PERSONAL DISCOVERY AWAITS AT CLUB MED COLUMBUS ISLE

Bahamian Island Where Columbus Landed is Idyllic Setting for Your Own Adventure

By Karen Rubin

I had been checked out the night before by the “dive” doctor, who cleared me for my first ocean scuba dive in my life. We had taken the 15-minute boat ride to a reef still in sight of Club Med`s Columbus Isle, on San Salvador in the Bahamas, the famous island where Christopher Columbus first set foot in the New World on Oct. 12, 1492. Now was my moment of personal discovery and a chance to explore a new world, beneath the surface of the ocean.

I had always had trepidation about scuba diving, believing my sinus and ear problems would disqualify me from this sport, which I was so intrigued to try. The doctor, after an extensive conversation, assured me my problems weren`t severe enough and that the dive master would show me how to clear my ears and equalize the pressure during the descent.

I had tried the scuba apparatus a year before, at Club Med Sandpiper, in Port St. Lucie, Fla., but in the pool (I was emboldened after watching small kids wearing special-size tanks). I was made to feel comfortable then, hand in hand with an instructor. I felt confident enough in the Club Med “gentil method” that of all the scary things I ever did (I get nervous just riding a lift up to the top of a ski trail), I never felt so calm.

That is indeed the essence of the Club Med experience: you feel up to trying things you may have harbored a desire to try, but had always been held back by some inner fear. For one thing, the resort places all the facilities and equipment for such new experiences conveniently at hand, and at either no extra cost or at minimal cost. There are regular free clinics or instruction, such as in water skiing (another of my bugaboos yet to conquer) and tennis (surprisingly excellent intermediate clinics). But the real difference is the pleasant, encouraging, positive manner the instructors have (so “gentil” as in G.O.s or gentil organisateur, as each staff member is known, while the guests are called G.M.s, which means gentil membre.)

A scuba expert guides a novice on his first ocean dive, at Club Med Columbus Isle

Now the moment of truth. I plunged into the water, wearing my fins and mask. Petra, the dive master, got me into the vest and gently fitted it to me, handing me the mouth piece. I took a couple of breaths to get used to the sensation and that sucking sound that fills your head and began my descent. Now I was staring into the eyes of my instructor, Michelle, who would be guiding me down-not too far, just to a depth of 15 feet. This brief introduction was tailored so that I didn`t have to keep track of my gauges-he did that (normally, there are sessions on land before an ocean dive; this was specially designed to give a feeling of scuba). He took my hand, and using signs I could let him know if I was comfortable going deeper or needed to clear my ears. Soon I was caught up in the awesome world that lies just a few feet below the surface. All I had to was to remember to keep breathing from my mouth and if I felt any pressure in my ear, squeeze my nose and blow gently to equalize the pressure.

With this simple exercise, I had conquered a new world.

The next day, I went for a second time and now was the veteran among a group of neophytes, assuring them there was nothing to it.

Five hundred years after Christopher Columbus landed on this tiny island of San Salvador in the Bahamian Islands and “discovered” the New World, Club Med opened its Columbus Isle village, a project undertaken originally at the behest of the Bahamian government. Five years before, they had asked Club Med to build a resort on San Salvador in time for the 500th anniversary of Columbus landing. At the time, there were 600 people living on the island, and most young people would move away in search of jobs.

Under the direction of Giselle Trigano, the interior designer, a team of 10 people spent a year traveling the world in search of rare, exotic objects of art, collecting $2.5 million worth. The result is hardly what you would expect of a Caribbean island (San Salvador has the Atlantic on one side and the Caribbean on its other side).

There are exquisite artifacts from Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Tahiti, India, Africa, all in keeping with the theme of exploration, discovery. Everywhere you look there are surprises-look closely at the chair railings in the restaurant and they are made of glass from a village in Africa; even the restrooms have exquisite objects. Columbus would have been pleased and enchanted. The Club Med experience, indeed, is about personal discovery, personal exploration.

