this stretch of the trip.  I never expected southern Missouri and northern Arkansas to be so clean, lush and filled with rolling hills and farmland.  I guess I never really thought about it and after the desert it was a welcomed change.  We made it to our campsite early evening.  It should have been sooner but I gave Betty a bum steer as to the location of the campground and actually programmed in the business office three towns over!  Thankfully the ranger set us straight and we arrived at a well kept, clean and spacious site alongside the Buffalo River before dark.  Juicy steaks on the grill, BBQ chicken, baked potatoes and veggies never tasted so good!  Four happy yet tired campers turned in for a wonderful night sleep with the promise of a sunny 85 degree day ahead of them!

A Sedona Vacation Junkie

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Slide Rock National Park

There is no shortage of things to do in the Sedona Arizona area.  If you love to over-indulge in your favorite guilty pleasure, Sedona is happy to be your co-dependant source.  Shopaholics can choose from clothes to traditional Indian goods, jewelry to crystals and never get their fill of variety.  Foodaholics will be satisfied with dishes that include Mexican, BBQ, fine dining and fast food.  Chocaholics can sample fudge and other confectionaries at the many candy shops in the downtown area.  Adventure junkies and backcountry hikers can tour the desert on foot or off road vehicle and flirt with the Diamondbacks.  Sedona can even handle my addiction, the I-want-to-see-and-do-everything-possible-in-a-short-period-of-time-aholic, while minimizing our spend, of course.

We were up and out early on desert morning two.  Granted, after 2 ½ weeks of vacation, our early mornings have been pushed back from our original 5am start to the new 8am rise and shine.  Donning our bathing suits and towels, we headed about 10 miles north to Slide Rock National Park.  A consistent “You’ve got to go there!” from our friends put this on the top of our stops for the day.  Our campground host recommended an early start because the parking lot fills up quickly and she was right.  Fascinated by the rising red rock that surrounded our every perspective, we became more and more intrigued the closer we got to the swim area.  The park was clean and well marked and starting to fill up with curious families like us ready to enjoy nature’s playground.   

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Plotting the strategy

Finding the ideal stop near the mouth of the slide and semi-high up to see all the fun, Dennis and the boys watched, plotting their strategy.  I was still on the fence about whether or not I was going to partake, but once my men hit the water, my decision was clear.

The guys worked their way to the mouth of the slide to patiently wait their turn down the rocks.  Luke was the first one to hit the water, literally.  Slippery rocks were not limited to the slide!  Down again and again he went, each time getting up in triumph that nothing was broken!  It was actually Cam who was the first one down the slide.  There was a slight look of pain on his face from the extremely cold water. 

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Luke hits the water

Already wet from falling a couple times, Luke ventured down the slide but the water temperature still took him by surprise when he was fully immersed.  Finally Dennis made his way down the slide, each new splash offered a continuous reminder of just how cold the water was against his flesh.  Yeah, I didn’t go in.  In hind sight I regret the decision.  I was assured by the boys that the cold dissipated quickly and only the fun remained.   The boys returned down the slide dozens of times, trying new angles each time – front, back, bum, belly – enjoying every inch of this unique mountain stream natural water park. 

Cam’s adventurous side started to show through.  He located an area where folks were cliff jumping into a deep area of the river.  It was about 20 feet in the air and kids half his age and size emerged without a scratch so it must be safe. 

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Cam's jump

On his third jump, he convinced Dennis to join him.  Not one to back down from a challenge from his kids, Dennis jumped in perfectly straight like an old pro. The kids teased him that he flapped his arms like a bird on the way down, but that’s not how I saw it. 

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Den's jump

After a couple hours of sliding, laughing, swimming and picture taking, we headed back to the RV to change into dry clothes for a little hiking.

With a tip from our campground friend Joanie, we took the back roads to Cathedral Rock after a quick stop at the Chapel of the Holy Cross.  Cathedral Rock is a beautiful structure on the west side of Sedona.  We parked only .8 miles from the heart of mountain.  We geared up and grabbed the water bottles and headed up the path to climb Cathedral Rock.  We were probably about .0001 miles away from the RV when it started…”It’s so hot!”, “do we really need to hike?”, “why do we have to do this?  It’s 100 degrees!”  It was actually 116 degrees that day and quite honestly I didn’t want to be all kinds of sweaty for the rest of our day sightseeing. 

