Sunday, June 05, 2016

Review: Seasons Restaurant Chef's Table at Four Seasons Aviara

California charcuterie and cheese plate
Last year we visited the Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara just as they were putting the finishing touches on a multi-million dollar renovation. The place was already great, but the aim of the renovation was to make the Residence Club a complete vacation destination with its own spa and signature dining experiences.

Read more: Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara Family Friendly Review

What we saw looked amazing. An ambitious culinary renovation was the centerpiece of a broader expansion of the Residence Club's Meadows lobby, spa, and gym.

But since they were days away from opening the restaurant we weren't able to enjoy it until a recent visit Memorial Day weekend.

I'm glad we were able to return because it was one of the best dining experiences I've ever had.

Residence Club


The Four Seasons Aviara Residence Club is located in Carlsbad, CA about a 45 minute drive north of the San Diego Airport. We've been coming here for years and it remains one of our favorite family friendly vacation destinations.

Here's a quick video overview:



Seasons Restaurant


Seasons Aviara looks exactly like renderings predicted it would - gorgeous
In 2015 they opened Seasons Aviara. From their website:

"Designed to be the culinary epicenter of Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara, Seasons Restaurant delivers farm-to-table cuisine with an emphasis on seasonal and locally sourced ingredients. The restaurant’s California-inspired fare takes shape via multiple distinctive dining experiences including an interactive chef’s table inside the working kitchen, a signature one of a kind Kitchen Counter experience, and a well-appointed private dining room. Bask in the natural light with its custom glass ceilings and relax over handcrafted cocktails and a wine list featuring the best Californian winemakers."

It's worth noting: Seasons Aviara is a private restaurant for the owners and guests of Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara only.
Bar area at Seasons Aviara

Chef's Table


Our menu for the night (click to enlarge)
In my experience, there's something special about staying at or visiting a Four Seasons. It's like magic can happen at any time. As soon as we walked into the lobby it was as if everyone who was working there knew who we were. "Enjoy your dinner," was said with a smile from a clerk behind the front desk at check-in. "Right this way, Mr. Dwyer," and "welcome to our Chef's Table."

The Chef's Table is set in the kitchen on a long wooden table which comfortably seats 6-10 people, perfect for family style dining. The experience costs $49 for adults, $25 for kids - a spectacular value considering you can pay $20 for burgers poolside at some high end resorts.

Couples or smaller groups might enjoy the Kitchen Counter experience, which I'm told features a more adventurous on-the-fly menu. Either way, you'll enjoy the view of the pool and courtyard area of the Residence Club's Meadows area during your meal.
Chefs Table and Kitchen Counter
Overlooking the Meadows pool area
The Chef's Table is family style, which is a format I normally don't care for. Unless I'm dining with my family! Which I was. A few days prior to your reservation you'll be asked to select a couple salads and a couple entrees for your group. These choices are then expanded upon with the Chef's selections for the day. Here's a sample Chef's Table Menu.

As we were getting settled and selecting some beverages a little Four Seasons magic kicked in. Our server advised that he had a special beverage for my sister. It seemed a little out of the blue, but we were amazed and delighted they'd picked up on a comment my sister left on their Instagram about one of their signature drinks. The Four Seasons somehow made the connection between our reservation, my sister joining us [different last names], and the comment she left on Instagram - and followed up by serving her the drink she asked about. Impressive.
2013 Failla Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. Outstanding
The wine list was mildly California focused, but not exclusively. We started with a bottle of rosé Cava (from Spain). Markup was reasonable, I thought. Like this 2013 Failla Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (pronounced FAY-luh) at $54. The wine was spectacular [93 points for me] and a at a very fair price considering the wine that retails for $34.

We started off the evening with a plate of charcuterie, cheeses, nuts and fruit. The California-shaped serving board set the tone nicely for the focus of the restaurant, and accompanying flatbread made for a very nice start to the evening.
For our menu choices, we kept things pretty conservative with wide appeal. The Caesar salad was terrific - the grilled and chilled lemons were a nice touch. The Strawberry Lettuce Leaves salad with compressed strawberry, manchego, spiced pecans, and lemon verbena vinaigrette was outstanding. Kind of reminded me [in a very good way]of the L'Occitane lemon verbena soaps they've had in the villas - a scent I always associate with Four Seasons Aviara.
Strawberry Lettuce Leaves salad
Between the salad an entree courses, the Chef's Whim was a delicious surprise. They laid paper down the center of the table and left us wondering what they'd surprise us with. Local Langostino Lobsters was my guess, but I was wrong. Check out the look of surprise on my 8 year old's face as he sees what's coming out. Priceless. Spoiler alert: If you plan on going there I'd leave it a surprise, but if you're curious check out this video to see what it was. Really enjoyable.
The surprised look on my 8 year old's face when he
saw what the Chef's Whim was: Priceless
For our entree selections, we went with the Grilled Wild Salmon with Israeli couscous, baby squash, and confit cherry tomato, and the New York Steak Frites with chive aioli and caramelized onions.

I don't have any pictures of the entrees unfortunately, because a plate of juicy steak landed on my lap while being served. They were so gracious about the accident - stuff happens. It says a lot about how great this dining experience was when I spent 10 minutes in the bathroom with club soda trying to get my clothes clean and it was still one of the most enjoyable dining experiences I've ever been a part of.

