Club Mediterranee has just opened its first U.S. vacation village, but it's nothing like the sun-and-sin image which, fairly or not, most Americans have of the famous French resort chain.
This Club Med is a ski resort, and maybe that makes the difference. Compared to the swinging beach villages on Guadeloupe and Martinique, this club is relatively sedate.
No topless sunbathing, no strip parties, no feeling of imminent orgy. And just to quash a current joke, no nude skiing.
"I didn't know what to expect," said Lois Costo, an attractive New Yorker who spent a week here at the club. "I had visions of everybody going to the disco half naked, maybe, and I was a bit apprehensive. But there was none of that, and no pressure. If you wanted to make friends, you could. If you didn't, you weren't pushed. The club was fantastic."
That doesn't mean there wasn't any action here. Mix a lot of young adults with cocktail hours, dancing disco and other group activities, and things start to sparkle fairly quickly. What there wasn't, however, were the excesses that in the past gave a couple of the Club Med villages elsewhere a "wide open" reputation -- though it should be noted that in recent years officials have made a serious effort to improve the image and woo families.
Guests here so far this winter have been mostly ski-minded young Americans, with a sprinkling of a few foreign groups, the same as you would find in any other ski resort.
What is different about Club Med is that it is a self-contained resort providing for every need of its guests from food to entertainment. Its aim is to free the guest from his normal environment and worries and let him enjoy his vacation totally.
From the moment you are greeted at check-in time with a cool drink and driving stereo sounds, you know this is not home. Check your money and your valuables in the club's bank, you are told. The door to your room doesn't lock, except from the inside. Besides, you won't need money unless you go to town.
Once you're in the club, just about every need is taken care of -- and prepaid as part of your package price. That includes your accommodations (double occupancy, and if you're travelling single, they'll put a roommate of the same sex in your room), three meals a day with unlimited wine at lunch and dinner, all sports activities and all in-house entertainment.
The only thing you'll pay extra for is drinks, boutique purchases and ski equipment rentals. Ski lessons and lift tickets are free, part of your package deal. Drinks are paid with coupons purchased in booklets ahead of time. (The Caribbean and other warm-weather clubs use beads, but Club Med has found that skiers lose them on the slopes.)
You might think that because food comes as part of the package, it will be mediocre. It isn't. The meals have been excellent and the choice is wide. Breakfast and lunch are buffet-style, and you can have a steak for lunch, for instance, or any of a number of other dishes. Dinner is sit-down, and with the three meals you'll probably put on a few pounds during a week's stay.
One way the club promotes togetherness is in its meal sittings. You are seated eight to a table as you enter the dining room, a different eight every meal, which means you soon get acquainted with your fellow guests. The GOs (gentils organiseurs, or Club Med staffers) dine with you and indeed join in all club activities. There is no master-servant relationship at Club Meds -- another way in which the club tries to divorce you from your normal way of life.
In warm-weather villages, daytime activities are many and varied, from snorkeling and sunning to tennis and hiking. But here and at other winter villages, everything revolves around skiing. Each morning you head for the slopes, returning for lunch around 11 or 11:30 a.m., then return at 2 p.m. for another two hours on Copper Mountain's 40 miles of ski runs serviced by 10 lifts.
Apres-ski cocktail hour is quieter here than at summer villages, probably because four hours of skiing leaves you pleasantly tired and the high altitude (9,600 feet at the base, 12,050 feet at the summit) means that one drink has the effect of two.
Although this is its first fully owned U.S. village, Club Med has not changed its modus operandi. "We do have more Americans working here than at other villages," said Gregg Russell, the chef du village, as the club calls its resort manager. "But then, it is Club Med policy to hire natives of the country in their villages."
Russell himself is such a native, from Iowa. "I'm Club Med's token American," he says, laughing. But it is obvious he was put in charge of this U.S. club because he knows American ways, and Americans make up the majority of this club's clientele.
One difference American guests notice immediately here is the size of the rooms. They're small. No, that's charitable. They're tiny. Russell explains it this way: "You're not expected to spend much time in your room. That's part of the Club Med concept."
In any case, your room will have twin beds, a dresser, mirror, wall closet, bathroom and not much space between any of them. As one guest, Debbie Tribett of Annandale, Va., said, "You have to be very good friends with your roommate to live in such close quarters for a week."
Guests here are housed in four towers ranging from five to seven stories. All public rooms are on the ground floor, and it's a short walk of perhaps a block to the nearest lift. Copper Mountain's shuttle bus, which runs about every 10 minutes, will take you to any destination in the base complex. Another free shuttle operates between the three ski towns of Copper, Breckenridge and Keystone, which have a cooperative lift-ticket arrangement.
One of the few aspects of Club Med that has remained controversial here is its ski school. Club Med's school teaches the French method, using long skis, while American ski schools teach the GLM (graded-length method), which starts skiers on short skis. Club Med instructors can teach on Copper Mountain but not yet on the others nearby, partly because of the disagreement over teaching methods but also because the Americans resent Club Med having its own school.
Because inflation ate up some of its mortgage money, Club Med did not build everything it has planned here. It does not have a pool or a jacuzzi, nor does it have summer-type recreation facilities such as tennis courts. Because of this, the club will be open only during the winters for the next two years, closing in mid-April, until the summer facilities are completed.
After 31 years of operation, Club Med now has 85 "villages" in 25 countries, with 22 featuring skiing.
Actually, this is not the first Club Med resort in the United States. In the late 1960s, Club Med operated a ski resort at Bear Valley, Calif., for one season, but closed it because of labor problems. It also operated briefly in Hawaii. But it did not own or build either resort. Here Club Med owns the land and buildings.
Labor problems have been a bit of a headache here. In exchange for being allowed to bring in foreign staffers, the club agreed to hire some refugees. Forty-five Cubans were sent here from Miami, but "didn't work out," Russell said. Now only two are left. The Cubans, boatlift people, are being replaced by Vietnamese.
With its launching of this village, Club Med is looking at other sites in the United States. It has just announced it will build another ski resort at nearby Breckenridge, to open Christmas 1982. It is looking for suitable sites in the Florida Keys and in California.
Cost of a week's vacation here is currently $625 a person. During Christmas, the rate is higher and in late April lower. Weekly charter flights are available from New York and Los Angeles, and group-rate flights from several other cities.