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Cathedral Rock

We made it up .5 miles, right before the steep climbing was required, we waved hello to Arizona and turned back around for the RV.  Semi-disappointing to cut it short but in the long run, it saved us lots of unpleasant odors to deal with as we made our way to Jerome AZ for a very late lunch.

South of Sedona, Jerome was an old miners’ town that, back in its hay day in the early 1900s, sold $1,000,000 of cooper per month.  It was known as the toughest town in America, filled with miners, ladies of the evening, saloons and gun shops.  In the 1940s, everything changed and with only 150 residents Jerome couldn’t survive.  Several decades later, local artists bought out much of the town, turning the historical buildings into galleries, restaurants and gift shops.  It is widely believed that Jerome is haunted, a theory supported by most of the 400 plus residents of today.  Four different people recommended the “Haunted Hamburger” for a delicious lunch with tasty beverages and it delivered.  My Prickly Pear Margarita hit the spot! Perched on the highest of the mountain side roads, our outside table offered views clear across the state, ranging well into Flagstaff and beyond until our favorite black cloud rolled in again! 

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Jerome Ghost Town

We finished our yummy meals without any signs of the paranormal and decided to head out before the storm hit.  It’s more me than Den, but being  in an over-sided beast on narrow, twisty-turning mountain road in down pouring rain with thunder and lightning is not how I wanted to end my day!  As always (or most of the time, at least) Dennis obliged and we headed for the comforts of our campsite.

North, south, east and west, we certainly did get a good sampling of this scenic Arizona setting in our three short days.  Many people told us Sedona was the worth the stop and now we will tell you, too, Sedona is well worth the stop, no matter what type of vacation junkie you may be.

To see all our photos from Slide Rock or sightseeing in Sedona, visit Snapfish.

A Shift in Plans

I screwed up in Sedona. It was actually in Cottonwood AZ.  Up until this point of our trip, we’ve been happy with all our campsites, sightseeing and other accommodations.  You never know what you are going to get when booking things online and we were reminded of that the hard way.  After a very long driving day, we arrived in Cottonwood with great anticipation of this beautiful area we heard about from friends and family who had visited recently. 

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Creek at Rancho Sedona RV Park

Our campsite promised shady trees along the river bed, only miles from Sedona city center.  I wish.  When we pulled into Rio Verde RV Park in Cottonwood AZ, we kept driving through as if we made a wrong turn.  The website didn’t mention the broken down vehicles on the side of the road, the unlevel sights on top of each other and the disheveled office that was supposed to welcome you to the area.  I swear I could smell the bathrooms from behind the closed windows of our RV.  I immediately grabbed my Blackberry and tried to find an alternative.  Dennis tried to see if Betty had other suggestions.  We came across Rancho Sedona RV park right in Sedona.  After a quick call, we drove the 45 minutes north to get to what became our sanctuary.  I can’t say enough about Rancho Sedona and it’s not just because of the Cottonwood experience.  The staff was kind, helpful; the park was clean and shaded; the location was walking distance from Lucile Ball’s former home which is now owned by the Doublemint Twins (you can still see Lucy’s life-sized plastic image waving from the balcony) and downtown Sedona.

Happy to be amongst the clean, we decided not to unplug and drive for an entire day.  A leisurely morning was followed by an afternoon walk to downtown for shopping and ice cream.  A free shuttle brought visitors to the shops nearby.  Our driver recommended a store that specialized in goods made by the local Indian tribes.  We couldn’t resist, and left with our wallets a little lighter.  The boys and I were attracted to a store armed with dumb humor. 

