As vacation approaches, parents everywhere are trying to figure out how to have a little fun for themselves while the kids drag them through theme parks and to crowded beaches.
Your solace can be a nice hotel that caters to grown-up tastes while acknowledging the needs of children.
If SeaWorld is on your summer itinerary, you'll find about a dozen hotels -- some for as little as $50 a night, others up to $500 -- near the park's Mission Bay neighborhood.
If location trumps price, the clear choice is the 430-room Hyatt Regency Mission Bay Spa and Marina, a three-minute drive from the theme park. Only Shamu sleeps closer to SeaWorld's gates.
The almost-finished $65-million renovation nicely updated the decor throughout the 17-story tower and the 76 marina-side suites.
The three new pool slides appeared to be a huge hit with the young crowd, and the new TVs and iPod docking stations will satisfy Generation E, but the new spa, an upscale restaurant, poolside lounge, the 24-hour fitness center and express checkout systems seem targeted at expense-account travelers, not families on a budget.
For my late-April stay, I brought along my 8-year-old son, Eli, so I could get the authentic children's perspective. Through a grand-opening promotion, I snagged the last of the redecorated, two-room marina suites for $289 a night.
Before the "are we there yet?" refrain began, I was greeting a friendly attendant who gave us a choice of $20 valet parking or $18 self-parking. We chose valet and later saw the car in an uncovered lot near our room.
We had other instant decisions to make. Should we check in with a real person or try out the snazzy computerized check-in kiosks? We took the human. Unlike the kiosk, the human could summon a bellman, who showed us the shortcut to our building.
In the living room of the 553-square-foot suite, a beige six-seat sectional couch surrounded a cluster of four navy leather cubes. From the couch, you can watch the 32-inch LCD flat-screen TV or gaze into the mirror suspended from leather straps. Or trade your spot for the plush sea-blue armchair, ottoman and reading lamp.
A pocket door separates the living room from the bedroom, a blaze of ultra-white bed linens, wood-slat window blinds and white-curtained sliding glass doors. The bedroom has a second TV, this a last-century set that anchors a large desk, and a comfy, king-size, pillow-top bed framed by a wicker headboard. Alas, the two-story fitness center blocked our bay-and-marina view.
In the bathroom, a skinny slab of black marble framed a single sink perched on spindly chrome legs. Go on a treasure hunt for the hair dryer and you'll find it in a tray on the closet's top shelf. Next stop: mini bar.
Parched, I was desperate for a soda. No Coke, no snacks, no mini bar, only a refrigerator stocked with two large bottles of Aquafina, $4.95 each. We moved up our dinner plans and headed to the restaurant.
Newly appointed chef de cuisine Danny Bannister has taken the menu at the bay-view Red Marlin restaurant in a sophisticated direction with organic ingredients and small plates at the lounge. Our dinner choices included a $30 Kurobuta pork chop, a $72 rib-eye for two and a $26 platter of linguine and salmon tartare. The food was fine, though pricey, particularly given the weak service.
Kids and teens may find the menu too sophisticated, and parents may blanch at paying $20 for a breakfast buffet of fruits, cereals, pastries and under- or overcooked eggs, bacon and pancakes.
One evening, I noticed that half the patrons were younger than 10. For them, there's an uninspired menu of $5 to $6 hamburgers, hot dogs and macaroni and cheese with sides of fries or celery and carrot sticks.
Hope your kids love the menu because it's the same one at lunch, at the pool, from room service and for dinner. On our second night, I didn't feel like spending $70 for a two-course dinner, soda and kid entrees so small that Eli ate two orders.
The hotel is isolated from other restaurants. Options within walking distance took us inside other hotels or fish or taco shacks. We pressed the lone concierge (who had at least three phone calls on hold) for a better dinner option, and she guided us to Pacific Beach, a nearby neighborhood where bars proliferate.
Finding little for youngsters there after dark, we returned to the hotel, where we met two families with fast-food takeout and plans to spend the night inside.
Our fun? We took apart the sectional, pulled out the bed and rearranged the dozen throw pillows and couch cushions, a source of endless forts. No person over 60 pounds, however, should try to sleep on that mattress.
The highlight of the hotel, Eli said, was the pool and its three slides. The disappointment? Only one free-TV option for kids, the Disney Channel. At the pool, he had lots of company. The slides, a slower, shorter version than we've seen elsewhere, kept the kids occupied while the grown-ups swam relatively uninterrupted nearby.
Hotel guests, however, were forced to spread a towel on the concrete. The scarce pool lounge chairs were, instead, frequently occupied by non-hotel guests, boat owners who rent slips at the Hyatt-managed marina and then take advantage of their easy pool access.
I had a clear view of the pool action from my pedicure chair in Blue Marble, Hyatt's first eco-spa. Nail services are often where such spas abandon their eco-friendly commitment, but my $75 spa pedicure relied on SpaRitual products that are free of formaldehyde, parabens and other scary stuff.
The petite spa (five treatment rooms, two showers, one steam room) is done up in the now-standard glass tile, cool stone and soft lighting. Design gets priority: The angular pedicure chair offered little back support, and the glass foot bowl was undersized for my Sasquatch stompers.
The hotel may be best appreciated this summer, when a free boat is scheduled to begin ferrying hotel guests to a dock at SeaWorld and a coffee and bagel shop is to open. By then, the hotel may catch up with the other promises it has made: GPS watches that can guide your hikes, more yoga sessions ordered through the TV and airline boarding passes printed out at a self-serve station.
For now, though, it's a hotel learning that the stuff of great family vacations is, in fact, kid stuff.
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How it rates
New and noteworthy: A $65-million renovation has added an eco spa, new pools and slides and pleasantly freshened room decor, landscaping and a restaurant-lounge.
The stay: A big, corporate hotel offers the latest resort must-haves for business and leisure travelers.
The scene: Mostly young families launching mini vacations, often to SeaWorld, from the hotel's home base.
Deal maker: Great new slides at the renovated pool, nice bay views.
Deal breaker: You'll be heading off-site for meals, entertainment and beach sports given the limited access and options at the hotel.
Stats: 1441 Quivira Road, San Diego; (619) 224-1234, www.hyatt.com.
Rates: Rooms begin at $399, suites at $525.
Green touches: Pale. The hotel employs eco-conscious spa products, and an in-room notecard advises that linens may not be replaced daily.
Rating is based on the room, service, ambience and overall experience with price taken into account in relation to quality.
* * * * * Outstanding on every level
* * * * Excellent
* * * Very good
* * Good
No Star: Poor
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