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

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