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Club Meds: the new look

December 14, 1986|JERRY HULSE | Times Travel Editor

Call out the gendarmes. Once billed as a hide-out for hedonists, the worldwide playgrounds of Club Mediteranee are soft-pedaling the old image that these are sanctuaries for the sybarite.

While it may surprise old Club Med hands, the French vacation outposts are pulling the plug on certain indulgences in a beefed-up campaign to woo new members.

Remember all the whispered tales about blithe spirits slipping off on nightly patrols to someone else's bungalow on clandestine searches for companionship? Well, all that's changing. Because now it's more likely that club members will be found (ho-hum) curled up in a hammock stretched between palms outside their own bungalow. Reading a book or perhaps just snoozing.

This, at any rate, is the picture Club Med's execs are putting across in a not-so-subtle endeavor to attract families with children.

No more nocturnal searches for the opposite sex, no more alcoholic orgies. Just good clean family fun. And while it's unlikely that everyone is going to buy this story, the village chiefs indicate that uninhibited vacationers are getting a cooler reception. But more about this later.

From tents to temples is the circuit this worldwide carrousel of playgrounds has taken since its spinoff in France shortly after the hostilities of World War II ended.

Once the exclusive domain of singles in their 20s and 30s, the clubs today are attracting families as well as older groups. Club Med wants moms and pops and kids, and to show they're serious the organizers have gone so far as to establish baby clubs staffed by pediatricians.

Besides families, Club Med is pursuing mature travelers 40 and up. They've even nabbed one or two in their 80s.

This isn't to say Club Med is spurning youth. On the contrary, the 100-plus villages worldwide are invaded weekly by new enforcements of young vacationers bent on spending their energies windsurfing, playing tennis, scuba diving, riding, backpacking, river rafting, skiing, ad infinitum.

No one is required to dress in the latest fashions, and employees speak to members in a dozen languages.

With the world its oyster, Club Med has established camps even in communist nations--Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania.

At one point the club had its eye on a beachhead near Yalta in the Soviet Union, but backed off for a number of reasons.

One of the hottest items on its worldwide agenda was to be a village in China. Only 10 miles from Hong Kong, the dateline was to be Sui Mui Sha. Figure that: beads and bikinis in the land of batwing sampans and water buffalo.

Well, it didn't work out, and more than one Westerner doing business in Hong Kong is disappointed--as are dozens of Japanese couples who made known their intentions of honeymooning at Sui Mui Sha.

So what happened?

The Chinese simply decided they'd prefer something a trifle more sedate, so they leased a couple of villas to Club Med on the grounds of the Imperial Summer Palace outside Peking. No golf or tennis. And none of the other club-oriented pursuits. So rest in peace, Chairman Mao, rest in peace. Instead, the inns are serving as staging areas for China's sightseers.

Shelter is provided in suites done up like a mandarin's palace, complete with TV and telephone. In addition, Club Med has leased a ship for three- and four-day cruises on the Yangtze River and intends to introduce a third inn at Xian. Again, though, no beads or bikinis. It's simply not Mother China's style.

One can test the traditional Club Med high jinks on the island of Phuket in Thailand. A dip in the Indian Ocean and then zip off to the elephant farms of Chiang Mai and a gabfest with monks during teatime in a temple.

One can hardly get more exotic than that.

Phuket Island is only a short flight from Bangkok and the 90 acres Club Med occupies on Kata Beach. It's not exactly "The King and I" but it's close.

Guests come eyeball to eyeball with water buffalo. They learn the martial arts and dine in a restaurant/bar that resembles a Thai palace, complete with Thai dancers.

In Malaysia, near the village of Kuantan, Club Med Cherating involves a sweep of low-rise buildings with beaches, swimming pools and a disco. Unlike a number of other Club Med properties, the menu here lists all the exotic specialties of the region, including Malaysian, Japanese, Indian and Chinese fare, along with an interlude of classical music at sunset.

At Club Med Cherating scholarly types join languages classes while others bone up on silk-screen art. Or for those who'd rather loaf than learn, the G.O. organizes canoe trips into the jungles and picnic safaris along stretches of milky sands.

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