Introduction: A Mother-Son Trip To Big Sur!

Filed Under: Alaska, Hotels

This past week I took my mom on a last minute trip to Big Sur, California. In this post I wanted to provide some background on that trip, before getting into the actual reviews of flights and hotels.

The motivation for this trip

My mom is the bravest person I know — she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer nearly two years ago, and has been such an incredible fighter. She basically spent the year before coronavirus going through chemo and recovering from surgeries, and then coronavirus hit, so she was locked in her home even longer.

We’ve done what we can to spend as much quality time together as possible — for example, we spent quite a bit of time together in Germany last fall. Of course a priority has been keeping my mom safe from coronavirus, and fortunately she was vaccinated at the beginning of the year.

While we have some family travel planned for the coming weeks, last week we did something really special. My mom only had a single doctors appointment first thing Monday morning, and otherwise didn’t have anything for the week, which is rare. She was also feeling relatively good, so we took advantage of that, and I planned a mother-son trip just for us.

My mom and I have had so many amazing trips together over the years. Growing up I remember traveling every summer with her to Germany to see family, and then we’d always visit some new countries in Europe. I remember when I graduated high school and we visited New Zealand and Australia together, and absolutely loved it. That’s only the tip of the iceberg of the amazing travel memories I have with her, and I’m excited for those to continue.

The hotels we stayed at

Ford and I stayed at Alila Ventana Big Sur in late 2019, and loved the hotel. It’s my favorite points hotel in the US. Since then the property has only become better, as stays here now include all meals, and the same number of points are required.

Award availability can be tough to come by at this hotel, though as I started to look at where we could go, I noticed this hotel had award availability for three nights the same week. I immediately booked, and applied a Globalist suite upgrade award to confirm a suite upgrade — can’t beat that!

Alila Ventana Big Sur suite

In total we spent five nights in hotels:

  • We landed at SFO late at night, so I booked a night at the Grand Hyatt SFO, which I’ve been wanting to check out; I booked this for ~$180
  • We then spent three nights at Alila Ventana Big Sur, which I booked for 30,000 points per night
  • We then spent a night at the Hyatt Highlands Carmel, since the Alila only had award availability for three nights, and this hotel is also closer to Carmel, which we wanted to check out; I had heard good things about this hotel, though I am so confused in retrospect, so stay tuned for that review (did I accidentally end up at the wrong hotel?)

The Grand Hyatt SFO is plane spotting heaven

I knew my mom would love this trip — even though she can’t hike, she loves nature and being outside, and the weather forecast looked perfect.

Fun times with mom at Alila Ventana Big Sur

The flights we traveled on

Let me share our flights in the order in which I booked them. The return flight was obvious — Alaska Airlines flies nonstop from San Francisco to Tampa on Saturdays, so we booked that. There was award availability, so I could redeem 25,000 American AAdvantage miles for my mom’s seat, while I booked a paid first class fare for ~$600 for myself, as that would count towards American Airlines AAdvantage status.

Alaska Airlines 737 first class

The outbound was a bit trickier. Alaska Airlines does fly from Tampa to San Francisco on Mondays (the day we were flying), but it was too early, as my mom had an appointment that morning.

I wanted to find the most comfortable and quick routing possible, so I ended up booking us on United from Tampa to San Francisco via Chicago. Why? The Chicago to San Francisco flight was scheduled to be operated by a Boeing 787-8 with new Polaris seats, and I knew my mom would appreciate the ability to rest for that late night flight.

Mom enjoying the United Polaris seat

This will be a different kind of trip report

While this trip report will have several installments, it’s going to be somewhat untraditional, at least compared to my usual trip reports:

  • I won’t fully review the flights, but rather will just share my take on the service being offered by both airlines in light of coronavirus
  • I wrote a detailed review of Ventana Big Sur when I stayed there in 2019, so I’ll have reviews specifically focused on the suite we stayed in (which is the standard suite at the hotel), as well as the new all-inclusive dining model at the hotel
  • I’ll be fully reviewing the Grand Hyatt SFO and Hyatt Highlands Carmel — I absolutely adored one of the hotels, while the other was my most disappointing Hyatt stay in… maybe forever?

