Tearful goodbyes amidst strains of mariachi music abound as you board the Transportes del Pacifico bus for your return to reality. Your Love Boat has docked - your Club Med vacation is over.
For up to a week, it has been your sojourn from the real world in a lush Edenic setting. You distantly remember one week ago, when Luke, the village chief, and his staff of 100 G.O.s (gentils organiseurs - organized teams of tractable Adonises and Heras) met you as your bus arrived at Club Med-Playa Blanca. This resort - one of 120 Club Med villages worldwide - is an isolated oasis nestled in a picturesque Pacific Ocean cove between Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo, Mexico. The facility is extraordinarily plush - landscaped beautifully with banked adobe brick-style housing connected by holograms of angular stairways.No rain has fallen in six months. A large staff of non-resident Mexican workers manicures the resort with everything short of toothbrushes, even to the point of raking the ocean beach. Guest rooms are standard Mexican hacienda- style - comfortable but "no frills." All rooms traditionally remain unlocked except when actually occupied, but each room contains a small, lockable safe. Larger valuables may be stored at the resort center.
The open-air pavilion, the nucleus of activity, contains a health spa, lounging areas, a large buffet dining room and a classy bar. Encircling the pavilion are adjacent activity areas: a 500-seat auditorium for nightly cabaret, an amphitheater with dance floor, a disco, an Olympic-size pool and a boutique. A doctor and nurse staff an on-location infirmary. The ocean beach is a feast for the senses.
Food service is nothing short of spectacular. Three restaurants - one ultra-gourmet buffet and two sit-down service facilities cater splendidly prepared seafood, continental ethnic and standard cuisine. The Club has a self-contained water purification system enabling guests to eat and drink with impunity. Incidental purchases such as sundries and boutique items are signed for and paid upon departure. Orange, white and yellow pop beads are issued upon signature and are used to pay for libations in lieu of cash.
Upon arrival, there is a short orientation meeting, a quick tour of the village, and then you're on your own in Never-Never Land. Teams of G.O.s orchestrate relaxation for virtually every taste. Instruction is offered in tennis, horseback riding, archery, sailing, kayaking, deep-sea fishing, arts and crafts, snorkeling, volleyball, bocci ball, trapeze and tightrope along with jogging, aerobics and swimming. Daily activities vary as do nightly cabaret performances. These presentations (including a talent show by the visiting guests) are glitzy and entertaining. Activities (all of which are optional) can stretch into the wee hours if so desired; the disco does not open until 12:30 a.m.
The staff organizes countless group and team activities designed to enable people to meet and make friends with one another. Most everyone's reticence and shyness are absorbed by the overwhelming sense of family and camaraderie generated as the week passes. Friendships are struck most frequently at meal times, since staff and guests dine together.
The unbridled "activity" of leisure and the resplendent setting give Club Med a utopian atmosphere. People seem carefree. Accompanying the Club Med policy of isolation (no radio, one main office phone only, no television, newspaper nor money changing hands) is a seeming suspension of time and world events. Club Med is publicly billed as "the antidote to civilization." Life temporarily devoid of any confrontation captures the youthful and fun-loving side of everyone. The resort is a mountain of versatility. People from a myriad of backgrounds buy a piece of this paradise for $1,000 for temporary relief from stress. The exhibitionism and hedonism of mass "letting-go" - dancing, acting, and various other group activities - cause immense exhilaration.
Club Med, which has been mislabeled as a "swinging singles" haven, is more legitimately a social club. "Fifty percent of the guests worldwide are married couples, and some bring their children. The average guest is a professional, about 35 years old," says Jackie, a nine-year Club Med employee and a Denver airport hostess for Club Med travelers.
"Club Med is a permissible place for a woman to travel alone with a guarantee of meeting people in a safe and benign environment," remarks Kristin, a woman from San Francisco vacationing by herself for the first time. Lee, who terms himself a corporate psychologist for "stressed-out" business executives, says, "I chose not to participate in many of the activities, but instead I wanted to create a slow pace for myself and communicate with people attempting to alleviate their own stress." Diane, a soloist with one of Canada's major ballet companies, suffering from what she termed "burn-out," found the Club Med atmosphere conducive for both self-communion and interaction with a set of people outside of her trade.
