"You're going to take them?" That was the usual response when we told friends and relatives that our three children would go with us on a Club Mediterranee vacation to the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe last Christmas.
Their skepticism was justified. Traveling with two boys, aged 7 1/2 and 4, and a 9-month-old girl isn't conducive to relaxation. We may have gone away on trips with our family of five, but you couldn't really call them vacations.
This time it was going to be different. Through friends we had heard about Club Med's Mini Clubs, programs geared for children from 2 to 11. There are 30 of them around the world, and 42,000 youngsters have tested the concept.
Parents Can Relax
While the parents relax, snorkel or practice scuba diving, the kids are occupied from 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. A special staff with child care training supervises separate programs for the 4-to-6-year-olds and the 7-to-11-year-olds. Drop 'em off after breakfast, get 'em back after dinner. It sounded too good to be true.
Our curiosity got the better of us, and we elected to spend a week (the maximum stay during the holiday season) at Club Med's Fort Royal resort on Guadeloupe, a butterfly-shaped Caribbean island midway between Antigua and Martinique.
We chose Fort Royal because it seemed not too large; with 300 beds, it was half the size of the other available Mini Club at Eleuthera in the Bahamas. The couple that suggested the idea decided to join us, taking along their son, who was the same age as Owen, our oldest.
The idea took some getting used to. Club Med had always seemed the embodiment of the swinging singles life style: a healthy outdoor version of a pickup bar. It was difficult to imagine our 4-year-old paying for his orange juice with the famous Club Med drink beads, or heading down to the disco with another preschooler he met on the beach.
But the price was attractive: $3,500 for the five of us, including all air fare, hotel rooms and meals. (The baby stayed free and the older boys at reduced rates.) The deciding factor wasn't price but peace of mind. If the Mini Club delivered what it promised, we were about to have our first relaxing family vacation in eight years.
First we had to get to Guadeloupe, and the travel arrangements made by Club Med didn't inspire our confidence in what lay ahead. Flight information doesn't arrive until the week before departure (tickets are picked up at the airport), probably to lessen the shock.
Our flight to Miami (via Houston) left Los Angeles at 2 a.m. Ever try to get three sleepy children, five suitcases, a baby seat and a big bag of diapers to the airport at an hour when most of Western civilization is asleep? I don't recommend it.
At our destination, jovial Club Med G.O.'s (gentils organisateurs, the French equivalent of camp counselors for grown-ups) herded us into buses for the 45-minute trip from the airport at Pointe-a-Pitre to Fort Royal, a former colonial resort occupying 17 acres on the southern tip of the larger portion of Guadeloupe.
Crib Provided for Baby
Total traveling time, including the four-hour time zone change: 18 hours. "This better be worth it," my wife warned me as we collapsed into our tastefully-furnished rooms, each equipped with twin beds. A crib for the baby had been provided at our request, and the boys were housed in a room adjoining ours, giving them reassurance and us privacy.
Things looked considerably better the next morning, as we awoke to a typically sunny and balmy December day. The three-story hotel overlooked the Caribbean Sea. Behind us were the soft green hills that led up to the mountainous interior.
An informal orientation session was scheduled for 8:30 a.m., and although sleep seemed more of a priority, the three boys were eager to explore. Letting our wives sleep in, my friend and I took the kids to breakfast, served in a large indoor/outdoor dining room adjacent to the swimming pool.
As we walked down the stone pathway from the hotel we saw luxuriant green soccer and baseball fields, four lighted tennis courts and a small sandy beach pounded by the incoming waves.
Mini Club Welcome Sight
The most welcome sight was the much-vaunted Mini Club, the first to open in the Americas, 11 years ago. It had its own pool, clubhouse, changing and activity rooms and an outdoor theater. Close by was the archery range, a giant trampoline, and a bizarre and unexpected attraction: a full-size, professional circus trapeze rig, complete with swings, harnesses and a safety net. By that time the boys' eyes were the size of saucers.
Mike Coltman, the Chef de Village or village manager and an 18-year Club Med veteran, explained to the early risers how the Mini Club worked. You took your children to breakfast and then over to the clubhouse by 8:30.
Unless you wanted to, you didn't see them again until 5:30 p.m. Clean them up and drop them off for dinner at 6:30 (an hour before the adults), and they would be returned to you at 9 p.m., just as you were finishing dessert and coffee in the large hotel dining room.
Top Diving Area
Fort Royal prides itself on its sophisticated scuba diving and snorkeling--its Pigeon Island center (about half an hour by bus from the resort) is rated one of the 10 best dive areas in the Caribbean.
Unfortunately, a tropical storm more than 100 miles away made the seas too choppy for snorkeling near the resort. The huge waves were ideal for body surfing, but they eliminated most sailing and water-skiing activities for the week.
No matter. The real pleasure came from sitting on the beach without having to keep an eye on kids playing in the ocean, or eating a meal without any glasses of milk being spilled. For most of the day we could forget about being parents, and it felt wonderful.
Occasionally our 4-year-old joined us for lunch, but soon he drifted back into what he and his playmates called their "Mighty Mighty Mini Club!"
Children Kept Busy
The older boys spurned our offer to take a day off and spend some time with us--they were too busy learning how to walk on a high wire, and practicing their circus acts for the big Mini Club show at the end of the week.
It's not easy to relax when traveling with a 9-month-old who is too young to walk, but highly mobile nonetheless. We hadn't brought a stroller, but the Petit Enfants Club (child care for those 2 to 4) cheerfully provided one at no charge.
We had the freedom to stroll on the beach and collect the delicately-colored shells found only in Guadeloupe. One day three of us rented a car and explored the island, a French protectorate with colorful open-air markets, rain forest waterfalls and a slumbering volcano, steam hissing from its sides.
Time to Relax
We relaxed by the pool, played Ping-Pong, caught up on our reading and drowsed in the sun. And we ate, gorging ourselves on the bounteous buffet-style meals served three times a day.
Unlike adults, children don't need to justify their vacations by convincing themselves they're having a good time. They do or they don't. Our kids did, whether they were getting "gold medals" for swimming and track competitions, or putting on costumes and makeup for a parade through the dining hall after dinner.
The highlight of their week was the circus performance, complete with Tiny Tumbling Tots (including our Leo), acrobats, and a difficult bicycle stunt performed by three Mini Club members and a G.O. who was a Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey veteran.
Six Days Too Short
The only dampener near the week's end was the knowledge that we had to go home. Six days was too short a stay, given the arduous journey to Guadeloupe.
Coltman held out some hope for West Coast Club Med family members. He said a plan is under consideration to set up a Mini Club at the Club Med in Guaymas, Mexico, which opened just last summer. (The Club Med in Ixtapa operates a Mini Club only during summer, and there is a winter ski program for children 3 to 12 at Club Med's ski village in Copper Mountain, Colo.)
Every parent knows a vacation has been successful when the first question they hear upon arriving home is, "When can we go back?"