As a single parent with limited vacation time, I'm usually in a quandary when my 7-year-old's school break comes around.
This time my wish list was modest -- sun, sea, peace and a respite from cooking and cleaning. My son, Zeno, had simpler goals: an airplane ride followed by no schedule at all. He didn't like getting stuck with a lot of rules that reminded him of the school he was taking a break from.
I opted for a Club Med package trip.
The two of us signed for a week on the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas, where several months a year Club Med offers a "Mini Club" for children from ages 2 through 11. Numerous activities were promised; and nobody, we were told, would have to follow a preconceived plan. Kids could be full- or part-time members of the program as they chose. My son agreed to try it, and I couldn't wait.
For years Club Med soared on its reputation as a cozy campground for single adults in their prime. Now it's branching out in a big way to attract families. Baby-boomer parents and full-grown Yuppie clans, some traveling with grandparents, find togetherness in exotic settings under the protective embrace of the Club Med label.
Mini clubs at Club Med aren't new. Officials say they are two decades old in Europe, almost as old as the club itself. But in the Western Hemisphere, they are just getting established.
It's difficult to please two or more generations at once, but Club Med managed to do just that with us. Zeno liked the idea of the Club Med village, as all the organization's resorts are known. It was a well-defined area of lodging, dining and recreational facilities within which he could run free. I liked having the "GOs," the Gentils Organizeurs, on hand to supervise things. They proved competent instructors in sports and other activities, including a computer lab and a circus arts workshop complete with a kids-only show. Separate but parallel programs gave adults a great deal of freedom -- and peace of mind. For example, after practice sessions at the pool, adults could work for certification in scuba diving in the ocean while their children (minimum age 8, medical checkup given) got a brief taste near a pier in a shallow, protected area that has been stocked with sea creatures.
Eleuthera is a boomerang of an island, 110 miles long by only three miles at its widest point. The Club Med sits along a rambling beach in the north-central section. No signs mark the entrance, making it not so much exclusive as anonymous.
We arrived by taxi from the airport and were serenaded in the driveway by GOs in sarongs offering us fruit punch.
The village is a series of concrete buildings, nothing too ornate or lavish (accommodations at most of the Club's island villages are primarily utilitarian), stretched out alongside a pristine beach. We unpacked and cooled off in the sea only yards from our door.
A large swimming pool beckons next to the bar and lounge area. Nearby is an amphitheater nearly large enough to hold all 700 guests -- during our week about 500 adults and 200 children. Bulletin boards are scattered everywhere, and what isn't explained on them is outlined at the orientation party held the first night.
Here the currency is beads -- different colors for different prices. Rules forbid use of typewriters, or radios or cassettes without earphones; and there are no newspapers, telephones or television -- none of which we missed. (Phone calls are made from a front office.) The atmosphere is that of a decidedly unstuffy country club. Rooms are small and clean, with air conditioning and good showers: the essentials delivered without fuss, since most life is lived out of doors.
The GOs told us about the 20 sports that would be available to us along with the daily round of picnics and excursions.
It was a simple package arrangement including transportation and land costs (air fare from New York, airport transfers, accommodations for seven days and nights, all meals and activities including sports instruction). We paid $1,049, plus $200 for my son's air fare -- last year children ages 4 to 7 were given free land arrangements so I paid only for his transportation. The only extras were the bar tabs paid with beads, which are purchased (by cash or charge) upon arrival and make it unnecessary to carry money.
Children now pay a reduced rate for land arrangements, except in January at Fort Royal in Guadeloupe and at Copper Mountain in Colorado, when they are admitted free. Club Med books seats on regularly scheduled airlines, with some exceptions; thus the plane may not be filled entirely with Club Med passengers.
Mini Club weeks start fast: Children begin signing up immediately for the circus workshop, computer lab or scuba and tennis lessons. They are divided into age groups: The Snoopys (4-5), Speedys (6), Rockets (7-9) and Kids (10 and up). Those under 4 get special handling and a less active routine.
Unpleasant things -- laundry, foul weather, electricity failures, sharks -- are never mentioned. There is such a riotous, hokey approach to everything, it would be a sin to admit bad moods here. Congeniality is all one has time for.
Zeno paired off early on with Jonathan from Massachusetts, whom we met in line on the first night waiting to get into the dining hall. As it turned out, they made more use of the beach than the athletic lessons. He also met Marco from his indoor soccer class back home. Children take such coincidences for granted.
