GUADELOUPE, West Indies — "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 \o7 (gentils organisateurs,\f7 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.