Hyatt Highlands Carmel, the worst Category 7 Hyatt property?

Bottom line

My mom and I had an unforgettable trip to California this past week, and I can’t wait to share the details. Not only did we love the trip as such, but most importantly we got to spend so much time together.

I’ll be rolling out this review pretty quickly (as you can tell, I’ve been going full steam ahead on reviews lately, and hopefully that’s something you guys are enjoying).

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned!

  1. Isn’t the Hyatt Highlands Carmel the one that Live and Let’s Fly makes an annual pilgrimage to? Curious to ready why that one was such a shocker this time around…

  2. Looking forward to reading all about the trip! When were you back at Ventana? My wife and I were just there this past weekend and had a magnificent stay!

  3. @ Matt — Happy to hear you and your wife had a great stay! We were there Tuesday through Friday, so probably just missed you.

  4. @ Willem — Yep, and that was one of the reasons I had high hopes, because he said it was his favorite Hyatt in California. It’s possibly my least favorite Hyatt I’ve stayed at anywhere in terms of expectations vs. reality (and it goes beyond all dining at the hotel being closed).

  5. Looking forward to the full series! Glad you were able to spend quality time with your mom. What a trooper, given the past 2 years she’s endured!

  6. We checked in Thursday, got to dinner late and Friday breakfast late (both thanks to lingering work stuff), so must’ve just missed you. Definitely would’ve said hi and introduced myself if we saw you. Next time!

  7. Oh no more people finding about the Ventana is surely gonna drive the price up haha. Looking forward to the review even though i know the publicity will make it tougher to redeem points for it.

  8. Very nice to see pics of your mom enjoying herself. Glad that you were able to have a nice time. I’m sure she loved the special together time.

  9. What a wonderful way to spend some time with your mom. Carmel is a beautiful area, and we love going there. Looking forward to the trip reports.

  10. Have a short stay booked at Ventana Big Sur later this year (have never been), so looking forward to your full review.

    Between Grand Hyatt SFO and Hyatt Highlands Carmel, from Hyatt heaven to Hyatt hell?

    Were you playing Rummy Cube with your mom? Who won? 🙂

  11. Looking forward to this review! My wife and I got lucky and booked a points rate at Ventana last summer, and ended up staying during the first week the hotel was back open and doing the all inclusive deal. Loved our stay, but there were clearly some things to work out, and I’m curious as to what they’ve done. I was running out of food to try even with a short stay and doing the picnic option one day.

  12. I overlapped with you too! I was there Thursday (day of my birthday) through Sunday. If you saw somebody changing tables from outdoor to indoor on Thursday night because it was FREEEEEEZING outside, that was me! I loved that the Japanese hot baths and the infinity hot tub were open too, and both are co-ed. I hope you made stops along the Pacific Coast Highway 1…absolutely gorgeous this weekend with the clearest blue skies!!

  13. @ Pete — Indeed the PCH is closed to the south, but that’s not an issue if coming from the Bay Area. You can even still drive nearly 30 minutes to the south before you get to the closure, so it doesn’t get in the way of enjoying the views.

  14. @ JackG — Hah, I had actually published that post after my rental car experience in SF, if that tells you anything about how it went. :p I am looking forward to my next car rental experience so I can put those tips to good use.

  15. @ Quo Vadis? — Hah, that’s exactly right, the GH SFO was incredible, while the Hyatt Highlands was… not. And yep, it’s one of my mom’s favorite games, and I’ve started to enjoy it quite a bit as well. We both seem to have winning streaks — one day I won about five games in a row, and the next day she won all the games.

  16. This is wonderful Ben- reading happy things, and seeing you and your mom enjoying the preciousness of life together it awesome! Hope you both has a wonderful trip together

  17. This made me think back to when I took my mom on a trip. She had only flown once before in her life (when I had her and dad join me at a company condo in Clearwater FL). Dad hadn’t flown since WWII.

    I had a business conference coming up in San Antonio for several days, and a short business trip to Casper, Wyoming. Dad had just passed away a month before, so I asked her if she would like to go on the trip (not wanting to leave her own her own so soon).

