WHEN OUR DAUGHTER KATIE was seven months old, my wife, Christy, and I took our first family vacation, a trip to Scotland. “Since we’re going to the cradle of golf,” I told Christy, “I might as well take my clubs . . . and one of my golf buddies.” I won’t go into the details, but take my word for it, a mom and baby waiting every day for Dad to get off the golf course is not a good vacation plan.
After our second daughter, Lily, joined the brood, I learned that family vacations can be their own kind of hell. Plane tickets to anywhere for a family of four will set you back half a college fund. And if you drive, chances are that an hour from home, Mom will have a migraine, Dad will be fuming, and the kids will have lapsed into an endless round of America’s oldest folk song, a little ditty called “Are We there yet?” Surely it must be possible, I thought, to find a middle ground between our former hippie days, when we could go anywhere we wanted, and our life now, when it’s so hard to do anything at all. What I wanted was one destination, not too far away, with swimming, golf, children’s activities, and good food.
Is that too much to ask?
My wife and I realized what a couple of middle-aged yuppies we’d become when we discovered that we are the target market for the upscale Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort in San Antonio. Offering a mix of country club comfort and a rustic setting, this place is almost perfectly designed for a relaxing, never-leave-the-site family weekend.
I won’t even try to tell you how to find the Hill Country Hyatt. Though I’ve now been there three times, I still call ahead for directions, making a point to write down every turn, word for word. Then I forget to bring those directions, and we just drive all over the West Side of San Antonio until we see a sign pointing to Sea World. That’s when I turn the wrong way and, presto, we’re there!
Like a nineties version of the Beverly Hillbillies, we pulled up to the Hyatt this spring with twenty-odd suitcases, boxes, and paper sacks filled with clothes, bathing suits, toys, blankets, books, golf clubs, a drugstore, snacks, and assorted swimming floats—all for a two-night stay. The hotel is your basic $100 million limestone-and-live-oak Hill Country ranch house. From its giant stone fireplaces and massive chandeliers to its cowhide-covered furniture and bandanna napkins, the place successfully walks the fine line between kitsch and class. One of the best touches is its use of native landscaping. Whether you’re at the pool, on one of the hike-and-bike paths, or playing golf, chances are you’re surrounded by mountain laurel, honeysuckle, peach trees, and cacti.
We had been in our room for about two minutes when the clothes came off and the swimsuits went on. Because there is not a more prototypical Hill Country experience than tubing down a lazy river, the Hyatt built its own little river here—a 950-foot-long loop of water that winds past a beach, where kids can build sand castles, and a couple of lily ponds, where they can catch tadpoles. Though it’s called the Ramblin’ River, the current actually flows at a pretty good clip. Floating along in it are a couple of hundred inner tubes (all minus those nozzles that are guaranteed to rip a nasty gash in your belly). Wade in, grab a passing tube, and away you go.
Our seven-year-old, Katie, dispensed with the tube and raced everyone else by a combination of swimming and running alongside the stream. As for me, when I wasn’t drifting with my toes tucked under three-year-old Lily’s life jacket, I would flag down a pool waitress, order a frozen margarita in a plastic glass, and float till it was empty. The Guadalupe it ain’t, but it’s also not as crowded, and there are no floating beer cans in sight.
How much do kids enjoy all this fun? Our first night at dinner, a two-year-old at the next table was asleep with his face in his food. After dragging our own kids back to the room—via the playscape and the campfire with marshmallow-roasting for making s’mores—it was definitely time to say good-night. The only problem was that the foldout sofa, which was supposed to be the kids’ bed, didn’t fold out. Here’s a sign of a good hotel: A panicked dad calls housekeeping at ten at night, and a rollaway bed with extra pillows and blankets arrives within five minutes.
Of course, all these amenities come at a price. Summer room rates start at $255 a night, with no charge for kids up to eighteen who are staying with their parents. The posh Hill Country Suites are even higher ($450 weekdays and $475 weekends) but have a separate bedroom, a dining table, and (sometimes) a foldout sofa in the living area. The steep rates may explain why the front drive often looks like a car lot specializing in high-end sport-utility vehicles. But don’t despair if you’re more of a four-door midsize kind of family. There are lots of ways a savvy traveler can beat the published rates at most major hotels. For instance, when we cashed in a hundred jillion frequent-flier miles to wing the family to Puerto Rico last summer, attached to each airline ticket were hotel discount certificates good for a free night for every paid night at any Hyatt. If you don’t have any such deals saved up, try calling both the Hyatt chain’s 800 number (800-233-1234) and the local number for the hotel where you want to stay (210-647-1234 for the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort). Ask about which dates are the least crowded and what kinds of special rates or discount packages are available. You might be pleasantly surprised.
Another way you can save money at the Hill Country Hyatt is by