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Single-Minded at Club Med

TIMES STAFF WRITER; Meyer is a Metro reporter for the Times

It’s almost midnight, and I’m reclining on a lounge chair on an impossibly gorgeous beach in Mexico, smoking a Cuban cigar and staring out at a cove full of gumdrop-shaped islands and a carpet of stars.

I’ve been in Club Med’s Playa Blanca “village” an hour. Two women, flushed from dancing in the raucous disco down the beach, meander into the surf in front of me. They pull up recliners. We chat. One discloses that the other’s goal is to, uh, engage in a libidinous interlude before the clock strikes 12. Then she wanders off, leaving the friend, who, without prompting, confirms her quest. Perhaps, she muses, in one of the dinghies tethered just offshore.

Nothing personal, she says, smiling in the moonlight. She’s come to Playa Blanca because she wants to let her hair down and escape the stress she’s accumulated as a medical resident in California, without any complications that she’d face back home. After all, this is a Club Med village, and a “singles” one at that, she says.

A bit embarrassed, I mumble awkwardly that that I’m “not here for that.” I’m here, I say, for intensive rest, and some personal introspection that I get only when I travel alone.

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Nothing personal, I say, smiling. And she’s off to the disco again.

During my weeklong stay last March, I found that she wasn’t alone in what she came to Club Med for, and neither was I.

A travel agent told me that nothing beats Club Med for fun, interesting and affordable travel for those going it alone. Still, I’d been apprehensive about the tales of being pressured, practically at gunpoint, to engage in limbo dancing, water polo and other enforced happiness.

Club Med started out 48 years ago as a summer camp for swinging singles. Then it grew into a conglomerate catering to smooching couples, families and burnt-out yuppies in search of an “antidote to civilization,” as the ads trumpeted. Now, faced with brutal competition from the growing number of all-inclusive resorts, where one price buys you room, board and all activities, Club Med recently began repositioning some of its resorts, including Playa Blanca, as “singles” villages again. Which would be perfect, the agent chirped, since I was single and “not getting any younger.”

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The closer for me, though, was the price. At Playa Blanca, the price tag for a shared room was $949 for a seven-night stay, including air fare, transfers, all the food I could eat, all the beer and wine I could drink (at meals), and myriad sports and activities. There were a few incidentals, like $80 for initiation and Club Med membership fees. But to my amazement, it would cost me just $20 a night extra to have my own room.

Even before we boarded the AeroCalifornia plane from LAX, all the “Club Medders” began to introduce themselves (we were the only Americans on board, so it wasn’t hard). On the three-hour plane trip into the tiny Manzanillo airport, and on the bumpy 90-minute bus jaunt north to the village, we bonded even more, with the help of beer and tequila. There were 500 or so guests at Playa Blanca, one of the smaller Club Med singles villages, and I was surprised at their variety. About one-fifth were singles in varying degrees of pursuit of drunkenness with members of the opposite sex. Some came with friends, a few alone. There were college coeds on spring break, grandparents and recent divorcees.

The Playa Blanca village is a speck in the middle of nowhere on the Pacific Coast, about 120 miles south of Puerto Vallarta. It is luxuriously redolent with groves of tropical plants, aloe vera and cactus. And with its Mediterranean-style rooms terraced into the steep hillsides, the village fronts the Costa de Careyes, or Coast of Turtles--so called because that is what the islands look like.

There were some minor annoyances. My shower drain clogged easily, my room key didn’t always work and the first night I got a lousy room without a view or patio. I asked for another room the next morning, and the staff was happy to oblige. When I said I’d like to spend an hour or two reconnoitering the place to pick my own replacement, they said fine. My new room at the top of the hillside had an awe-inspiring view of the cove, hawks wheeling in the air, the beach and the grounds below--even if I did spend only 10 minutes a day appreciating it.

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I settled in with two dozen people, mostly from California and Vancouver, whom I met on the plane: half of them men, half women, ages 25 to 50, almost all single. Within days we were old pals, saving seats for one another at the huge circular dinner tables, exchanging gossip. But even people I’d barely met summoned me to their dining table, their circle of beach chairs, their water polo game, their spot at the bar or, as often seemed to be the case, their amorphous huddle on the disco dance floor, where everyone seems to dance together, without partners.

Club Med is like that. It just takes us cynics a while longer to relent and go with the flow.

The staff at Club Med subtly encourages vacationers to engage in a series of games and activities designed to get them to meet and mingle, whether it’s sports, a sunset cruise or nighttime live stage shows. Lunches and dinners are perhaps the most social events of all. The food is surprisingly good, and bounteous too: fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and fish that follow a different theme each night. And really quite amazing tarts, pies, flans and other desserts.

The free wine and beer is cheap and watery, but not at all undrinkable, and certainly good enough to get through meals. The bars have much better spirits, but then, they cost extra, as does sunblock, moisturizer, film and anything else one might need to buy at the on-site store. (Bring twice as much as you think you’ll need instead.)