    She loved San Antonio and joining the others’ wives on day trips. After that part of the trip we went for a day or two in Casper. She didn’t mind some quiet time on her own (and rest) while I visited a local business. We then drove on the the the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone NP. Both which were amazing, It was very early Spring and Yellowstone had just opened up for driving traffic. We practically had the place to ourselves. A few nights at the Old Faithful Inn were great.

    The trip was great. It was ten days long, bit there was still never time to get bored, She passed a few years ago, and brought up the trip up many times.

  18. I was supposed to be there from the 20th-23rd but cancelled last minute and went to Hawaii instead. If Hwy 1 was open the whole way I would have made the stay. It’s a tough property to book with points. I lost my Mom to ovarian cancer last year, so I completely understand your stress levels. Glad to see you had an unforgettable trip!

  19. I really love that you have been able to be with your mother in Germany and now on the CA trip!

    I had the chance to take my father to Europe on his first and only time, and we had an amazing time, including us jumping off a mountain in Interlaken to parasail amidst the Alps, along with other experiences. A memory I was soon even more grateful to have been able to enjoy with my father.

    What is that game you were playing with your mom? I was only introduced to it last November while on vacay in Turks and Caicos with friends, and quickly became an addict, but I don’t remember the name of it?

  20. Carmel Highlands is all about the location. Yes the property was in need of upgrade (when I stayed a few years ago). But the view of Point Lobos from my room and “balcony” easily made it one of my fav stays ever.

  21. There are two separate parts of the Hyatt Highlands Inn, a hotel and a residence club (timeshare). Two very different parts. If you have Hyatt Residence Club points (NOT Hyatt hotel points), you can reserve a one bedroom or two bedroom residence, extremely cost effectively. Especially if you can get an ocean view residence.

  22. Ben, I’m horrified! Allow me to apologize for your poor stay at the Carmel Highlands. While the hotel has no business being a Cat 7 property (especially when Ventana is such a particular juxtaposition so close by), I love the views, the townhouse with full kitchen, fireplace, and the staff in the restaurant (currently closed). I agree that the decor is particularly drab and if you did not get an upgrade, the standard room is downright depressing. So sorry you had a bad stay.

  23. @Lucky you were so very close to the Carmel Valley Ranch, any particular reason you didn’t stay there? It’s one of Hyatt’s more unique and IMHO among its very best properties. Just 10 minutes or so to Point Lobos/Big Sur, great restaurant fare especially for Globalists, free s’Mores every night, and 500 acres of socially distanced fun. We visited for the first time last August, but loved it so much we’ve been four times now.

  24. How great you were able to go on this trip! I actually was on the almost identical trip, but opposite order (3 nights at Big Sur, and SFO on the way out). We used points and burned a suite upgrade, and they further upgraded us to a Big Sur Villa, which was pretty awesome.

    I actually saw you two on the pool deck having lunch and thought I recognized you! I didn’t say hi, because I didn’t want to be a nuisance.

    I actually do wonder- I assume you get recognized by readers a fair amount- does anyone ever introduce themselves, and how do you manage that? Is it an annoyance, or do you get a kick out of it?

  25. @ GC — Awesome to hear you got a further upgrade, congrats! By all means please say hi next time. While I’m an introvert, I’m always grateful to be able to meet and thank OMAAT readers in person.

  26. @ Kendor — It was sold out, which is a reason I didn’t even consider that. That being said, even if it weren’t sold out I probably would have still booked the Hyatt Highlands, based on what I had heard about it previously. But after my experience, I’d absolutely give the other property a try next time.

  27. @ Matthew — Hah, you of course don’t need to apologize. That’s part of the fun of these reviews, how people can have vastly different experiences. The views are indeed amazing, but I was just in disbelief at the state of much of the property, including our standard room.

  28. Can’t wait for the report! My wife and I are heading to alila this weekend, a much needed getaway.

  29. Yeah!! Trip reports are back! Extra special trip with your MOM.
    PS if I saw you in my travels , I would totally fangirl out. ( even though I am too old to use that word)

  30. Nice trip with your mom. Can’t help but notice that once again you were very “lucky” to find that almost impossible award reservation for just exactly the dates you need. My hotel award searches always show no available dates anywhere in the schedule, much less for the exact dates I would prefer.

