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TRAVEL INSIDER

Getting the Write Stuff on Your Vacation Agenda

EducationPopular 'thinking trips' range from writing seminars to cooking exhibitions.

April 11, 1999|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Sure, you could curl up with a good book on your next vacation. But why stop there, when you can curl up with a good author?

That seems to be the idea, figuratively speaking, behind a new programming move at Club Med. This week, the Club Med village in Cancun, Mexico, plays host to dozens of top writers and critics, along with about 500 paying guests (the bill is $959, excluding air fare, for seven days), gathered for a forum exploring "the complexity of American identity in today's literature."

If you're startled by the idea of authors Richard Ford, Jay McInerney, Jamaica Kincaid, Cynthia Ozick and John Edgar Wideman practicing their erudition poolside, or perhaps pausing to explicate that jaunty Club Med theme song ("Hands up, baby, hands up. Give me your heart, gimme gimme your heart . . . "), look again. Not only are those names indeed on the forum roster (along with a few dozen other authors and literary journalists), but this effort is also far from unique.

Amid mounting signs that Americans are looking for more "thinking trips" and self-improvement travel, many resorts, cruise lines and theme parks have put new emphasis on their cultural programming. In addition, sponsors of writers' conferences have found eager allies in the tourism trade.

Literature doesn't necessarily dominate these new offerings. In fact, promoters on land and on sea have found that chefs (who often give free samples and have service-industry experience) often outperform writers and others as up-close-and-personal attractions. But in getaway destinations around the world, authors are turning up in unexpected places.

In Elko, Nev., a handful of folklorists staged the first Cowboy Poetry Gathering for a few bleak January days in 1985, drawing a surprising 1,500 people. The day after the first gathering was finished, recalls Meg Glaser, artistic director of the Western Folklife Center (telephone [888] 880-5885) in Elko, "the [city's] businesspeople wanted to meet." Now the eight-day poetry gathering, sponsored by the folk-life center, draws about 8,000 people, most of them neither cowboys nor poets but "western enthusiasts who are looking for an authentic experience," Glaser says.

They come each January, despite occasional subzero temperatures, for readings and seminars in biscuit baking, blacksmithing and other western crafts. At least partially in response to the gathering's success, says Glaser, Elko's hotel room inventory is expected to grow from 1,600 to about 2,200 in the next year or two. (Prices are unsettled for next year's gathering, which will run Jan. 22 to 29. Last year's gathering featured ticket prices of $20 per adult for three days of general events, and $15 to $20 per adult for each evening reading/performance.)

In Club Med's case, cultural programming is part of an effort to spark interest in a company that has lost market share to several other all-inclusive resorts. Although it may be best known in the U.S. as a haven for swinging singles in the 1970s and '80s, Club Med, founded by a Belgian in 1950, has long offered programs outside North America with relatively highbrow themes (cinema, art and photography, for instance). But the Cancun gathering is the company's first North American program of this kind.

The next Club Med forum, which will feature writing workshops and presentations on the world of book publishing, is scheduled for May 29 in Kemer, Turkey. On Sept. 26, a "Sixties" forum, celebrating movies, songs, paintings and dance of that era, is scheduled for Vittel, France. On Dec. 13, another forum at Val Thorens in the French Alps will look at magic and magicians. (Club Med; tel. [800] 258-2633.)

Meanwhile, on the Hawaiian island of Lanai, a more modest program is in its seventh year and still gaining steam. In 1992 the Lanai Co., which operates the two main hotels on the island, started a visiting artist program as a bonus for well-heeled guests. The presentations, free to anyone on the island at the time, are "a nice way to add a certain cachet to the island," spokeswoman Babs Harrison says. (With fewer than 400 guest rooms and rates that rarely dip below $325 nightly, Lanai's exclusivity gives it a certain cachet to start with.)

Informal at first, the program has grown to include one or two guest artists per month, mostly celebrity chefs, performers and authors, including Dave Barry, Garrison Keillor, Calvin Trillin, Peter Matthiessen and the ubiquitous Jay McInerney. (Lanai resorts; tel. [800] 321-4666.)

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