`Hassle free` haven offers appealing activities for everyone
By Karen Rubin
After the first full day at Club Med Sandpiper-Florida`s only true all-inclusive resort-our 10-year old son, agape at the buffet tables overflowing with every delectable imaginable, said, “This place is paradise-and I mean that literally.” When it was time to leave, and we were treasuring experiences such as our 15-year old`s first time on a trapeze and first experience at scuba, our 10-year old`s first time sailing a hobey cat, and my attempt at waterskiing, we were all conspiring ways to stay longer, but had to content ourselves with a vow to return. It was absolutely one of the most perfect family vacation experiences we have ever had.
Club Med creates an atmosphere where you feel absolutely comfortable trying something you`ve never done before-like rollerblading or trapeze-by giving you the facilities, the opportunity, and the people who are so wonderful about gently guiding you. No wonder the staff people at Club Med are called G.O.`s, which stands for gentil organisateur, while the guests are called G.M.s, which means gentil membre.
Sandpiper, one of 100 Club Med resorts worldwide, is representative of one of its 40 Club Med resorts that afford families an unbelievable array of supervised activities and services. Sandpiper offers a Baby Club, accommodating infants from four months up to two years old, as well as a Petit Club (for 2-4 year olds), Mini Club (for 4-12 year olds), and Teen Club for 13-17 year olds. The schedule for the day is incredibly full, but families can choose to use the clubs for some activities and spend time together as they like.
Set on 37 acres along the bank of the mile-wide St. Lucie River, Sandpiper renovated all four pools; new Baby Club, Petit and Mini club facilities, the dining room renovated (very successfully) to look like a Floridian plantation house, new Specialty River Restaurant and refurbished reception area.
“Hassle-free” became the hallmark of our Club Med experience (and how often can you say that for a family vacation?), which is a tribute to how extraordinarily well organized the village is, and how well it anticipates guests (that is, G.M.s`) needs.
As we arrived, the Club Med team of G.O.`s were lined up to greet us, handled us a fruity beverage and we were personally escorted to our rooms while our baggage was delivered a few moments after.
That evening, we were able to sign up our kids for the various Kids Clubs, which distinguish the Club Med experience.
The quality of the children`s programs is exceptional. Many resorts and cruiselines now offer supervised children`s programs, but what we saw at Club Med Sandpiper was extraordinary. I have never seen such happy children anywhere. It is not only the extraordinary array of activities provided for the children, and the age groupings. What distinguishes Club Med Sandpiper`s children`s programs are the G.O.`s-the counselors and caretakers. You watch them walking along, holding a child`s hand, or holding a toddler in their arms, talking together, making eye-contact, really being involved with the children. Sometimes it is hard to tell whether the child is with a relative or a G.O. It was fascinating to see that even when the parents were in the same area-like watching the circus or the waterskiing demonstration they arranged for us-the kids contentedly stayed with their G.O.
Sandpiper is the only Club Med in the North America Zone which offers a Baby Club (more will have Baby Clubs, though) for infants four months through 2 years of age. The Baby Club is housed in an air-conditioned suite of rooms with a nap room with cribs, indoor/outdoor play area with swings and all kinds of toys. There is a Baby Dining Room with its own chef; fresh-prepared baby foods daily from all-natural ingredients; a changing room; and special facilities with bottle warming, sterilizers, food mixers, potties and baby baths. Parents can drop off their infants and pick them up anytime between 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. (closed Saturday). Caregivers feed babies lunch, but parents take over at dinner time (babysitting is available at extra charge through a service).
Peanuts, for infants from four months old to walking, caters to the child`s own schedule for feeding, diapering, and you can see the caregivers strolling the children about. Rascals, for children from walking to 23 months, have activities such as story time, nature walk, “crazy dances,” “bubble fun,” “water games”, frog hunt, face painting. “Don`t forget your child`s security object?” the notes advise parents.
Sandpiper also offers Petit Club for two to four year olds, from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. (parents take their own children for dinner): Dino`s, for 2 to 3 year olds had activities such as pool, beach party, trampoline, puppet show, pink elephant hunt and musical games.
The Mini Club, which operates from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. offers age-appropriate programs for children 4-12 years old geared to their interests and abilities, including activities that they would never be able to do at home, but which build self-confidence and a sense of adventure.
Penguins, for 4-5 year olds, had activities such as introduction to golf (with miniature clubs), tennis, and scuba diving (with tiny tanks and fins), beach party and tie dye, a quiet-time video, softball and parachute games, pink elephant hunt, and the activity that probably best distinguishes Club Med: circus, where children get to learn circus skills like trampoline, trapeze, and juggling. We watched as the youngsters were patiently, gently guided into the pool with their scuba gear, where there were plastic fish and a hoop to help them learn skills.