Surely the most fascinating member of the staff is Luke, the village chief. Belgian, well-tanned and clad in a colorful pareo, he seems to be everywhere in the resort, day and night. He is multi-lingual, and a suave and ageless 45. Luke is the social guru of the resort, with a charismatic and uncannily affable manner. His infectious smile and pleasantly intoned voice are almost Jamaican in character. He's there to greet you and to send you on your way, and he leads the G.O.s and guests in the ritual "crazy signs" to the signature music at the close of each nightly show - an effective group silliness designed to help people relax barriers.
Upon graduation from Brussels University in photography (with a penchant for entertainment and theater), he vacationed for six months for what he termed "self-expression" before going to work at Kodak. He attended the Club Med in Corfu, Greece. His talent for leadership was instantly recognized by the company, and he moved quickly into the hierarchy. Club Med sent him to Berkeley for course work in growth and change in the American market. He is thoroughly effective in management and group dynamics and an offer from Kenzo Fashions in Italy may draw him back into the real world after 15 years. "The decision to leave Club Med has been fraught with emotion. Running the villages is easy, but dealing with the feelings and emotions of the staff and guests has been enervating over the years," he says.
At the close of a recent week, a young female guest who was weeping approached him and thanked him for the wonderful happiness Club Med had given her - and proceeded to tell him that she was terminally ill. Luke admits that Club Med is a facade of "manufactured fun," but feels that periodic "relief" from civilization is a universal need. He terms Cub Med his "Disney World." Judging from yearly attendance alone at Disney World and Club Med, the concept is workable.
There is a gray side to Club Med. A young G.O. staffer who is a one-and-a- half year veteran of Club Med explains that the six-member G.O. teams spend only six months at each resort. The teams are then split up, and after one week's vacation they are reassigned to a different club. Missing the allurements of society, and desiring family, this G.O. says three years of Club Med will be enough for him. The average tenure in the organization, unless unusual management talent is exhibited, is three years. While he feels it is exciting to be assigned to locations all over the world, the Clubs have a Holiday Inn sameness due to their isolation and entertainment and activity policy. Some are closer to cities than others. While excursions are available, once on the premises after extensive travel, it is hard to move. Employees have little responsibility outside of their immediate jobs and make about $6,000 per year. The G.O. describes life in this "anti-society" (or perhaps, "over-civilized society") as isolated, frequently lonely. He says that the transition and re-entry into normal society is difficult and sometimes disorienting.
Although there is no visible coercion to participate in anything, there is a Brave-New-Worldish tinge to the generic lowest terms of mass-appeal activities and entertainment, to the isolation, and to the sing-songy voices on the loudspeakers summoning people to activities. There is a heavy accent on the summer camp group dynamic. One may initially feel guilt for not participating in everything, and it is necessary to establish your own internal rhythm of activity in order to enjoy the experience. Brenda, a first time Club Med visitor from Canada, purchased an unusually long two-week stay at Club Med. (Mini-vacations are available at fractional cost, but a week is all-inclusively about $1,000.) Brenda felt this was too long a tenure due to the isolation, and although she was awestruck upon her arrival, feels she could not recommend it to her circle of friends. "My friends would seek a more individualistic environment where they could be left alone more and would not appreciate the lack of spontaneity of the experience. For a woman traveling alone, Club Med is well worth the money, but for people who appreciate variety and a changeable environment, Club Med is too restrictive. Attending with a purpose in mind, like self-discovery, is very constructive, but this is a hard environment to think in due to its structure and this loss of choice is a loss of freedom."
Luke, the village chief, terms this structure necessary to distinguish Club Med from more customary hotelry.
The Club Med experience may not be a respite for everyone, but for those who are eager to meet an international set of people and who prefer some structure and wanton amenities in their vacations, contact your travel agent, board this Love Boat and enjoy, or, in South-of-the-borderese: Wopah!
IF YOU GO:
Club Med offers one-week ($1,000-$1,700, depending on the location) or one-half week ($600-$750) packages. Air transportation from centrally-located cities (New York, Miami, Denver, Houston or Los Angeles) is included, if desired, but is not compulsory. The Club Med experience may not be a respite for everyone, but for those whose priorities are abject relaxation and getting acquainted with people, and for those who prefer some structure and wanton amenities in their vacations, contact your travel agent.