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Single-Minded at Club Med

Playa Blanca's steady diet of sports, food and hints of romance converts a skeptic

November 15, 1998|JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Meyer is a Metro reporter for the Times

COSTA DE CAREYES, Mexico — 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.

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."

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.

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.

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