We finished up strong with an Ice Cream Party featuring house made ice cream with all the fixings. Tremendous. The kids enjoyed the meal as much as we did which makes me so happy when it happens. Reminded me of our time at the California Grill at Disney World last year. Everyone in the family focused on having a truly good time together. Can't beat that.
Ice Cream Party, toppings not pictured but were included
After dinner we made our way to the nearby poolside fire to chat and enjoy each other's company a little more. A true spectacular evening at a very special place.
Poolside fire at the Four Seasons Aviara Meadows

Bottom Line


Seasons Aviara is spectacular addition to the Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara. Ambitious conceived, masterfully implemented, upscale yet warm and inviting, family friendly, and a great value.

My rating:
5 out of 5 Stars: Perfection

In order to dine at Seasons, you need to be an owner or guest at the Four Seasons Residence Club. You can stay at the Residence Club by renting a villa directly from Four Seasons or by renting a week through an agency or from a private party. Learn more at SeasonsAviara.com.

Questions? Comments? Ping me on Twitter @RobertDwyer or Instagram

Monday, May 30, 2016

Park Hyatt Aviara Resort Review

Setup service at the Family Pool (click to enlarge)
We're on our way back from a tremendous Memorial Day weekend at the Park Hyatt Aviara Resort. Although "May Gray" weather was present most of the time, we had a wonderful stay. From beginning to end the quality of the hotel and the level of service here was very high. We'll be back...

Overview

Park Hyatt Aviara public area
The hotel is one of just 138 to earn both a AAA Five Diamond rating and a Forbes Five Star rating (so said our shuttle driver). Although this was the fifth Park Hyatt we've stayed at this year (Paris, NYC, DC, and Chicago were the others) this was our first visit to a Park Hyatt Resort.

This particular Park Hyatt used to be a Four Seasons hotel. However, in 2010 ownership ended its management contract with Four Seasons and brought in Hyatt to run things. What we have now is a property where the adjacent Residence Club is still managed by Four Seasons and the hotel is managed by Hyatt.

See: Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara Family Friendly Review

When I first heard the news that the hotel was going to be a Hyatt my reaction was: "Downgrade". However, I don't think I appreciated that the Park Hyatt level within the Hyatt lineup is positioned similarly aesthetically and in terms of overall quality as Four Seasons.

Most people (other than points & miles hounds) don't understand Hyatt's brands very well (Park Hyatt, Grand Hyatt, Hyatt Regency, garden variety Hyatt, etc) so don't feel bad if you're not familiar with them. You're not alone!

Park Hyatt is their luxury level, and although it doesn't consistently deliver the way Four Seasons does, some Park Hyatt locations are very nice. So, in hindsight Park Hyatt was a natural fit to take over the Aviara hotel.

I'm a huge fan of Four Seasons and although I'd never stayed at the Four Seasons Aviara hotel proper I enjoyed the amenities the hotel offered in conjunction with Four Seasons Residence Club stays. On a week-long stay you could "mix things up" a bit and visit the hotel pool, take the kids over to the game room, and enjoy golf/tennis clinics for a nominal fee.

Although the relationship between the hotel and residence club has improved in recent times, the two now operate as completely separate entities. For example, you're not welcome to use the pools at the hotel if you're staying at the residence club and vice versa.

So this review is going to be from the viewpoint of a guy who's stayed at the Four Seasons Aviara Residence Club with his family in the past staying at the Park Hyatt Aviara hotel for the first time, with some observations on how well Hyatt Diamond status conveys at this property.

Booking


Since we've got Hyatt Diamond status this year and I was in the market for something fun to do Memorial Day weekend I had a look at the Hyatt Regency in Newport, RI. We live in Boston so it would be a short but traffic-laden drive. I didn't like the way availability was shaking out there so I had a look at Aviara. And everything fell neatly into place for a trip to San Diego.

But if there's one thing I've noticed about Hyatt's loyalty program it's this:

Every booking experience is an adventure. 

Some properties have ample award availability, others do not. Some have ample Diamond Suite Upgrade availability, others do now. Some allow you to upgrade a points booking with cash, others do not. Sometimes you get a different answer if you call the hotel vs calling the Diamond Gold Passport desk. If you like puzzles you'll love tinkering with the Hyatt program.

For Memorial Day weekend, paid rates were running around $349/nt. Since Aviara is a Hyatt Category 5 hotel (7 being the highest) it costs 20,000 Hyatt ponits per night OR 10,000 points + $125/nt. I initially opted for the Cash + Points option hoping to apply a Diamond Suite Upgrade certificate to the stay.
When paying with points, the $30/nt resort fee
is waived and there is no tax on the stay
Unfortunately, that suite upgrade award space never materialized. Although there were Park Suites available for our dates and Park Deluxe Suites as well - the Park Luxury Suite was not available. And in order to use a Diamond Suite Upgrade at this property the Luxury Suite needs to be available. And it's hardly ever available. How convenient. I've seen similar shenanigans at other Hyatt properties (I'm looking at you, Park Hyatt Chicago).

It's this kind of carving up of room categories and what feels to me like strategic blocking of award space that has me less than enthusiastic about chasing Hyatt Diamond requalification, as amazing as it can be.

See this thread on FlyerTalk for a listing of the suite categories for each property that needs to be available in order to use a Diamond Suite Upgrade.

Arrival


The hotel charges $35/day for valet parking and we didn't need a car during our stay, so I decided to hire a car service to and from the San Diego airport for around $100. It worked out great. We arrived quite late so while we were about 20 minutes away from the hotel I called to request they make up the queen foldout sofabed so our boys could go straight to bed. They did and it was much appreciated.

