2000s Archive

So This Is Bliss?

Originally Published November 2003
Once upon a time, in a hot tub far away, Club Med defined the art of excess. It still does, but now it’s the kid-friendly variety.

When you are a child, paradise is in the imagination. It’s a place filled with Willy Wonka’s chocolates, a tree house like the Swiss Family Robinson’s, and all the responsibility of the banana-plucking, vine-swinging, half-naked lazing boy in The Jungle Books. A child believes not only that the whole world should have delicious treats dropping into her hands but also that the world itself should be made of food. Think of the scene in Hansel and Gretel where temptation comes in the form of gingerbread houses that you can simply stand outside and eat.

When you get older, you want to travel to a real-life Eden that fulfills those longings. But no Paris is as mysterious as Madeline’s windy, leaf-swept Paris. And the real Plaza hotel dims beside the Plaza you visit with Eloise, in which anything you could possibly imagine is available from room service, as you call under the supervision of a beer-drinking, indulgent nanny.

Your fantasies change, of course, in adolescence. In 1974, Claire Freitas and I were 12 and 13 years old respectively, and we spent hours watching TV and trying to figure out what grown-up life and pleasures were all about. We dreamed of escape to anywhere but the parent-policed present and were deeply impressed with an ad for Club Med: “The Antidote to Civilization.” Seductively smiling lithe young adult bodies were lounging around in hot tubs under the palms. Yes! we thought. There was a land where everything for­bidden to us would be permitted; surely Club Med was it.

In the ’70s, of course, the French-based Club Med was actually all about Margarita-fueled sex and young, eager glossy-lipped G.O.’s, gentils organisateurs—it was synonymous with the sexual revolution. Though we imagined we could handle it, it was truly no place for a kid, let alone families.

Even when we were old enough to drink bottomless Margaritas, Claire and I never did make it to Club Med. By that time, it had acquired an aura of retro tackiness. But the remembered allure of it lingered.

What happened to Club Med? It grew up, too. Revenues diminished as boomers aged and sex-with-strangers-on-a-beach as a travel lure faded. So Club Med began to reinvent itself. The trademark is still high-concept indulgence amid natural beauty, and it is still thoroughly French, but now a number of the resorts have self-consciously decided to apply that sense of no-holds-barred crazy abundance to the under-12 set and their stressed-out professional parents. Maybe, I thought, it’s time for me (and my kids) to try the antidote to civilization I’d been dreaming of for 30 years.

When you enter the open-air registration area for Club Med Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, you may at first wonder if you’ve happened on the singles resort: Bikini-clad Frenchwomen stroll around, doing that thing they do with their hips or flirting with their husbands. These women may well have children—by dinnertime you will find out, to your astonishment, that they do—but the kids are nowhere in sight.

You are in another kind of place and culture, you think. But then the sensibly clad American women pass by. They are the same age as their French counterparts—but differently shaped. They walk as if their goal is to get some­where rather than to stir the air. They flirt with no one. And they are completely focused on the kids.

In the American families, the kids crawl over exhausted Mom and Dad—with Mom instructing Dad to put on Biff’s sunscreen while she digs around in her bag for little Britney’s sunglasses; sexless partners doing sexless business. In contrast, the Frenchwomen have apparently banished the kids to the Children’s Clubs until mealtime, when they take over all the child direction. (We never saw a Frenchman turn his hand to child management the entire week we were there.) Later, these same Frenchwomen, kids once more at bay, can be found coquetting furiously with their husbands by the pool.

When, that is, they aren’t walking on the beach in the way that only Frenchwomen walk. I actually practiced deconstructing “the walk”: You square your shoulders, bend your arms out slightly at the elbow as if you are wearing opera gloves, and delicately flex your wrists; then you imagine that, with each step, each hip is aggressively flicking backward an invisible tassel. (American women have not stood this way since 1964, and they have never, ever walked this way. If they had, our political and economic structure would be very different—long lunchtimes, for example.)

Mere mortal women of other countries pad along in the surf, flat-footed, hitching their swimsuits. But the Frenchwomen don’t take a step in which they are not being panned like film stars by an imagined audience of appreciative males; even their four-year-old daughters follow along behind their mothers doing a miniature version of “the walk,” proud and feminine as coquettish ducklings.

As the kids and I crossed the grounds of the resort, I found myself thinking that not only would I have learned a lot about femininity here at 12—I would have been quite happy here at 8. Because this is the kind of place where Disneyland characters would live if the Magic Kingdom ever evicted them. Elegant sets of pastel-colored colonial barracks are positioned perpendicularly, like toys, surrounded by a riot of Crayola-colored bougainvillea. As if in the scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland where the gardeners are gathered around a rose-bearing tree, nervously painting the blossoms red in time for the Queen of Hearts’ imperious arrival, uniformed Dominican gardeners appear to whisk away stray leaves or blossoms from the profusely flowering bushes the moment they hit the ground. Beyond this immaculate tropical suburb lies a white-hot stretch of beach and a haze of blue sea.

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