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Greetings Earthlings

I loved the welcome mat in the window “Hi.  I’m Mat.”  We enjoyed chatting with the store manager who obviously was pleased with our juvenile funny bones.  But when she brought out the heavy artillery, a remote fart machine, we were never going to leave.  Poor Dennis, the victim again but he did have a good sense of humor about it.  A couple more stops for refreshments, crystals and the local UFO, we headed back to camp to get ready for another awesome adventure – 4X4 jeep in the dessert.

Our campground host Joanie, a former concierge, arranged for our jeep tour to pick us up at the campsite saving us a trip back into town.  There are many jeep, hummer and sightseeing tours to choose from, all of different prices, lengths and degrees of excitement. 

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Homer and Marge Rocks

Buy on price and your schedule.  We chose the “Day in the West” tour and were not disappointed for one minute.  Our guide, Clyde, loved his job – taking innocent victims, I mean tourists, to experience the back hills of the desert.   He could tell from the wide eyes of the twins, we were up for some fun and he delivered.  He pointed out the traditional facts of Sedona such as it is only 5 square miles, some offbeat facts like it is the only McDonald’s in the world with green arches due to the city requirements that everything must be within a pre-determined color palette.  He showed us the “Marge and Homer” rock formations, identified with the help of some local favorite tequila. 

There is no possible way for me to adequately describe how awesome that night was for all of us.  We laughed like school girls when I was bounced right out of my seat.  Per request of the kids, Clyde delivered the bumpiest, happiest, fantastic night he could within the limits of keeping his job and not destroying his vehicle. 

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Happy to be alive!

The trails were long and bumpy, roller coaster-ish at some points.  Many of the climbs made us feel like we were on the hind wheels only but it was the downhill thrills that gratified us the most.  There was one moment of concern when we landed so hard that the vibration from the rock below us split in two and it rumbled through the entire vehicle. 

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Roller coaster trail

We searched for rattlesnakes but saw only bunny rabbits.  He pointed out unique plant life and told us how the Indians’ use these plants to survive in the wilderness.  The sun was setting on our return to camp.  The rocks took on some many shades of red as the sun disappeared in the distance.  It was a wonderful ending to our already wonderful day.

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Sedona sunset

We decided to take it easy the rest of the night, since tomorrow’s dance card was full.  We had a list a mile long of everything we wanted to do during our last day in the area.  Slide Rock National Park was on the top of the list, then a little hiking at Cathedral Rock, topped off with lunch in Jerome, a ghost town about 35 minutes south.  However, there was one more thrill in store for us before the night’s end.  A fellow camper was walking past our RV when we stopped and stared at the ground.  Dennis and I were both intrigued so we asked what critter he spotted. 

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Our campsite visitor

He threw us a look like “You’ve got to come see for yourself”.  We were stopped dead in our tracks when our neighbor announced it was a very large tarantula spider walking in our direction.  Den and I were fascinated while the kids refused to leave the RV to get a closer look.   My skin crawled for a while before falling into a deep sleep, resting for another busy day.

 

To see all our Sedona jeep tour photos or downtown Sedona photos visit Snapfish.

Life Changing Experiences

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Hotel New York New York

The past two and one half weeks have brought us some of the best and most memorable experiences of our lives.  However, we had reached the point that Dennis and I were having a hard time motivating the kids to be excited about another red rock or funky tree or deer on the side of the road.  Las Vegas was exactly the right place at the right time to shake things up again!

Before we left for our trip, a friend of mine joked that I should take a picture of the boys before they go into Vegas because they won’t be the same after they leave!  There was more truth to that statement than he realized, a truth that lied beyond the billboards of scantily clad woman and postcard sized advertisements for the nearest gentlemen’s club.  The truth they experienced lied more in the realization that there is an expansive world out there filled with promise and hope, despair and loneliness.   In Vegas, you see the highs of the promise of glory and wealth and the lows of poverty and homelessness.  Las Vegas is without a doubt a life changing experience.