  31. Glad to see your mom doing better, and hope you two have many years and many trips ahead of you!

    On a less positive note, I look forward to the Carmel roasting.

  32. I am intrigued by the Carmel Highlands review. We almost booked it last fall whilst deciding whether to go the long way from SJC down to the Belmond at Santa Barbara or the more direct route. We decided not to book on the basis that a) the rooms looked drab and b) there was no restaurant service, glad we avoided it.

    You dodged a bullet with Carmel Valley Ranch (which is owned by the same operator as the Ventana)- I was very underwhelmed by it when we last visited but maybe my expectations were too high.

    Suite was average but had a nice car park view. Service slow and poor on multiple occasions….cold breakfast (seriously at least put it under a heat lamp!), 30 mins to bring a check despite multiple reminders, room not ready at 5pm when we checked in, requests for crib and sofa bed to be made up ignored (requested at 6pm, finally happened at 10pm).

    The resort appears to be the hang out of choice for local residents which is fine but when it comes to dinner reservations, in my view, it all got a bit mad. The resort has one proper dinner restaurant. Why you allow a situation where hotel residents can’t get a reservation for dinner is beyond me. Surely any decent hotel ensures at least a couple of tables are held back for hotel guests who arrive without having rung to make a dinner reservation? We weren’t the only hotel guests turned away. Maybe I am off base but I would expect a “luxury hotel” to ensure its guests can get a dinner in the only restaurant operating.

  33. Talking about points maximization, a stay in a one bedroom residence at the Hyatt Highlands Inn could cost you about $100 per night, and in a two bedroom residence about $140 per night. If you really maximize the Hyatt Residence Club points. Even better value at their Maui property. I am surprised nobody covered timeshare points on this blog. It seems very few people really know how to maximize those points.

  34. I had a dismal experience at the Hyatt Carmel Highlands. Just about everything that could have went wrong from a service perspective did. Intrigued to see your report.

  35. So wonderful to read. I’m glad you both got to make the trip.

    This is why being able to travel shouldn’t be trivialised. Our lives and being able to live and enjoy them with the people we love matters.

  36. I own a timeshare at the Hyatt Highlands Inn. The timeshare part of the property is amazing with washer/dryer, fireplace and full kitchen. The “hotel” portion of Highlands Inn leaves a lot to be desired.

  37. Looks like a wonderful mother/son trip! I’m sure she had an amazing time!

    We did the Alila Big Sur back in November and had the best time (redeemed points directly for the Big Sur Suite for 4 nights, I think you might have stayed in the exact same room since I believe they only have 1 or 2 of those).

    Incredible food and staff, and we made a point of having our breakfast as early as possible in the morning to snatch this same corner table your mom is sitting at 🙂 Watching the sunrise with the oh so amazing breakfast was probably the highlight of our day. Can’t wait to return!
    Side note, Rummikub brings back all the childhood memories camping with my parents hah!

  38. PCH in March!! Wasn’t it cold? We visited in May 2019 and found it to be chilly. While our stay wasn’t anything to rave about, we loved the view from our balcony. I think that is the only selling point of the hotel. However, we still have nightmares about the trip as some jackass slashed all four tires of our rental car while it was parked roadside and we were gone hiking. I hope you had better experience.

  39. Native Californian here–it’s just “PCH” with out the article attached to it. Do not say “The PCH.” I don’t know why, it just is.

    Looking forward to the Trip Report…

  40. We took a coastal trip last year from LA to Napa with a night in Carmel. We looked @ the Hyatt, but stayed @ the Tickle Pink right next door. The views from our room were spectacular.

  41. Hi pal,

    Wish you and your mama all the luck in the world! Cancer ain’t a nice beast, I know it first hand….. Give her all the love she deserves.

    A great hug from Italy (too few visits here!),

  42. @ CraigTPA — Hah, nope, Winston and Ford stayed behind (though I’m sure Winston would have loved Ventana Big Sur — so many trees to “mark,” and so much to sniff).

