A Summer Place

The perfect family-vacation spot is one where both parents and kids will be entertained. Doesn’t exist? You haven’t been to the Hill Country Hyatt.

July 1998By Comments

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 taking advantage of the refrigerators that are in every room. Instead of eating the massive Sunday buffet breakfast in the Springhouse Cafe, you can stock your fridge at the Hyatt’s General Store, which sells cereal, pastries, fruit, coffee, milk, soft drinks, and candy. And no one will look down his nose at you if you bring a giant bag of drinks and snacks from home.

This time we stayed in a ground-floor Hill Country Suite, which had veranda doors in both rooms that opened to a shady backyard play area and, more important, allowed me to slip out for early-morning golf without waking the kids. I can offer no higher praise for the Hyatt’s Arthur Hills golf course than to say that I think it is the definitive Hill Country layout. Rolling green fairways are lined by huge live oaks and mesquites, with large patches of native wildflowers filling the gaps. One problem with resort golf is that your average weekend hacker sacrifices maybe ten strokes a round to a lack of local knowledge. The Hyatt’s state-of-the-art solution is the PinMark computerized mapping system, which is built into every cart. Pull up to a tee, and the screen displays a map of the hole with distances from the tee to the pin and to trees and traps that might cause you trouble. Push a button and the screen gives you the basic strategy for playing the hole. There’s even a second screen on the back of the cart so that you can read the yardage when selecting your club beside your ball in the fairway. At the 8th hole, the computer asks if you would like to order something from the grill. If you answer yes, a menu appears on the screen; you make your selection, and your burgers are delivered to you on the course. You won’t see it in tournament golf, but for a fun weekend round, PinMark does everything but read your putts.

The one mistake of our weekend was the kids’ Saturday-morning visit to Camp Hyatt, which came across more as overpriced baby-sitting than as a stimulating camp experience. But then our expectations were pretty high.

One of our most satisfying family vacations to date was a trip to a place I never expected to like—Club Med in Ixtapa, Mexico. At the Club Med Kids Club, then-five-year-old Katie fed giant hibiscus flowers to wild iguanas, took snorkeling lessons, and learned a variety of circus skills. Watching your normally cautious child dangling happily from a safety harness attached to a flying-trapeze rig is proof positive that Club Med knows how to both challenge and entertain kids.

Camp Hyatt, on the other hand, consisted of our girls’ doing some basic artwork and watching a movie, which they could have done in our suite for considerably less than the $85 charge for two kids for a morning session with lunch. If you really need a kid break, a better time might be at dinner, when they can stay with a sitter arranged by the hotel’s concierge ($6 an hour for the first child, $1 an hour for each additional child; four-hour minimum) while you enjoy a romantic meal.

I still haven’t figured out the best place for an evening cocktail here. The lobby bar features live acoustic music on weekends, but the surrounding noise gives it some tough competition. Adjacent to the lobby is Aunt Mary’s Porch, a lovely place for watching the evening sky from a sturdy wooden rocker, but you have to fetch your drinks from the bar inside. Finally there is Charlie’s Long Bar, named for its 56-foot oak-and-cedar bar. But what was meant to be a classic Texas-style saloon falls victim to a Wurlitzer repro jukebox, which the last time we were there was blaring Van Halen while a boxing match played on five television screens.

Fortunately, dinner at Antlers restaurant more than makes up for the shortcomings elsewhere. Despite the fact that it shares a lobby with the golf shop, Antlers is the hotel’s true touch of class. With the requisite deer-antler chandeliers framed against a soaring, open-kitchen layout, the effect is Tuscany by way of Fredericksburg—“The prettiest hotel restaurant I’ve ever been in,” said Christy, “partially because you don’t feel like you’re in a hotel.” As in the rest of the complex, the service here is stylish and friendly. While the hostess seated us at a table by a window, she recommended that we try the roasted Anaheim pepper with smoked chicken, jícama slaw, and tomato-tequila sauce. When we expressed some doubts, she brought us an order on the house. It was among the tastiest treats that have ever passed my lips. In the meantime, our waiter had been given a table of fifteen, and it was beginning to look as if we might be in for a long night of no service at all. But no sooner had we anticipated the problem than it was solved; our waiter simply gave our table to another server.

As you might expect, Antlers does not shy away from red meat. This time, though I was tempted to try the buffalo ribeye, I passed it up in favor of the Texas-style prime rib. Mesquite-smoked for 48 hours and served with horseradish, it was both delicious and a good cure for my allergies (appetizers range from $6.25 to $12 and entrées from $17.50 to $27). The wine list, however, with its predictable selections from Texas and elsewhere, was less impressive. I was about to order a California cabernet sauvignon when Christy exercised her veto power by calling it “grocery store wine.”

Having settled on the Forest Glen merlot ($27), which was more than up to its task, I passed on the rich desserts and had another glass, content in the knowledge that I didn’t have to drive or wash dishes or do anything at all except stroll in the moonlight back to our room, kiss the kids good-night, and sleep late in the morning.

Now, I’m not fooling myself. I know that a weekend at the Hyatt can’t take the place of a little cultural awakening or some genuine outdoor adventure. But parents’ best-intentioned plans are often wasted on younger kids. This spring, while Christy was working long hours co-producing a movie in Spain, the kids and I exhausted ourselves cruising Madrid’s extensive subways in search of museums, parks, and child-friendly restaurants. On the flight back to Texas, I asked Lily what she had liked best about Spain—the castles, the zoo, the circus? Without hesitation, she looked me in the eye and said, “The game room at the hotel.”

That was the moment I knew I needed a return trip to the Hill Country Hyatt. Luckily, the rest of the family did too.

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