The head of the Mini Club the week we were registered was a young French student named Didier, a math and psychology major who said he loved kids. Most of his assistants were Americans. George and Barbara were in charge of the Snoopys. George had graduated from college in Paris and then worked as a food and beverage coordinator in a Miami hotel before joining Club Med; he said he likes resorts and kids equally well and took the job on a dare. Barbara had majored in public relations and said she likes everybody.
The GOs seemed genuinely warm and attentive to their charges, only warily criticizing anything. European children are less spontaneous, they found, but had more discipline. American kids from the West Coast were the most free, decidedly the "wildest," they observed.
The willingness of these young leaders to sing and talk their way through corny songs and jokes fed right into the children's hands. And while not all were professionally trained in child care, they had the right spirit. The lack of a dress code helped, of course -- although shoes and shirts were definitely expected at the evening meal.
My son and I awoke late each day and ate breakfast more or less together on a self-serve assembly-line setup. We decided by mood and weather what our schedules would be. A "menu" for each Mini Club group is posted early, and the day extends from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., with time out for movies, meals and swimming. Children typically participate in several athletic sessions in the morning and again in late afternoon.
If the Rockets were scheduled to do something Zeno liked, he would join for all or part of the session. But most days he gravitated to the water, swimming out to the nearest coral reef to observe the fish. We bought a Club Med inflatable mattress (everything for sale has a Club Med insignia, including the suntan lotion) and paddled out where he could hang over the side, looking through a snorkeling mask (loaned by Club Med) while I propelled him around. And yes, it does look like the Baltimore aquarium out there.
Computer lessons were given each day by a GO named B.J. The classroom held eight Atari machines. B.J. said she used to be an accountant with Gulf Oil, but she quit to see the world and never intends to go back to the 9-to-5. We made an appointment, mother and son, along with Jonathan and his mother, to learn BASIC programming.
The first lesson was what BASIC can do; the second touched on graphics. Next day we talked about "variables," or how to write programs for specific needs. Mostly Zeno learned to print out his name 2,000 times in a row -- very primitive mastery of the programming code, but enough to qualify it as a highlight of his stay. (The Atari lab is open other times as well for children who wish to goof off and play video games.)
An unexpected blessing of the vacation was the spontaneous quality of mealtimes, when hundreds crowded into the low-ceilinged rooms to claim their food. It also was one of the drawbacks, since the only thing Club Med can't seem to control is the noise level when meals are in full swing.
There are no rules; generally it's first come, first served at tables of eight with no reservations, but there is always a hostess to seat the guests. Children are welcome, but the club also provides earlier lunch and dinner sittings for them. Breakfast and lunch are buffet style, but even the sit-down dinners are informal.
Evening programs are varied except in their ever-lively mood. Through all of them ran theme songs -- "Bahama Mama" was a favorite. The entertainment included slides, discos, charades. Best of all were the zany "nightclub" skits with audience participation egged on by extremely skilled GOs.
The circus workshop was the central feature of the week, revealing the child's heart in us all. It is a marvel. Nets and swings are set up high above the palm trees on heavy aluminum poles next to a miniature circus tent. They are spotlighted during the evening demonstration program given by staff at the beginning of the week.
Instructors and one or two of the bravest adult guests perform (in sequins and tights), with the whole village sitting on a grassy incline to watch. After that show, the call of the circus seems to sweep over the village, and you see youngsters practicing indoors and out -- jugglers, acrobats, tiny trapeze artists -- in preparation for the children's circus. It is given each week with a different cast of guests. "Circus Eleuthera," as it is called, is put together in less than five days.
Bos, a muscular man formerly of Circus World and Ringling Brothers, was in charge. His assistant was Mark, a skydiver and surfer from California who held the position of catcher on the trapeze. Students of all ages -- secured by safety harnesses -- get a chance to swing and swirl in high-wire acts.
The children's show was staged one night after dinner. Ringmasters were teen-agers speaking English and French; small fry in costumes and masks served beautifully as tigers. There were spotlights and makeup and hoopla galore. Everything but popcorn and cotton candy to litter the aisles. The only bad thing, my son said, was that the show didn't last long enough.
The week didn't last long enough either. Zeno wanted to stay on, and he says he wants to return. The Club Med spirit, the esprit de corps, got through to him. It's the philosophy that tells a child he or she can do almost anything an adult can do. He liked the sense of freedom (within limits) and being able to spend beads instead of money for midday snacks and soft drinks.
As a parent, I was free to roam as well. I particularly liked the democratic spirit -- barriers of age, class and income were eliminated. No one raised an eyebrow one morning when an 80-year-old man wandered slowly into breakfast in a sarong.