Piranhas, for 6-7 year olds had similar activities, plus water polo, soccer and parachute games, water relays, monkey games, “genius at work” art programs which were wonderfully displayed along the entrance to the restaurant.
Dolphins, for ages 8-12, got to do water ski and sailing, circus skills, beach party and tie die, an introduction to scuba diving, tennis and golf, sponge paint fight, dancing. This age group, if parents allowed, could sign themselves in and out of the program.
Teen Club for 13-17 years old, offered activities that started at 9:45 a.m. (giving teens extra time to sleep): water skiing and sailing, rollerblading or landsport, pool games, tennis or golf, circus skills.
Probably one of the best aspects of Club Med is that the adults get to do all the things the kids do-even trampoline and the flying trapeze. You have never felt so completely carefree in your whole life.
There is also an incredibly full program of special activities for adults separately or families-together, such as waterskiing (summer season only), sailing (marvelous hobey cats), golf on two 18-hole courses or a par-3 pitch-and-putt (free beginner and intermediate lessons), tennis (free beginner and intermediate lessons). There are special demonstrations, tournaments (like family putting); an advanced inline skate tour (five miles at a fast pace), water aerobics, tennis demonstration, fitness classes taught by Crunch-trained instructors, water aerobics.
Indeed, Club Med was founded on the premise of providing an “active lifestyle” for sports-minded people, and another distinctive aspect to Club Med which we discovered is how it is geared to introducing adults to new activities. The same gentle approach used to introduce children to scuba, trainers used to introduce adults (including myself); they also ease you into inline skating, waterskiing (one boat has a bar instead of a rope to make it easier to get up), circus arts, golf, tennis. You feel comfortable enough to set aside your inhibitions and shyness to try new things.
Club Med Sandpiper lived up to its legendary reputation for serving the largest and most sumptuous table imaginable. One meal was more dazzlingly spectacular than another, with an astonishing selection and exquisite presentation. Meals were themed: “7 Seas” luncheon, “Tastes of the World” international buffet dinner, which was carried through with decorations and even costumes. There was a mountain of freshly prepared lobster, trays of caviar, a table for freshly sliced sushi, carved turkey, an array of pates, a bouillabaisse and a lobster bisque, heaping pots of paella, freshly prepared crepes, pastry sculptures, sculpted breads (to look like the theme of the meal).
At lunch and dinner, there would be a bottle of red wine and a bottle of white wine (French, no less) already on the tables or you could have beer, soda, fruit juices. (Sandpiper is a Total All-Inclusive, which means that there is an open bar with premium alcoholic and non alcoholic drinks, and a snack bar with salads, burgers, and fruits open between restaurant hours-all included.)
Besides wonderfully rich selections, there would also be items even fanatical calorie-counters would appreciate-like fresh fruit, vegetables, cheeses, salads, even frozen yogurt you can swirl into a cone yourself.
We were also surprised at the high quality of the entertainment and shows put on every night. We were fortunate to see the premiere of the main show for this season, “Halloween,” a collaboration of the Paris-based team and others, which was unbelievably wonderful. The costumes, choreography, lighting effects were amazing. While the show was not scary, the characters (Dracula, Frankenstein, Beetlejuice, a host of hobbits, ghosts, pumpkins, etc.) were so realistic, care was taken not to frighten the youngest children, so for an evening activity, kids got made up and dressed in Halloween costumes and there was a grand parade; they were also invited to see the actors making up so they wouldn`t be afraid, and then, they were given a little pumpkin light to light up if they got scared. For those young children who still were too frightened to see the show, there was a “fun fair” activity they could participate in instead, while parents saw the show.
On our last night, the kids who were in the various kids clubs and practiced circus skills, got to be part of “The Greatest Little Show on Earth”, starting off with a circus parade that would have delighted P.T. Barnum. We were absolutely amazed at the high quality of the performances by the children-the youngest got to be clowns doing a tumbling act, and “lions and tigers”, while some of the older kids were chosen for more intricate acts, like you see on “Circus of the Stars.”
I was particularly impressed with the interest and care the circus trainers took in the youngsters: Nate Nancy, who comes from Oklahoma and became drawn to circus arts at a summer camp, and Jason Nolan, who studied circus at Illinois State University and is a certified teacher, in particular. “Everybody can do it,” says Ivan Anton, from Mexico City. “The key is listening. We teach by playing. The kids trust, listen and do what we tell them, whereas adults will think too much.”