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Such minor price gouging was about as much of a problem as I found at Club Med.

At breakfast many a conversation at the large dining-commons tables, I found, would center on who had left the disco with whom and never made it home. An equal number of guests seemed interested in living vicariously through the adventures of others. But most guests came to take advantage of everything else Club Med has to offer, besides its often-randy clientele.

Like most Club Med villages, sports and other activities abound at Playa Blanca, and they come with expert instruction. Most of the activities are free, though some cost extra, like horseback riding and sportfishing. There are even scuba certification classes for the bargain price of $60, if you want to spend 40 hours of precious vacation time in training. (I’d get certified before coming and then spend the time diving.) There was free archery, rock climbing and an elaborate trapeze setup where guests are encouraged to become proficient enough to perform in a weekly show.

During my first few days, I took some free tennis lessons, swam laps in the humongous pool and paddled a kayak around the cove and to a faraway exotic beach. Once there, I engaged in drinking games with a boisterous crowd that included everyone from 18-year-old coeds to wrinkly retirees. I spent my afternoons on the small and gorgeous (but crowded) beach and at the pool, the center of social activity just off the main bar. I read books, watched pelicans divebomb into the surf, and baked under the blazing rays of the tropical sun. And, quite voluntarily, I did the limbo at 2 in the morning in a line of 50 disco die-hards. The next morning I slept late, then bumbled into a restaurant at 11:30 for freshly squeezed orange and grapefruit juice to revive my tequila-soaked head.

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By the fourth day I was completely relaxed, and for the first time in memory I didn’t care about finding a newspaper, radio or TV to tell me of the day’s events.

I can’t overstate how wonderfully relaxing it is to have the freedom to go for days without ever needing a wallet--or even a shirt or pair of shoes. Soon I began exploring every inch of the lush, palm-tree-studded grounds and steep terraced hillsides, hiking one day to an exorbitantly priced luxury hotel across the cove and discovering that its guests were stuck with a rocky beach with a bad undertow. I couldn’t wait to get back to my side of the harbor, and when I did, a dozen of my new friends welcomed me with cheers.

Many of them were veterans of the Club Med scene, and they were eager to impart their wisdom. Next time, they said, bring your own booze. The liquor at the bars is pricey, and no one seems to mind you bringing your own cocktails to the pool, disco or even a bar. The same goes for plastic drink cups, which club veterans use to stock up on juice, beer or wine at meals to last them to the next round of freebies.

I’ll also bring an alarm clock next time. True, one is here to escape the real world and the constraints of time, but there is much to do and a lot of it is done by the clock. That includes sign-ups for the next day’s excursions, and dinner reservations at the romantic coveside restaurant.

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Long before week’s end, I found myself engaging in the silly Club Med dance-alongs that follow the nightly entertainment. I wondered what had gotten into me, and then looked to my right and saw the flailing body of a grinning retired Royal Canadian Mounted Police detective, and the equally writhing millionaire litigator on my left. In our circle of friends, one impish Vancouver schoolteacher had bonded with a buffed-out Chicago law firm comptroller. Her brother, the recently divorced and just-retired Mountie, was having just as much fun with an artist from Berkeley.

And the medical resident I met on the beach? Let’s just say she, indeed, let her hair down. Way down. (But not with me.)

“They come here and leave behind all the rules that govern them back at home living their regular lives,” one staffer observed, hastening to mention another Club Med phenomenon--the one in which lovebirds return home and find their romance has gone as flat as day-old champagne.

I left Playa Blanca tan, rested and ready to throw myself headlong into work again. Upon my return, I also got the sly wink and nod, and the inevitable question, “Ah, Club Med. Didja . . . get lucky?”

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And what I told everyone was the honest truth. Yeah, I got lucky. I made friends I still keep in touch with, had a great time and got some much-needed R&R; in a tropical paradise.

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GUIDEBOOK

Singles in the Sun

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Getting there: Club Med’s Playa Blanca singles village is 120 miles south of Puerto Vallarta, 60 miles northwest of Manzanillo. A seven-night stay includes round-trip air fare from L.A., ground transport, room (double occupancy), meals, free drinks with meals, sports and activities. You must be 18. Depending on availability, Club Med’s seven-night package, until Dec. 12, is $799-$949 per person (single room upgrades $20 a day), plus $80 in Club Med initiation and membership fees, and $53 in taxes; rates jump to $1,149 during Thanksgiving week; cost is $1,499-$1,649 Dec. 18-Jan. 1, and $899 Jan. 2-Feb. 6.

For more information: Call Club Med at (800) CLUBMED. Or contact the Mexican Government Tourism Office, 2401 W. 6th St., Los Angeles, CA 90057; tel. (213) 351-2069.


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