I was a bit "on guard" while checking in since our stay at the Park Hyatt Chicago was rough in terms of recognizing Diamond benefits (we had to fight for eveything we got). However, upon check-in at the Park Hyatt Aviara we were kindly briefed that as a Diamond member we'd receive:
  • Complimentary Full American Breakfast Buffet at the California Bistro (for up to 4 registered guests per room, $35+ value per person and including gratuity, this cannot be taken as room service at this property unlike other Park Hyatts)
  • Food & Beverage Amenity (we opted for a cheese plate and a bottle of red wine)
  • Best Available Room (within room category, we were upgraded to a standard room with an obstructed view of the pool)
  • Complimentary Newspaper (even I who appreciate the novelty of reading the newspaper while on vacation didn't opt to take advantage of this, and shouldn't that be available to all guests?)
  • Complimentary Turndown Service (again, shouldn't this be standard at a five star hotel?)
  • Complimentary Internet Access (worked very well all over the resort grounds)
  • Complimentary 4:00 pm late checkout (based on availability but not useful to us on this stay)
  • Complimentary Spa facility access (surprisingly nice, a $30 value)
  • 30% point bonus on eligible spend (always nice, too bad alcohol is excluded)

Room


View from a 3rd floor "Pool View King" room.
Definitely obstructed, but whatever.
We've gotten some really nice suite upgrades at Hyatts so far this year (Park Hyatt NYC is incredibly refined, and there's a lot of leverage to be had at the Hyatt Regency Maui for example). However, the standard room at the Park Hyatt Aviara served us well. With a very nice large bathroom, king bed with a foldout queen sofa, and outdoor space I was perfectly happy to save our suite upgrade for another stay.

The bathroom is remiscient of those at the Four Seasons Residence Club (which I really like). The room appears to have gotten a meaningful facelift in the past few years, but its styling isn't as contemporary as most Hyatts.

The mattress was a low light for me, and a weak spot for Park Hyatts in general in my opinion. Most Park Hyatts have a rather firm bed that almost has a platform feel to it. And that's fine. But at Aviara I experienced a pillow top mattress that seemed to have large depressions in it that resulted in my feet being higher than my body and left me in an awkward position all night. Not good.

Another weak spot: Although they have in-room Illy capsule-based espresso makers they provide powerdered Coffeemate as a creamer. I'd prefer a liquid creamer. Note that there's Keurig coffee at the front desk before 6:30am and complimentary Illy drip coffee outside the California Bistro starting at 6:30am.

Overall, the room was very good but not quite outstanding.

Food & Beverage

Poolside wood fired pizza oven.
Pizzas were innovatively conceived, perfectly prepared, and absolutely delicious.
If there's one thing that's consistently impressed me about Park Hyatt it's been the food & beverage program. Not just the breakfast (I'll get to that in a minute) but so many Park Hyatt properties feature restaurants you might want visit even if you're not staying at the hotel. The Back Room at the Park Hyatt New York and the Blue Duck Tavern at their Washington DC properites come to mind - terrific.

The brunch served at the California Bistro is outstanding. I remember eating here back in the day when they offered a Friday night Seafood Buffet where in an effort to maximize value guests regularly risked allergic reactions while ingesting copious amounts of shellfish.
Blueberry Crumble Danish were only outdone by Strawberry Cronuts
The pastry chef at this property, from France I'm told, is amazingly talented. Highlights at the buffet included Strawberry Cronuts [wow!], Blueberry Crumble Danish, and Peanut Butter and Chocolate Croissants. Other venues on site benefit from his talents. For example, in the Spa they've got shortbread or macarons on a rotating basis.

Also, the weekend we were there they featured personal s'mores setups poolside. With service for four and the components prepared in house (there's that pastry chef again) they were a very enjoyable novelty.

Each night on the holiday weekend they had a special dinner offering poolside. We loved the wood-fired pizzas prepared right next to our table and delivered by the chef himself. Terrific.
I'd like to be able to buy Cali Creamin' on the east coast
but that would kill the novelty
The beer assortment poolside featured a lot of local brews - including one of my favorites: Mother Earth Brew Co Cali Creamin' Vanilla Cream Ale. It's one of those things where I wish they'd sell it on the east coast but as soon as they did the novelty would be gone.

We stopped in for a drink at The Argyle Steakhouse, down by the Aviara Golf Club. A very nice spot. Seems newly remodeled to a very high level recently. We had a simple plate of french fries that were as good as I can imagine fries being.
Simple french fries at the Argyle Lounge after golf were amazingly good.
Can this place do no wrong?
We didn't visit the hotel's fine dining venue (Vivace) on this visit, but prior visits it has been spectacular. I highly recommend it. You're welcome to dine at the Park Hyatt restaurants while staying at the Residence Club, but not vice versa.

Overall, the food & beverage options at this property delighted across the board.

Activities

Enjoy complimentary use of the driving range and putting green
at the Aviara Golf club while staying at the Park Hyatt
A strength of the Park Hyatt Aviara is its scale and the breadth of actities they're able to offer, especially when occupancy rates are high.

Golf

The Arnold Palmer designed 18 hole Aviara Golf Club hosts the LPGA Kia Classic. It is a gorgeous golf course. I didn't have time to play it on this visit [hotel guests get preferred tee times] but instead took my boys down to hit some golf balls at the driving range. Normally reserved for those playing a round of golf that day, range access is included in the resort fee.

