Weekend Trip: JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort

It used to be that the parents could go away to golf, chill, and dine in luxury or they could take the kids to the place where little ones are given the impression that the whole world was designed for them. The JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort combines both options. Golf predominates for adults, with not one but two TPC (Tournament Players Club) 18-hole courses designed by Pete Dye and Greg Norman exclusively serving resort guests. The centerpiece of activities for kids is a six-acre water park named the River Bluffs Water Experience where you’ll find a 650-foot rapid river ride, multiple water slides, 1,100 ft. lazy river, children and adult pools, whirlpools, and an expansive activity pool. These, and a host of other amenities (about more of which below), are not only the province of families, who tend to fill the weekends. During the week, the resort switches identities to become one of the leading corporate retreat locations in Texas. It is one of the few places where a Hewlett Packard, or a Yahoo, can bring thousands of employees.

To find out how adults can enjoy a weekend at the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort we recently visited  as guests of the resort with the singular intention of relaxing.

Day One: Friday

2pm: Arrive from Dallas. We drove down on account of the enigmatic beauty of I-35. It took about five hours including stops. My new favorite road is the TX-130 toll way from Georgetown to Buda. It replaces with a $7 one-hour ride what used to be a week crawling through Austin traffic. It even reads your NTTA toll tag. However, San Antonio airport is easy to get to for those who prefer to fly.

We are somewhat lost at the scale of the resort property. From the front entrance, it is over a half mile to the main building where you check in. I am anonymous at this point so the empathy shown by the doorman handling traffic at my request to park right outside the front door while I check in is genuine. Fortunately, every Marriott employee seems to be assigned to the check in desk at that point in time and the process is a no-wait breeze. They expect a capacity crowd this Easter weekend. Every room is taken. Luckily, we are early enough that I can find a free self-park spot half way down the hill. That is the last time I shall see the car until we leave.

Our room is on the ninth floor with a floor-to-ceiling window that affords a spectacular view over one of the golf courses. Strictly, this is the “AT&T Oaks Course” designed by Greg Norman (on one of his days off from making wine, developing housing, growing turf, opening restaurants or getting divorced). From my room it looks as if the AT&T Oaks Course is fortunately not as crowded as AT&T’s data network. Beyond the fairways is the Texas Hill Country and I notice that the resort is on an outcrop so it looks down over the variegated green of the Hill Country foliage which is like a carpet below. Perhaps I will spend all weekend staring out of the window?

Our room is similar in size and facilities to what you would get in a Marriott hotel. We don’t have a balcony, although many rooms do. If you want, you can stay in one of the suites which range in size from 900 up to 2,300 sq. ft. and are lavishly decorated, mainly in Hill Country themes.

Crooked Branch Lobby

3pm: We meet a Marriott representative for a facilities tour. One of the other press peeps along for it is Christopher Wynn from Dallas who says he writes for the Dallas Morning News. I apologize for not having heard of it, but it must be very nice for the person who does read it.

Our tour begins in the massive Crooked Branch lobby where cars pull up on one side and guests walk to-and-fro on the other. At one end is the main restaurant for the resort, Cibolo Moon, where buffet breakfasts and à la carte dinners are served. We will be returning here later. Off to one side of the lobby runs a corridor where there are some of the commercial operations: A TPC golf shop, a FedEx office, a Starbucks coffee house and a Segway rental office (more on that below). Further down are escalators that adjust for the hillside as we go past ballrooms larger than Rhode Island. This is where Yahoo built a track for electric go-karts for their young geek-centric employee workforce. Out the back here is the other golf course, the AT&T Canyons Course, which we walk past along the many footpaths that ring the buildings.

River Bluffs Water Experience

Further round we reach the River Bluffs Water Experience, a six acre water park with 650-foot rapid river ride, multiple water slides, 1,100 lazy river, children and adult pools, whirlpools and an expansive activity pool. I suggest to our guide that this is just too good to allow children on it. Make it adult-only for the weekend. He gives me an ambiguous response.

5:30pm: I am in the bar at Cibolo Moon where Will Peniche, Lead Restaurant Supervisor and resort Tequila Ambassador, is to guide me through a tasting of the Blue Agave nectar. The guy is a star so I am posting a separate video of his class on SideDish in the next couple of days. The reason for this tasting is that Cibolo Moon has earned a special award from the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (Regulatory Council of Tequila) the Distintivo T Agave de Oro for its level of commitment. The CRT is the organization responsible for regulating the tequila industry standards in every step of the production process as well as to promote the tequila culture, quality, and education.  To receive the award, representatives from the CRT came to the restaurant to teach an 8-hour long course on everything tequila, which was followed up by an exam in which over 80% of the staff had to score an 80/100 or above to become certified. To date, Cibolo Moon is one of only 15 restaurants in the United States and the only one in Texas with the CRT’s Distintivo T Award.

We work our way from blancos to añejos, straight and in cocktails. For me, it’s a refreshing change from wine. I learn that tequila, like wine, has a designated area of origin system (like appellation controlée or AVA) and I conclude that I will look out for añejo and extra añejo tequilas as they seem to have more complexity and a soft vanillin character that offsets the fiery impact of young spirit dominant in many tequila blancos.

Afterwards, I feel charged-up for the next event!