Amazing artifacts and art objects gathered from all around the world make Club Med Columbus Isle worthy of Columbus` spirit of adventure

Columbus sailed for months before he happened upon San Salvador. I could not believe how close Columbus Isle was: a three-hour direct flight on Club Med`s charter, North American Airlines, and a five minute drive (literally across the street) from the airport, which has an extended runway that now can handle major jets. Before we knew it, we were being greeted by G.O.s and Junkanoo dancers, and lead to our rooms, delightfully laid out in low-rise, boxy-buildings set at zig-zags (so every room has an unobstructed view of the water or the gardens) set off with beautiful gingerbread lattice work and sponge painted (by a team of artists from Mexico) in pastel colors with lovely decorative effects. Minutes after that, we were on the beach, kayaking, sailing a catamaran and water skiing.

There is an enchanting story about everything. Without any resources on the tiny island to build the buildings, Club Med contacted a company in Florida which constructs prisons. Each of the units was built to its specifications (with larger rooms, very cleverly laid out to afford a separated bathroom suite and dressing room) and equipped with plumbing and electrical wiring, and then shipped by barge to San Salvador. Palm trees were imported as well, and the resort laid out to preserve and protect the existing vegetation and dunes (you use walk ways to get to the beach).

In Club Med parlance, Columbus Isle is a village (resort) for “everyone”. That means that children of any age are welcome, but there are not the Mini-Clubs and Baby-Clubs with dedicated, supervised team of GOs to keep the kids entertained with organized games and sports activities activity programs that exemplify the so-called “family” villages. Villages for “everyone” like Columbus Isle, are popular with families during school holidays and there are always activities that children will enjoy and families will enjoy together, and they are marvelous for honeymooners or friends traveling together. On the other hand, a third category of Club Med are the “adult” villages, where you have to be 18 years old; these are geared for couples or groups of friends and offer a wide variety of sports and activities during the day, live bands, dance classes and nightclubs at night.

The layout at Columbus Isle is conducive to “everybody.” A honeymoon couple would have felt just as comfortable as a family with children. It is set up so it rambles along the beachfront so everything is spread out (yet walking distance) with lots of privacy. The setting is gorgeous; white sand beach that feels like cornmeal under your feet, looking over on one side to the aquamarine ocean and over to the others, the pastel colored, low rise buildings poking out from palm trees. It is all extremely pleasing to the senses.

The 240 air conditioned rooms have lovely appointments and pleasant amenities including hairdryer, telephone, remote-control cable television, mini fridge and personal safe (very cleverly laid out to have a separate bath suite). Louvre doors open to the sea and there is a small balcony.

Columbus Isle is a “Luxury of the Extraordinary” village, meaning that it is in the most luxurious category of Club Med. The only other property in this category in North America is Crested Butte, Colorado ; other properties include Buccaneer`s Creek, Martinique, Bora Bora, French Polynesia and Trancoso, Brazil.

Club Med is probably the most famous name in the resort business, but most people still have an image that dates back to the psychedelic �70s (ironically, Club Med`s heyday). Well, Club Med is celebrating its 55th anniversary this year and like its earliest guests, has grown up and become more sophisticated, more cosmopolitan but not lost that special zest for life, that savoir faire and joie de vie that made Club Med such a special place, regardless of whether you were at Caravelle in Guadaloupe or Bali, Indonesia.

The chain has spent $400 million in renovations on its properties worldwide, including $5 million at Columbus Isle.

It is not just the “all-inclusive” concept that several resort companies have tried to emulate. In actuality, “all-inclusive” can mean lots of different things, from including meals (but not sports). Some all-inclusives have made a big deal about including all the liquor you can drink. At Club Med, wine is served at lunch and dinner and there are a few cocktail parties (alcohol and non-alcoholic beverages are offered all day, as part of the Total All-Inclusive package), but the emphasis is on the most amazing array of foods and activities you can imagine. Each meal is served as a smorgasbord of incredibly prepared and presented foods; lunch one day features fois gras, for example, and the white chocolate bread quickly becomes the absolute favorite; at breakfast, one G.O. does nothing but squeeze fresh oranges for juice.