Pro Tip: The Citi Prestige credit card comes with 3 free rounds of golf annually and 4th night free at hotels. The Aviara Golf Club is included in the list of courses in this program and it's a great redemption since a rates can be as high as $230 per round.
They treated us like VIPs at the Aviara Golf Club
Complimentary loaner clubs - even for young lefties!
I called down and they set me up with complimentary loaner clubs for me and my boys, even a perfectly sized left-handed set for my 8 year old. We enjoyed driving the cart over to the range and hitting balls off turf rather than the synthetic mats they're more accustomed to. After that we putted for a bit and grabbed a drink at the Argyle Lounge while regaling in the fine service we experienced.

The tennis courts also looks to be a great value. Court time on one of six courts (two of which are clay), racquet rentals, and balls are said to be included in the resort fee.

Golf and tennis clinics for adults and/or kids are offered on select days as well.

Spa

I'm not a big spa guy so I had a special reporter do a visit and provide her thoughts.

If you happen to have Diamond status with Hyatt (or have a friend who will share their status with you as a "Guest of Honor") be sure to visit the spa.

Even if you are not springing for any spa treatments, check in at the spa desk where they will ask your shoe size then assign you a locker with appropriately sized sandals, plush robe, bottled water, jewelry bag, and laundry bag. After changing in to the robe, stop by the coed "relaxation room" aka the solarium where you can get hot herbal tea, fruit-infused ice water, dried fruit, fresh peaches, mixed nuts, and either freshly baked shortbread cookies or assorted French macarons (cookie/macaron selection seems to be on a daily rotation).

Lounge in the comfy chairs with palm trees and a slight breeze while enjoying the treats. Next head to the spa area for some time in the dry sauna, steam room, and jacuzzi tub. Note: These areas are "clothing optional" and not co-ed. After you are done, jump in the shower and use the eucalyptus spray on the walls to create an aromatherapy shower while you use the provided amenities (shampoo, conditioner, shave cream, razors and shower gel.) After using the blowdryer take a quick trip back to the solarium if it is macaron day then head out to enjoy the rest of your day. Oh, and the fitness center looks well-equipped if you wanted to add some exercise to your spa experience.

Visiting the spa without a treatment normally costs $30, but Diamond guests get it for free. It's almost like a secret lounge. Almost.
Diamond guests get complimentary Spa access.
Useful if it's chilly outside or you just want a healthy light snack. Secret lounge?
But we spent most of our time at the pools and the game room.
Adult pool and bar overlooking the Batiquitos Lagoon
I'm pleased to report that the standard of service the Four Seasons offers poolside largely conveys at the Park Hyatt. As soon as we entered the pool area we were set up nicely with lounge chairs and umbrellas poolside. The chaise lounges were covered with large white towels and additional towels were provided for drying off. Additional towels, if needed, were plentiful and easy to fetch. Food & drink menus were provided along with ice water for each guest.
Ample lounge chairs even when the hotel was at 90%+ capacity
Cabanas [that nobody uses] set back away from the pool - I like it.
Cabanas are available to rent but I didn't see a single one in use. Thankfully, the cabanas were set behind the free lounge chairs (further away from the pool). I appreciated this setup because, in contrast and as a point of comparison, at the Fairmont Kea Lani the space right around the pool was dominated by cabanas that were quite expensive, largely undifferentiated vs lounge chairs, and hardly used. With the hotel at near full occupancy the pools were crowded but not unplesantly so. The crowd was well behaved and our kids made friends with others their age.

We really enjoyed the game room downstairs. The games aren't state of the art or anything but they are complimentary and include two billards tables, two foosball tables, three Xbox stations, a shuffleboard table, and a couple of classic upright video games kept us entertained for hours.

There is a fee-based Camp Hyatt program for kids ages 4-12 [quite expensive at $90-$165 a day, especially considering it was previously complimentary when this was a Four Seasons] which we didn't take advantage of. Our kids are technically within the age range most hotel kids clubs are said to handle, but lately I've found them aimed too much towards the lower end of the age scale. We poked our head in the club just to see what it was like. It looked nice, but the kids in the program were quite young. Perfect for those with younger kids but not for us anymore. The semi-supervised tween/teen ("The Hideout") at the Four Seasons Orlando is great for our kids now - too bad more hotels don't offer something like this.

Read more: Four Seasons Orlando at Walt Disney World Review

The pool area featured live entertainment each night around 5-6:30 which was surprisngly good. I rarely find live entertainment to be a value add at places like this (too loud/not good/not a fan of the genre, etc) but Lee Coulter in particular was great.
Personal poolside s'mores with house made graham crackers and chocolate.
Perfectly complements a dive-in movie.
After the music finished up they fired up The Good Dinosaur as a dive-in movie. The screen was a little hard to see before the sun went down, and it was getting quite chilly by then so we enjoyed our s'mores then headed up for bed, tired especially due to the 3 hour time difference.

It's worth noting that this hotel is not on the ocean. Although there are distant views of the Pacific, the hotel isn't even particularly close to the ocean. They do offer a beach shuttle and chair rental service for I think $15/day. And complimenatry shuttle rides to nearby attractions like the Carlsbad Premium Outlets are available as well.

In the past we've visited nearby theme parks while staying at Aviara, but for a holiday weekend that was a definite "pass" for us. Disneyland is theoretically just an hour and six minutes away and although I jokingly threatened the kids with a visit [I'm the biggest Disney fan in the family] a Disney Park visit on Memorial Day weekend sounds like a death move.