  43. @ Ole — Sorry to hear about the tires being slashed, that’s awful. It was definitely on the cool side, but there were heat lamps at the restaurant, and when it was sunny it felt quite warm outside. When driving around during the day I felt like the weather was perfect.

  44. You’re a good son, Ben. And sounds like you have a good Mom. Hope for good results from your Mom’s treatments.

  45. I haven’t been through there for almost 30 years, but it is one of the truly magical places on earth. One of the best visual representations of it is in The Sandpiper ( Vincente Minnelli, 1965, with Taylor/Burton; memorable for its theme, The Shadow of Your Smile as much as its cinematic quality).
    There is ( at least used to be…) a great restaurant there , Nepenthe (?), high on the hill, the original building of which was owned by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth ( but they got divorced, sold it and it became a restaurant in the late ‘40s)

  46. Thanks Ben. We had similar experience, no issue when it was sunny. Learnt my lesson that day to never honk someone even-if you are right. Luckily, an older couple who had hiked with us saw us stressed out and gave us a ride to Nepenthe where we finally got cell coverage and was able to call 911. First time ever, we got a ride in a cop car and ended up being in a chase as well, which was interesting.

    Loved PCH, hope to go there someday again. Glad you had a nice time

  47. Sounds great Ben. I have a trip booked next month for our 25th anniversary. Decided to splurge on “Vista Suite”, 60K points but I hope worth it for a special occasion.

    And as a nit picker to other posters, Highway 1 at Big Sur is not “PCH”. Sorry had to say it.

  48. Ben, How long is too long at Ventana Big Sur ?
    We have two back to back five night award stays booked in late September. Big Sur suite using points and Suite Upgrade awards. Yep, 10 days total. Booked both with the idea we probably will cancel one. But, maybe not.
    We are more your Mother’s age, than yours.
    After our second Vaccination in Early March, before the Spring Break crowd, we flew from Virginia to Miami Beach and spent 7 relaxing days sitting on our balcony at the W South Beach. Mostly just sat, enjoyed the view, went out to dinner, and streamed a few movies at night.
    Most people say there’s not a lot to do at Ventana, and a few nights is enough.
    We could drive to Carmel a few times for lunch, and try a few restaurants along PCH.
    What do you think?

  49. Native Monterey County guy – we usually just call it Highway 1 around these parts and SR 1 road signs in Monterey County are labeled Cabrillo Highway.

    PCH is a SoCal term and tends to be used by travel writers for the entirety of California State Route 1.

    By state legislature the name Pacific Coast Highway applies to SR 1 in Orange, Los Angeles, and Ventura County. Although I think there is a Pacific Coast Highway SR 1 sign around Pismo Beach in San Luis Obispo County.

  50. @ Ben, Glad you had a great trip with your mom. The only posts better than ones with Winston are the posts with your mom!

  51. This is so wonderful Lucky! It’s thanks to your report that my wife and I visited Ventana in Feb for 4 nights on points with 25% discount. It was incredible and I’m so grateful! What a wonderful place to spend time with your mom.

  52. So glad you and your mom had a great visit! So important to spend time with our loved ones when we can. And what a beautiful spot to do it!

    I love Big Sur – it is a magical spot and there is no where else on Earth quite like it imho. Was just at Ventana for 6 nights for my birthday in early March. Best use of points and globalist upgrade I have found.

    For those considering and you can find availability, 3-4 nights is probably sufficient. The menu gets repetitive after a while

  53. Does Ventana have rooms with 2 beds (want to take an elderly relative but not share a bed…:).
    Never see availability for less than 48,000 pts

  54. I live in Montetey and had a fun staycation at Highlands Inn on February 27th. The room was underwhelming, but the view and wood burning fireplace made up for it. I did receive back my 25% points but still have not received my 2 qualifying nights (even after calling Hyatt 3 times). I have a 3 night booking at Ventana end of September (which is typically our best weather). Looking forward to your SFO Grand Hyatt review. I adore that property! I’m currently hoarding my points for Calala Island in 2022. Thank you Lucky for all the great tips and reviews!!

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to participate in the discussion, please adhere to our commenting guidelines. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Reminder: OMAAT comments are changing soon. Register here to save your space.