Club Med is the antithesis of the stereotypical rum-drink-in-hand type of resort. The style, the attitude, the experience is very distinctive and the reason people get smitten and are anxious to try other Club Meds.

The village takes full advantage of the ambiance and culture of its locale. San Salvador, 199 miles southeast of Nassau, is a mere 12 by 5.2 miles, a place that is so peaceful, the only jail was converted to a small museum, and there are 16 churches (five denominations) for the 600 inhabitants. As an excursion, you can rent a bicycle ($10) and ride (on the left) on the only road, which rings the island and brings you back in a 35-mile loop. A 15-minute ride from the village brings you into Cockburn Town, named after the Governor of 1840, and about one mile further, to the Monument where Columbus was supposed to have landed.

Club Med can also arrange for guests to take an island tour ($25/pp Tuesday), or go deep sea fishing ($140 pp), or take a sunset cruise ($22).

Junkanoo dancers greet our arrival at Club Med Columbus Isle

The specialty of the house is scuba diving. The superb facilities include an on-site decompression chamber. A beginner package that takes six days includes two beginner lessons during the first two days and 8 accompanied exploration dives over the next four days; an advanced package for six days includes one adaptation dive and one accompanied exploration dive on the first day, 10 accompanied exploration dives over 5 days (two a day plus one night dive).

An a la carte formula is also available: 2 exploration dives per day and possibly a third buddy dive a day and one accompanied night dive per week. Several certification programs are offered: Club Med Beginner certification program; PADI Open Water certification and PADI advanced open water certification. You can even rent a wetsuit.

There is so much to do (or not do, and simply relax). We manage to fit in the one-hour intermediate tennis clinic at 8:30 a.m. (three courts are lighted, so you can play just about any time you like; help yourself to rackets and balls) and still have time to get over to the “treasure hunt” snorkeling expedition by 10 a.m.

There is sailing on a user-friendly catamaran (an instructor can show you the ropes), windsurfing and kayaking, and water skiing (May through October). There is aerobics and weight-training at the fitness center, archery lessons, basketball hoops, volleyball, bocce ball, table tennis, massage.

Dinners are a marvelous affair, turned into a themed evening, before we go to the show put on by the GOs. After the show, we still have energy to go to the disco, at the Sea Center.

Dining and entertainment options have been increased with new restaurants and lounges: Christoper`s, is where global flavors are presented in an elegant setting, inspired by the original new world settlers; The Berimbau is a high-energy Brazilian steakhouse featuring theatrically hand-carved meats; Watling`s offers Bahamian fusion cuisine focusing on the fresh flavors from the Caribbean; Liquid serves blended smoothies, imported coffees, teas and other tasty concoctions; Bar Azul is a new beach bar featuring tropical drinks, wraps, salads and sandwiches, served oceanside; The Beacon is the place for the daily sunset celebration, featuring the world famous Green Flash cocktail; Verve Lounge offers eclectic sounds and tastes, inside and out, from sunset to sunrise; and Zao is where high-current sounds from around the world are spun for your dancing pleasure.

Because the runway at San Salvador has been extended, it can now accommodate big jets, making it possible to fly direct, on Club Med`s charter flights. There are also three and four-day jaunts, in addition to week-long vacations.

There is a new Spirit Airlines charter packages from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, that flies directly to Columbus Isle. The air-inclusive package starts at $1,265 pp (adults and children are the same); membership fees are $55 pe4r adult and $25 per child.

Check the website, www.clubmed.com , for specials, such as the “7 Day Weekend Sale.”

The website features “virtual tours” of Club Med villages and provides a booking capability. For further information, contact your travel agent or Club Med, 800-CLUB MED.

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© 2005 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

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About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including examiner.com, Huffington Post and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate and blogs at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at FamTravLtr@aol.com. 'Like' us at www.facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

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