At less crowded times of year Legoland is very close by in Carlsbad. And Sea World isn't too terribly far (are we allowed to be fans of Sea World again now that they're ramping down their orca programs?) but I wouldn't recommend visiting on weekdays due to traffic in both directions.

Overall, there is just a ton of fun stuff to do at and nearby this resort. We all had a great time.

Bottom Line


Six years after being converted from a Four Seasons, the Park Hyatt Aviara remains a high end true family friendly resort hotel. The service standard is very high and interactions with staff was uniformly outstanding with a genuine "it is my pleasure" attitude. Unlike the Four Seasons Aviara Residence Club next door, the Park Hyatt Aviara can be booked using points.

Although both properties have their strengths for family vacations I think the Residence Club is better for week-long stays (it feels like every day is Saturday and there are no chores) the Park Hyatt nicely fills in the gaps for shorter stays with more flexible booking terms.

Award availability at the Park Hyatt (for standard rooms using all points or cash + points) is quite good, but access to suites is limited - perhaps artificially so by the hotel since they've carved out a unique class of suites with few rooms. It's a solid use of Hyatt points at around 2 cents per point, but far from one of the best redemptions out there.

That said I'll gladly return to both the Park Hyatt Aviara and the Four Seasons Residence Club as well. We've enjoyed every single visit to the area and it continues to be one of my Top 3 Vacation Destinations.

4.5 out of 5 Stars: Outstanding

Follow me on Instagram where I've been mostly posting travel related stuff lately or on Twitter (also @RobertDwyer) where I tend to talk more about points, miles & wine. Or drop me an email if you want to keep it on the downlow.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

4 Unusual Ways to Save Money at Whole Foods Market

Whole Foods Market has a reputation for costing more other grocery stores. While it may be true that Whole Foods commands a premium relative to conventional grocers, a lot of people decide it's worth it. If you do your regular grocery shopping at Whole Foods Market here are 4 ways I've found to save money on your purchases...

1. ApplePay with Discover [20% back]

Through the end of 2015, Discover is offering 10% cashback on all ApplePay transactions, capped at $10,000 in purchases. On top of that Discover is offering to double the cashback the first year for new account holders. If you're an existing Discover card holder you can call them and ask for the double cashback promo to be added to your account.

Not a Discover cardholder? Here's my referral link. $50 for you, $50 for me after your first purchase:
http://bit.ly/1Lws0k6

2. Earn by Microsoft [5% back towards the Microsoft Store, on top of credit card rewards]

This is a program where you connect your Visa/Mastercards to the Earn by Microsoft rewards program. Rewards can be redeemed for merchandise at the Microsoft Store *on top* of the rewards your credit card earns. That's stacking, and you know I love stacking.

The program is currently offering 5% back at Whole Foods. And 10% back on Starbucks reloads.

At the Microsoft store you can buy an XBox 360, laptops, and Microsoft software. I'm not immediately in the market for any of these, but if I had a few hundred dollars racked up in savings I could surely find it useful at some point.

Here's my referral link. $10 for you, $10 for me:
https://earn.microsoft.com/?borrfc=r_EKM

Earn by Microsoft is currently only available in MA, AZ, and WA.

3. Get a credit card that bonuses grocery stores [5+%]

This is kind of a foundational tip (rather than an unusal one) but grocery stores are a commonly bonused category of credit card spend. American Express has a number of cards that heavily bonus grocery spend - especially their "Blue Cash" cards which comes in a few different varieties. Which one to get depends on how much you plan to spend at grocery stores (and gas/drugstores which are also bonused).

If you're going to spend a lot at grocery/gas/drugstores, the Blue Cash from American Express [no longer actively marketed by AmEx, try opening in an Incognito browser window if the landing page doesn't come up for you] bonuses offers 5% cashback after spending $6,500 per year. The best thing about this card is that the 5% is capped at a generous $50,000 in annual spend.

If you're going to spend less than $6,000 annually at grocery stores, the Blue Cash Preferred offers 6% cashback at supermarkets, capped at $6,000 annually. But the card comes with a $75 annual fee. If you spend $6,000 at grocery stores at 6% that's $360 which makes the annual fee worth it.

I prefer the high $50,000 cap of the "old" Blue Cash from American Express.

Another option is the Wells Fargo Visa Signature which offers 5% back on gas/grocery/drugstore the first 6 months you have the card. That's a relatively short timeframe, but there's no spending cap and earned points can be redeemed for cash back OR are worth 1.5 cents per point when redeemed for air travel through their portal. That's 7.5% back towards mile-earning air travel AND it can be stacked with Earn by Microsoft since it's a Visa. Great card.

4. Buy Whole Foods gift cards [10+% savings]

Last December in Massachusetts, Whole Foods sold their own gift cards at a 10% discount if you bought $500 or more. This is an example of where "time shifting" can save you money. If you paid in December for future purchases you'd save 10%. We'll see if the deal comes back again this year.

Another thing you could do is "category shift". For example, if you have a credit card that bonuses spend at office supply stores (like the Chase Ink business credit cards) you could buy Whole Foods Market gift cards at office supply stores and earn 5 Ultimate Rewards points for every dollar you spend. Ultimate Rewards are worth a penny a piece towards cash back. Potentially more [much more] if redeemed effectively by transferring to their travel partners like United, Hyatt or Southwest Airlines.

If neither of these angles work for you, you can always buy Whole Foods gift cards from a gift card reseller to save around 10%. You have to tote around/keep track of gift cards but depending on how much you save it can be worth it.