Much to my surprise, that Monday in Sin City brought out the families.  Kids under the age of 15 with their extended families made up the bulk of the foot traffic on the strip.  We were no exception.   The casinos sang their songs of winning jackpot but many of the seats remained empty in lieu of roller coasters, ice cream and buffets, lots and lots of buffets.  Strictly by accident, we discovered a delicious money saving tip that I would like to pass along.  In trying to decide which buffet to enjoy, we noticed the Bellagio offered the best seafood and sushi selection which was exactly what Cam and I had hoped to find.  Lunch, ended at 4:00PM was $10/head cheaper than dinner.   We got there about 3:45 and found no lines, no waiting.  We paid the lower price and within 15 minutes, all the glorious higher-end items like lobster ravioli and sashimi tuna were there for the taking!  If you can time it right, you can eat like kings but at the price of a commoner.

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Old Vegas Nostalgia

After some R&R at the hotel pool, we got dressed and headed out for the bright lights of the city after dark.  Dennis and I wanted the kids to see Old Vegas.  One of our trip “guidelines” was to try to experience things unique to the area we were visiting.  The Fremont Street Experience fits that to a tee.   You can take a taxi there for about $25 each way from the strip or feel free to hop on The Deuce, public transportation for $3 per person per way or $7 for a 24 hour pass.  The kids had a field day with the name, dropping every potty joke they could think of to kill the time waiting.  (For the slower crowd, deuce = 2…number 2…get it?)  Most folks were heading across town with us.  The buses were filled and the stops were many, but it gave us a chance to see the strip from a unique vantage point.  They ran every 7 minutes, so if you can’t get a seat, hold tight and jump on the next one.  After an hour plus ride, we arrived at Fremont Street. 

The Fremont Street Experience aims to capture the nostalgia of Old Vegas with a modern twist.  The canopy of lights overhead that runs the length of the street was dark.  Most nights there is a theme or tribute created for the audiences’ viewing pleasure.  Our night was a tribute to the rock band Queen.  We timed it perfect.   Much to our delight, within the past year the boys have discovered classic rock.  AC/DC, Led Zeppelin and Queen top their list of favorites so we knew when the show started, it was going to knock their socks off.  We walked around; checking out the old neon signs and listening to an Elvis impersonator rock the house.  At the end of his set, he told the folks dancing in the street that he’d be back shortly.  Dennis and I looked at each other knowing the time had come.

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"Wow!"

The hotel lights went dark, the street lights dimmed and this huge lightning bolt complete with thunder sound effects raced from one end of the street to the other, shockingly loud.  The boys eyes popped open and their jaws dropped to the floor.  Perfect!  Queen’s “We Will Rock You” filled the streets and the canopy of lights flooded the boulevard with everything from the British flag, to Freddy in concert to the lyrics pounding overhead.   It ended too quickly; I could have watched the kids watch the lights for hours.   When it was finished, Cam picked his jaw off the ground and said slowly with purpose “That…was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”

The kids nabbed front row seats on the top deck of the bus ride back to the hotel.  Honestly, the best view of Sin City I’ve ever seen.  Although we missed the dancing fountains at Belliagio, we did see the pirate ships, the volcano, the circus tent and the New York skyline before we called it a night.   I can’t exactly put my finger on it but the kids did change after that.  The last remaining childhood habits and comforts were abandoned and new, more adult attitudes are starting to rear their heads.  My boys are growing up.

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Hoover Dam new bridge

We headed out the next morning for Sedona Arizona.  As we were leaving the city limits, Dennis commented on how he had never seen the Hoover Dam, wondering if it would be that far out of our way to drive by to see it.  We were resigning ourselves to the fact we’d have to catch it on the next trip when we noticed signs for Lake Mead.  Our faithful companion Betty plotted our route to cross over the Hoover Dam on the way to Arizona.  Since 9/11, security has been very tight at the Dam and we were required to pull over and be subjected to a minor search.  We gladly obliged and within 10 minutes we were driving across this miraculous man-made tourist attraction.  The new bridge across the dam was in process.  Tourists lined the streets taking photos from every angle.  I did my best from the window because we were informed that any vehicle over 15’ in length is not allowed to stop until they have passed over the entire structure.   I’m so glad we got the opportunity to see it, again nothing else like it in the world.  See, our luck in Vegas wasn’t all bad.

To see our entire Vegas or Hoover Dam photo albums, visit Snapfish.