7:30pm: We have a dinner reservation at 18 Oaks. This is the resort’s high-end restaurant, situated in the club house for the TPC. The menu is unmistakably New American with an emphasis on steak. On the menu they proudly list the names of local suppliers and state their commitment to local, organic and sustainable. I chose the house’s pièce de résistance – the 32 oz Tomahawk, a 28-day dry-aged bone-in rib-eye named after the unmistakable outline formed by the blade of the bone. Luckily, the table is large as this cross between food item and self defense device stretches well out of one chair’s width. If menu writers can describe entries as ’playful’ (have you ever played softball with a scallop?) then this dish could be called ‘loquacity inducing’ as everyone had something to say about it (much not printable).

We also have the Windy Bar Ranch Short Ribs. These were succulent, oozing with meaty flavor, and they had a fall-apart-in-the-mouth texture as a result of the slow-cooking. We paired both entrées with à la carte vegetables: asparagus and cream spinach. Our earlier appetizers had included Beef Carpaccio (also from Windy Bar Ranch) spiked with mustard, celery and capers. Also, a respectable baby spinach salad which contained pear, pecorino, house-cured pancetta and poached egg.

From the extensive wine list we enjoyed a Plumpjack Cabernet from Napa.

Day Two: Saturday

Cibolo Moon Restaurant

8:30am: Breakfast in Cibolo Moon. This is a buffet as extensive as almost any one can find. I have a policy to test brunch places by their Eggs Benedict. It is easy to mess up (the eggs have uncooked whites or the yolks are hard) so it tests their care in execution. Also, do they cut corners with ingredients. E.g. not making the hollandaise fresh, but using ‘growler hollandaise’ – yellow chemical from a tube/can/bucket instead. What about the muffin? Does it have the right springiness in the dough? Is it not too sweet, and is it just lightly toasted? And the meat: it is easy to substitute something that is ‘supermarket refrigerator bland’, what with all the other flavors at work. It should be distinctively flavored ham or Canadian bacon. On this score, JW’s EB does fairly well, and the orange juice is fresh too.

11:00am: It is Spa time. The Lantana Spa is a neo-Grecian structure with an eerie calm and quiet to it. I think the calmness is a result of their only being indirect light. We have a couple’s massage in which my masseur turns out to be an expellee from the very same Mafia that does the valet service at Park (and expelled from the organization for human rights violations as well). An hour later I pick up my disembodied limbs and struggle out. Fortunately there is the pool and it turns out that the spa is the only facility at the resort that is off limits to children, making for a very different atmosphere from the water park.

12:30pm: This weekend is very busy and the water park is crowded. The main attraction is the lazy river to which access is rationed by the number of tubes. If you can’t find a tube, you have to wait for someone else to relinquish one. This wait looks long, so we pass on the water park on this trip.

3pm: Instead, we check out something unusual that turns out to be, by some measures, the find of the weekend: Segway rental.  The rental is actually an organized class. Around 16 of us learn how to get on, and stay on, the ungainly ‘personal transportation devices’ and spend an hour touring the resort grounds, convoy fashion. It’s a bit like the experience of first learning to ride a bike in that it feels very unstable at first, and then you just get the hang of it. The Segway’s do about 12 mph, so it is like running round the resort – but with no effort.

7:30pm: Wander over to Cibolo Moon for dinner where the breakfast cavern has been converted, by means of a few discrete furniture movements and door closings, into the main evening meal restaurant.  Not as expensive as 18 Oaks, the menu might be described as “Unscary Hill Country Cooking”. I have an appetizer of grilled Texas quail (with roasted peach, spring mix greens and spiced maple vinaigrette), others in our party have bacon-wrapped scallops (with shaved fennel apple salad), smoked brisket “burnt ends” (with Brazos Valley Blue Cheese and flour tortillas) and tequila shrimp (red chile agave and BBQ onions). All familiar heartwarming stuff. The theme is the same in the main course but the quantities are more daunting. We work through (and box) Char Grilled Ribeye with Baked Potato, Smoked Baby Back Ribs with Texas Pit Beans, Redfish on the Half Shell with Red Chili Butter Smear and Seasonal Vegetables, and bison meatloaf (with Brazos Valley Mac & Cheese) which appeared to be made from a whole bison. Afterwards, a walk around the building is required to digest some of this. There are little tables around the lobby that double as screens for video games and they are very popular right now with parents remembering their ‘inner child’ and children trying to get their parents to forget putting them to bed so early.

We check out the fish ponds one more time and then, since we are at an exotic resort, we go back to the room and watch TV – exhausted.

Day Three:Sunday

10:30am: A one mile jog past the golf course and then back to 18 Oaks, site of our Friday night dinner. We are confronted by a feast of a different ilk. It is brunch, on an esthetic level that would have thrilled those classical still life painters if only, for them, there was still life. At every station the composition is as important as the cooking and it feels sinful to mess up the arrangement, as though it will disturb the Tao. 18 Oaks has stations for (house-baked) breads, seafood, charcuterie and desserts and manned stations for carved meat and omelets. I gorge mainly on raw oysters and smoked salmon, figuring they don’t have any calories.

1:00pm. This isn’t the Hotel California, so we must check out – and leave. Due to our own designs we have created the most hectic relaxing weekend we have had for ages. But you could just lay by the pool in the spa sipping ice teas all weekend if you wanted to. Our journey back will be a cinch because we will take the excellent Texas 2-lane blacktops that parallel I-35 on which there are all kinds of interesting small towns and grand Hill Country vistas. We will pause our trip at Duchman Estate Winery, in Driftwood, and rejoin the freeway near Temple, making the journey it seem much shorter. And soon, we will return to the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort.

Seafood Station
Bread & Pastries Station
Dessert Station