Update: 11/9/2015 Bonus! American Express is running a targeted AmEx Sync deal for $10 off $60.

Question of the Day: What other ways have you found to save money on purchases at Whole Foods Market?

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara Family-Friendly Review

Palmera Pool at Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara
For my money, Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara is one of the best luxury family-friendly vacation values in the United States. We just returned from a week at Aviara - the fourth time we've visited in the past decade - and I wanted to share with you what I share with friends who I talk to all the time. With so many vacation options available, we return to this property again and again even though we now live on the other side of the country.

Why Four Seasons Aviara?


Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara is a high end hotel timeshare in Carlsbad, California about 30 miles north of the San Diego airport. Aviara is one of several Residence Clubs in the Four Seasons portfolio, but is by far the largest and one of just two that are viable for week-long or shorter stays.

Four Seasons Residence Clubs combine the quality, service, and amenities Four Seasons Hotels are known for with spacious villas that make them ideal candidates for family vacations.

Aviara is an appealing destination for its near-ideal climate and proximity to southern California attractions. Legoland, Sea World, the San Diego Zoo, and Disneyland are all within an hour's drive. But the resort is so nice we often find ourselves relaxing by the pools and enjoying the spacious 1,600+ sf accommodations rather than exhausting ourselves driving all over the area.

2 Bedroom Villa Floorplan
When we're staying at Four Seasons Aviara I feel like every evening is Friday night and every day is Saturday. And there are no chores. I love it.

History


In the 1990s Four Seasons Founder Isadore Sharpe was visiting Palm Springs and noticed other hotel brands getting into the timeshare business. Hilton, Marriott, and Disney were all building successful timeshare businesses and Sharp thought Four Seasons could do it even better.

It makes sense, right? The timeshare market has historically been kind of dodgy. But when hotels put their mark on a property it gives you a sense of the standards they have and makes you more comfortable staying at unfamiliar destinations in their portfolio.

Aviara was the first Four Seasons Residence Club, followed by Scottsdale at Troon North. There are other properties in the portfolio (currently Punta Mita, Costa Rica, Jackson Hole, Vail and Florence) but the others are more like fractionals where owners commonly purchase multiple rather than single weeks. As a result, Aviara and Scottsdale are two properties to look into if you're interested in visiting these areas and you like the idea of Four Seasons quality with space to accommodate a family.

Aviara itself is a master-planned community with single family homes, condominiums, and apartments. The community is manicured and a delight to walk around, but I never would have discovered Aviara if not for Four Seasons.

In the late '90s Four Seasons developed both a hotel and the Residence Club at Aviara. But in 2010 there was a parting of ways between the owner of the hotel and Four Seasons. Unlike other hoteliers, Four Seasons doesn't own any of the properties they manage. They typically enter into multi-decade management contracts and own a small fraction of the property so they have some skin in the game.

The owner of the Aviara hotel evidently didn't like the agreement they had in place with Four Seasons and opted to break their contract and enlisted Hyatt to manage the property. In 2010, the hotel became a Park Hyatt - their top mark for resort properties around the world.

The Residence Club continues to be managed by Four Seasons.

But the split was unfortunate for Residence Club owners and guests who would no longer have access to hotel amenities like the hotel spa, tennis courts, golf course and pool. On our last stay in 2013 we were still allowed some hotel access. But on this stay in 2015 the only hotel amenity we were able to enjoy were the restaurants.

Today


When General Manager Demi Ortega arrived at Four Seasons Aviara in 2012 he set out to establish the property as a complete and self-sufficient private residence club. The Residence Club is just finishing a $6M renovation that captures this vision.

See: Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara debuts $6M renovation

There are three areas within Aviara. From top to bottom elevation-wise: Osprey, Summits, and Meadows. As part of this renovation, the Meadows area is extensively transformed. The Meadows lobby, where guests register upon arrival, was completely reconfigured and redesigned with a modern, Spanish Mission-inspired design. The gym was completely redone and now offers open-air yoga classes overlooking the new Palmera Pool. A new Driftwood Spa was developed complete with a nail salon and a full menu of spa services guests staying at the Four Seasons would expect.

The most exciting component of the renovation is the arrival of the new Seasons restaurant. Before the Hyatt split, in-villa dining was prepared within the hotel kitchens. Since the split, room service and poolside dining was prepared at small kitchens adjacent to the pools. It was a rather makeshift affair and the breadth of the menu was limited. But the debut of Seasons promises to make dining a strong suit of the property.

Rendering of Seasons restaurant at Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara
See more...
On this most recent visit, we met with Executive Chef Jonathan Sudar for a walk-through of the new restaurant spaces and kitchen a couple weeks before they were scheduled. It's going to be something special. Whereas the current menu gets tiresome after a couple of meals, the dining areas at Seasons could potentially keep things interesting for an entire week.

The space starts with a new coffee area with light breakfast items. This will be flanked by a retail wine component. Table service dining at Seasons will offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner in an amazing new space (see concept renderings here). The new menu will feature seasonal, locally sourced ingredients.

The most innovative concept is the new "Taste the Senses" experience. Reminiscent of a chef's table, the fully renovated space opens up to the Palmera pool and the kitchen, offering guests either a front row seat at one of six tall chairs or a community table that can be booked for a group of twelve. This would be a really nice celebratory component of a week-long stay. Imagine an exhibition kitchen with a view of the pool.