The shows-six different ones a week–are presented by the G.O.s, so very often, the same person who was your child`s counselor, the housekeeper or the sailing instructor, you see performing on stage.
In addition, there is classical music on the terrace of the restaurant, overlooking the river, from 6 p.m.; organized games before dinner and around the bar, and a disco which starts about 10:30 p.m.
Living the Club Med Life
While other resorts have attempted to emulate the all-inclusive experience (to varying degrees; see “All Inclusive Span the Gamut”), what makes Club Med so unique is this extraordinary culture that is Club Med, which is imparted to the guest (the G.M.) through a distinctive interaction between the G.O.s and the G.M.s.
The G.O.`s live the Club Med experience-they live on property, and when you sit down at a table for meals, you are apt to be joined by the G.O.s. It is a whole lifestyle, a way of approaching life, a joie de vivre–and when you come, it is like “Welcome to our world.” Everywhere you go, when you are met by a G.O. there is a greeting of “Hello, how are you?” and if you happen to ask a G.O. a question, they make it their personal quest to find the answer or point you to where you are going.
Their enthusiasm, spirit and kindliness are infectious. Soon, everyone is passing one another saying “Good day,” and “How are you?” You feel a sense of community.
There is also a distinctively cosmopolitan (you might also say “multicultural”) air to Club Med, as well. Club Med prides itself in choosing locales that are “exotic.” While Florida can hardly be considered exotic, the atmosphere at Sandpiper is more European than Floridian-guests are apt to come from anywhere and many of the G.O.s are from France as well as other parts of the world–you actually forget you are in Florida.
The other aspect which makes Club Med so unique is that this is a place which embodies the philosophy of “Yes you can.” You can try-and often succeed-and just about everything you can imagine. The food at the buffet is like a fantasy. You could swim in the pool any time of the day or night (one evening, we went swimming at 1 a.m., listening to the music of the disco and watching the stars); there are lights for night tennis.
We thoroughly enjoyed golfing together on the 18-hole Sinners golf course, recently renovated at a cost of $650,000, and playing tennis at the complex of 19 courts. Each day, there were beginner lessons, if we chose; and at the par-3 pitch-and-putt course, we could just borrow clubs at no charge. There is also a driving range.
Other improvements underway, here at Sandpiper and in many other Club Meds: an arrangement with Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) has lead to a new ATP Tennis Camp, taught by ATP-trained instructors, and geared to advanced players (this is an extra fee). The Golf Clinics are staffed by trained PGA or LPGA instructors.
The resort sits on the banks of the one-mile wide St. Lucie River, and has a small sand beach on a kind of a lagoon, plus the marvelous stretch of waterfront. In addition, Club Med has a shuttle bus to its beach on the Atlantic Ocean, 15 minutes away.
I also appreciated the other creature comforts-like laundry machines on the floor, a laundry line over the bathtub, a mini-refrigerator and safe (our 10-year old liked to put his Harry Potter book in there), remote-control television and telephone (relatively new amenities to Club Med, which had been known for not having television and telephone; also new in the rooms are coffee maker, iron & ironing board, CD/clock radio). We also found our room to be roomy (especially considering Club Med`s reputation for small rooms)-and beautifully furnished with sofa, coffee table and easy chairs.
This is Florida after all, and Club Med Sandpiper offers full-day excursions (at extra charge) to Disney World, Epcot Center, Universal Studios, SeaWorld which are about two hours away, as well as Kennedy Space Center, Miami, deep-sea fishing and a river cruise.
The Club Med vacation price includes airline transportation (if you prefer to use frequent flyer miles, the price would be less), accommodations, meals (including wine and beer at lunch and dinner), entertainment and activities (including children`s activity programs and lessons).
Club Med Sandpiper is an ideal destination for group programs-including family reunions or corporate meetings and incentives (especially ones which allow families to come along). There are outstanding facilities, including a theater and meeting rooms, and special arrangements and theme events can be arranged. For corporate groups, this can include team-building exercises; for family, this can include special dining area or reception. Groups can also take advantage of pricing incentives, and where possible, greater flexibility in arrival and length of stay.
In addition to Sandpiper, other Club Med villages in the North American Zone which offer Mini Clubs include: Punta Cana (Dominican Republic), Ixtapa (Mexico), Caravelle (Guadeloupe) and Crested Butte (Colorado).
Club Med has introduced some wonderful pricing programs. Seven-night Total All-Inclusive packages at Sandpiper start at $840 per adult, $438 for 4-15 year olds and $305 for 2-3 year olds. For further information, visit www.clubmed.com (where you can see a virtual tour, as well as make reservations), call 800-CLUBMED or your travel agent.
© 2005 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.