Parental bliss in the sun

Club Med takes a little getting used to. But it’s God’s gift to the exhausted parent, writes KAREN KISSANE.

THE captain of the catamaran swooshing us to Club Med, Lindeman Island, radioed ahead that we would be there in minutes. The girls at the other end of the line let loose with party whoops and hollers. I felt like the woman watching Meg Ryan fake an orgasm at a restaurant table in the movie `When Harry Met Sally’: “I’ll have some of what they’re having.”

The girls’ pleasure may well have been no more real than Meg Ryan’s.

Club Med is that kind of place: a virtual-reality village. Nothing is quite what it seems, from the staff to the resort itself. The only palm trees on an island of Australian scrub have been planted by landscapers; the air has no scent; the apparently friendly staff are under instruction to socialise with guests as part of their duties.

It is a strange world, like an artificial womb, providing all that is needed for life and comfort with no effort from its occupants.

Consequently, it is also God’s gift to the exhausted parent.

It didn’t seem so at first. Our children Will, 5, and Alice, 2, had left home for the airport with us at 7.30 that morning. We got to our room on Lindeman at six in the evening. In between, we’d struggled with three airline meals for four people (not realising the plane would not cater for Alice, we hadn’t packed the peanut butter sandwiches), a hot two-hour wait on Hamilton Island after missing a connection, and the aggravation of a lost bag.

Will, who loves the water so much that he sleeps with his bathers under his pillow, arrived on Lindeman without any. Would his Snoopy Y- fronts be up to it, we wondered? Cross and bedraggled, we tumbled into reception, winced as Alice spilled her welcoming watermelon cocktail over the pale blue upholstery of the furniture, and snarled our way down the 77 steps to beach level, which had to be negotiated at toddler pace. We felt defeated by logistics – a familiar state for parents of small children – and exasperated by a barrage of information: beach towels could be had only with a $30 deposit at the sailing shack; the phone could not be used until we had obtained a
pin number from reception; drinks could not be bought with cash but only with “bar beads”; the washing machines took only $1 coins; babysitters could not be guaranteed, having to be booked 24 hours ahead; and we were basically forbidden to take children into meals.

Like Alice in Wonderland, we had fallen into a maddening three-dimensional board game where we could make no move without first knowing the rules. Everyone hates their first 24 hours at a Club Med, a staff member told us later, because it takes that long to work out how to do things. The resort that comes with everything included doesn’t include user-friendly instruction sheets.

Our seduction began the next morning. We took Will to Mini Club, the child-care centre for four-to-seven-year-olds (Kids’ Club is for older children, up to the age of 12). He looked around in disbelief, not sure where to start: the adventure playground; the bright room full of toys and books; the kids’ tennis court or their two pools, one toddler-depth, the other an almost drown-proof 70 centimetres deep.

Both pools were sheltered by huge swathes of shadecloth and surrounded by child-proof fencing. The final touch – mini deck chairs and banana lounges. Who says money can’t buy happiness? It certainly bought Will’s.

Watchful of how he would be in even the best strange environment on his own and a tad guilty at the idea of leaving him – aren’t holidays family time? – we told him daily that he had only to say so if he wanted a day messing about with us or preferred to be picked up early.

Forget it. He wanted the full Mini Club day, 9am to 9pm, every day, and was restless to be back all through the evening break from 5 to 6.30.

Will crammed more into that five days than he would have experienced in a string of summer holidays with us. He had his first tennis lessons, his first try at darts – he won the bronze – and his first attempts at snorkelling, surf-paddling and windsurfing (Mini Club has kid-size sailboards in the pool).

He painted T-shirts, baked cakes, swam at the beach – safely encased in a little life-jacket – charged through riotous treasure hunts and joked and riddled his noisy way through the children’s special sittings in the restaurant. (In the civilised fashion of the British aristocracy, “the smalls” at Club Med are fed an hour before the adults, supervised by the child-care staff.) And, on only his second night, he made his stage debut.

I had been reluctant about his performance in the guests’ show when first asked, thinking he needed an early night after the trip up. But he had already learned his part and said, with the air of one explaining to an idiot: “Mum, they need me.”
That night we sat in the front row of the theatre. Will had said he was to be a clown, but when he bounced out of the wings he was almost unrecognisable. It wasn’t the gold lame vest, the wig or the makeup; it was the sang-froid. He waited for his cue, calm and focused. Then he cheerily blew raspberries, threw himself on his back and wiggled his legs in the air, and danced with the other clowns.

The kids’ cast then sat in the wings and watched the rest of the show, transfixed by their first taste of the footlights. They came back on for the big finale and I was beside myself. There he was, dancing right up the front with the stars – the woman in the blonde wig miming to Olivia Newton-John and the guy in black being John Travolta – and I had no more film in the camera to capture it. Move over, Mrs Temple.

For mothers, their Club Med stay was often the first real holiday since the children came. I had the mornings to myself and used them to cross the last great divide into the middle class: I took tennis lessons. (The lean, tanned, French instructor, Pascal, stunned by my inability to hit the ball, inquired gently: “Karen, this is your first time?” I blushed like a virgin: “Yes, Pascal.”) In the afternoon, minding Alice while she slept and my husband sailed, I sat and watched the sea, letting the peace soak in. The only necessity that punctuated our day was turning up in time for meals, huge gourmet buffets that transformed the main restaurant into a foodie’s Aladdin’s cave. Only the rain on the last day made leaving at all bearable.

Will came home with the usual child’s holiday treasures: shiny medals on blue ribbons, a monkey-up-a-palm-tree swizzle stick, and the crab claw, whiffy by now, that his Dad had stolen from the buffet for him.

But he also brought with him a new sense of himself. At the end of his stage show, as the audience of suckered Mums and Dads applauded, he whipped off his hat and bowed. My little man, now  a man of the world.
Karen Kissane was a guest of Club Med.

First published in The Age.