Once this renovation is complete, expect the same design aesthetic to be implemented at the Summits which is headed towards being the more kid-friendly of the two pool areas. In addition to the Club 760 kids room, look for a splash pad, small playground, and renovated gym in the future.

Notes from a Recent Stay


This was the first time we visited since the full split from the Park Hyatt. The grounds and room were immaculate and as gorgeous as ever. Upon arrival I'm always amazed at just how incredibly nice the place is.

Villas at Osprey within Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara
We were greeted with complimentary sparkling wine and the kids got water bottles. We requested and received a 2 bedroom unit in the Osprey section of the property with distant Pacific Ocean views and a small grass yard the kids enjoyed. The aromatic plantings, especially in spring, make walking around the property a real treat.

Highlights


Highlights of this trip included security, the housekeeping staff, and their social media team.

On our first morning there, my 10 year old son stepped on and got stung by a bee on the pool deck. I thought at first he was just frightened because he stepped on a bee but right away I could see the bee's stinger in his foot and the area around it swelling up. I asked a pool attendant for some ice to help with the swelling. They obliged and then within just a few minutes, at 8 am no less, a security guard with an amazingly kind bedside manner arrived with a sting kit. Thankfully my little guy isn't allergic to bees and the topical pain killer they provided really helped him feel better quickly. The security guard even called later in the day to personally check up. Outstanding service. Classic Four Seasons. You never know how you're going to need service at a hotel.

Housekeeping was consistently outstanding. The villa was spotless as usual upon arrival and well-timed with when we were out of the unit. Daily housekeeping is a rarity at timeshare properties and it is so nice to walk into a tidied-up villa each afternoon. Units are equipped with a washer/dryer which makes light packing for a week-long family trip a breeze. On the third day of our stay we started the clothes dryer before leaving for the day. When we returned our clothes were neatly folded on our bed! I could get used to that. So nice.

Their social media team, a new addition for this free-standing Residence Club, was ever on the lookout for ways to delights guests who engage with them on social channels. They picked up some chatter about how we enjoyed a visit from the Ice Cream Man at their Chicago property. And wouldn't you know, on the third night of our stay, build your own ice cream sundaes were delivered to our room after dinner with a note from them. Nice!

Review: Four Seasons Chicago With Kids

But is it Family-Friendly?


We were visiting during Massachusetts spring break in mid/late April which is not a vacation week for California schools. As a result there were very few kids on property. So few in fact that some of the activities we'd enjoyed in the past weren't offered. Daily nominal-fee activities like magic shows for the kids didn't occur. Due to the split with the Hyatt, the kids golf clinic wasn't an option any more. Basically, the only family-friendly activity were the [fantastic] S'Mores event and open daily access to Club 760, an unsupervised kids room with Xboxes, Wii, computers and train table for the smaller set. It works well for kids in the 8-14 year old range I'd say, after they've enjoyed the pools but grown ups might want to relax a little longer. It's a welcome addition for sure, and during peak times some counselor-driven activities are offered.

There's still plenty for families to do however. The pools are always a hit with us. The signature Four Seasons pool setup conveys here and pool service was generally very good. Upon entering the pool area, we were almost always greeted immediately and set up with towels over comfortable lounge chairs, provided ice water and menus, and attended to graciously for however long we visited. For younger guests there are 1-foot deep pools at both Summits and Meadows.

Toddler pool at The Summits
Kids Club at The Summits
While we were there, the kids were on their own at Club 760. Which is mostly fine for older kids, except for when there's a problem with a gaming console or the kids are curious where to find other titles to play. For this it would be nice to have some minimal staffing nearby at the Summits even during off-peak times. As it is, you have to call a concierge down at the Meadows which is a long walk or shuttle ride away which isn't so convenient for minor requests.

The kids were minorly disappointed they couldn't enjoy some of the amenities the Park Hyatt now controls near the Meadows. There's a small playground, croquet lawn, and tennis courts that are now off-limits. On prior visits, they also enjoyed a game-room up at the Park Hyatt hotel but on this visit, they couldn't take advantage of this due to the split.

This playground and some other kid-friendly amenities
are now exclusively for Park Hyatt guests
So if I step back and look at this through the lens of it being a kid-friendly property it's lost a step compared to prior years. And it's nowhere near as entertaining as the Four Seasons Orlando with its lazy river, dueling waterslides, pools, complimentary Kids for All Seasons program and more.

See: Four Seasons Orlando at Walt Disney World Review

But what Four Seasons Aviara continues to offer is gorgeously appointed villas with a refined residential feel, outstanding pool service, and proximity to southern California attractions in a part of the country with incredible year-round weather. These characteristics appeal to us with young kids who often travel with other family members on vacation.

With the continued innovation and improvement at the property, we'll be back. Hopefully again and again.

Getting There


Carlsbad is about 30 miles north of SAN and just under 100 miles south of LAX. One way to play it is to fly into LAX, visit some attractions there for a few days, head down to Aviara, then fly out of SAN.

When to Visit


This year we visited in April and for us the weather was nearly perfect. Each day started with substantial cloud cover but as the marine layer dissipates it became sunny and warm enough to enjoy the pool with high temperatures around 68F. Cloudier/cooler days were perfect for visiting outdoor attractions.

We've also visited in December and February and at those times we were still able to enjoy the pools most days. But on some days it was quite chilly and we were mostly bundled up in towels enjoying the ambiance rather than sunbathing.

As humans we're quite finicky in terms of allowable variation in temperature for ideal weather. But for my money San Diego weather is as good as it gets in the continental US. It's almost always a good time to visit Aviara. Here's a listing of the average monthly high temperatures in San Diego.

Things to Do


It's worth noting that Four Seasons Aviara is not on the beach. It's not even particularly close to the beach. It takes about 10 minutes to drive to the Carlsbad beach from the resort. And since I'm not a fan of lugging chairs/towels/umbrellas to the beach when I could be enjoying poolside service I've never gone to the beach in the four times we've visited Aviara.

For me, a perfect day at Aviara starts with a cup of coffee and a little web browsing. Then a walk around the beautiful masterplanned community down to the Batiquitos Lagoon. Then head out for a light-duty attraction like the Scripps Aquarium, Seaport Village, or San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Hit a restaurant for local specialties like fish tacos, Mexican food, or the latest burger phenomenon. Then back to the pool for an afternoon swim or nap. Then enjoy a glass of wine in our villa with some music in the background as the sun goes down. Then dinner - usually casual take-out from a nearby eatery like Daphne's California Greek.

Once a week I'd do something bigger like Sea World, the San Diego Zoo, Disneyland, or Legoland.

See: Tips & Tricks for discounts at Legoland and Four Seasons Aviara

Or a Padres, Angels, or Dodgers game. Once a week (usually the first night we're there) I'd do in-villa dining. And once a week I'd visit Vivace at the Park Hyatt. I really enjoy taking in the wonderful AAA Four Diamond (here's their list) dining experience just steps from the Residence Club. Our most recent visit to Vivace was even better than we remembered it. So elegant, so good.

Booking your Stay


One of my favorite things about the Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara is the many ways you can book the property. Depending on how long you'd like to stay, and how long in advance you want to book, you might be better off renting from a Residence Club owner or booking directly through Four Seasons Hotels. Here are some of the best ways I've found to book a stay...

If you're a planner or need a specific week because of vacation restrictions I'd say you're probably best off renting a week from an owner. If you're doing this for the first time you'd probably be most comfortable working with a broker. I've happily rented from timeshare broker TRI West before. Owners list their available weeks with them, the owner pays the broker a commission, and if you can find a week that works for you at a price you like it can potentially be a great deal. Although you do have to pay up front, you don't have to worry about getting fleeced by an unscrupulous scammer since you're working with a broker. The biggest risk is that you book a prepaid week and if for some reason you can't make it, you're out of luck. You could potentially try to get them to rent it to someone else but I'd say the chances of that working out well are low.

Once you get comfortable renting through a broker you might find better deals working directly with an owner. You can find rental listings on sites like VRBO and eBay but I like finding listings through RedWeek. RedWeek connects timeshare owners with people who want to rent or purchase. There's a nominal fee to join RedWeek as a renter but it's free to browse listings. There's an option to add a third party broker to rental/resale transactions on RedWeek but I've never done this and have instead worked directly with owners/brokers who list on RedWeek. I typically send half the rental amount to the owner then the remainder when I've been notified by Four Seasons Owner Services that the week has been transferred to me. Once the transfer occurs you're treated like a first rate owner for the duration of the experience. It's great. Here's the listing page for rentals on RedWeek.

My target price for a week-long 2BR rental is $2,000-$2,500. Rates tend to run higher in the summer. When comparing rental rates from an owner to Four Seasons directly keep in mind that when renting from an owner, taxes are included.

Tip: You can sometimes get amazing deals via RedWeek on short notice. Subscribe to alerts for your favorite properties especially if your travel dates are flexible.

For shorter stays it's worth considering booking directly from Four Seasons Hotels. A percentage of the inventory is available as a hotel booking and the property often offers 3rd night free deals which can significantly decrease the price of a stay. Most commonly they rent studios and 1 bedroom units, but 2 bedrooms may be available if you call. Check here for rates, availability, and offers.

When renting from Four Seasons directly you have more date and cancellation flexibility.

A tempting angle to stack with a direct hotel booking is the 4th Night Free benefit that comes with the Citi Prestige credit card. The card has a very high annual feel but the signup bonus and ongoing travel benefits make it a no-brainer if you like to travel.

See also: 10 Reasons the Chase Sapphire Preferred is the best all-around travel credit card

It has been especially handy for us to arrange concurrent visits with family through a combination of booking methods. For example, if we have a week planned far in advance, nearby family can easily book a long weekend around the same time. And we can enjoy getting together for meals in larger villas and spending time by the pool together.

Bottom Line


Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara continues to be a vacation destination we look forward to visiting again and again. If you're looking for luxurious accommodations and Four Seasons service in a residential setting in southern California it is absolutely worth considering. The property is absolutely gorgeous.

I wish there were more Four Seasons Residence Club properties like Aviara around the world. The reason I say that is because it provides a way for us to enjoy a week away in a space that comfortably accommodates us at a price I can justify in my mind.

That said, there are some fantastic Four Seasons Hotels (like Orlando) that provide a bit more in the way of family-focused amenities. You just have to give up the space Aviara offers and depending on your travel dates adjust your budget expectations.

That said we'll continue to work Aviara into our vacation rotation because every single member of our family has had a truly great time each time we've visited. It's become a special place for us and that makes each visit even more special.

Update (6/5/2016): We had a chance to go back and visit Seasons Aviara restaurant a year later. It was spectacular. Here are my thoughts on their Chefs Table.

Questions or comments? Ping me on Twitter @RobertDwyer or drop me an email.

Question of the Day: What are some of your favorite family-friendly vacation destinations? Here are 3 of my favorites.
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