Sunday, 16 August 2009

Clubbing in the Pacifique

There's something about islands, and the tiny airports that serve them. As our ferry pulled away from the quay next to Hamilton Island's airport, a big red Virgin Blue 737 roared unexpectedly over our heads, its takeoff having been concealed behind the headland we were passing.

This dramatic intersection of technology with nature seemed quite neat, as we were heading determinedly away from the high-tech outside world to the Club Med resort on Lindeman Island, part of the Whitsundays group between the Queensland mainland and the Great Barrier Reef.

Towards, in fact, a lack of mobile phone reception, unless you fancied a steep hike up to the 8th hole on the golfcourse above the resort.

Luckily there's wireless Internet access at the bar so, dear reader, I'm able to type this at you while seated on the outdoor terrace looking out over palm trees, a beach, a turquoise sea and a selection of vegetation-covered islands along the horizon.

Yes, I know, that sounds like a sample of bad copywriting for a travel agency poster, but what I can say? That's how it is. There's even a soft balmy breeze gently ruffling my hair. Well, not quite, it's too short to be ruffled, but you get the idea.

Anyhow, Club Med is... interesting. I'd never been to one, but had a vague idea of it being a place for sporty young couples and singles. It turns out that the Club Med in the Whitsunday Islands, at least, is very family-friendly. Partly that comes from the price, which is pretty reasonable for a week; partly from the kids' facilities and the fact that a self-contained island resort is a safe place for kids to run around; and partly from the all-inclusive nature of the tariff.

That's a very rare thing in the world of travel; you know once you're on the island that you won't be putting your hand in your pocket unless you want to use a few extra services such as massage. Though I can't help wondering what a non-drinker would think about subsidising everyone else's alcohol consumption. Though perhaps a non-drinker would go to a resort where they could pay a la carte instead.

Either way, it's liberating to leave the wallet in the room safe and simply eat and drink as you feel like it. It also eases all sorts of social issues such as whose turn it is to buy the drinks.

It's an unconventional business model which must limit the opportunities for the resort to make extra profits by offering tempting chances to spend more; and probaby explains why the standard of food and drink is firmly in the 3-star (actually 3-trident) range. However, the guests like the system a lot, so it must be a drawcard in itself, and certainly a point of difference.

And vive la différence. Another notable point about Club Med is the scraps of French terminology about the place, courtesy of its French ownership. The staff, for example, wear shirts with the initials GO, which stands for gentil organisateur; as opposed to gentil membre, a Club Med guest. There's something charming and faintly retro about the use of French in an Anglophone country with a mainly Anglophone clientele, a reminder of the time not so long ago when French was the langue internationale.

And, come to think of it, there's something pleasingly retro about the whole place. Although there's much more emphasis on guests making their own choices of activity (or non-activity) than there was back in the '60s when Club Meds were famous for their group activities, there are significant remnants of that era evident in the nightly cabaret shows performed by the indefatigable international staff (last night's had a Bollywood theme); and even more so by the curious 'crazy signs', a communal dance led by the staff, who assemble suddenly around the pool an gyrate energetially to loud music. It's deeply odd, but in a charmingly eccentric way.

It'll be interesting to see where this Club Med heads in the future. There's talk of an upgrade to 4-trident status, which would presumably raise the rates but allow for higher quality in facilities and services. The Club Méditerranée concept will be 60 years old next year, and obviously has to keep evolving further from its origins as a simple 1950s holiday camp.

It's not, frankly, a resort for those needing peace and quiet - there's a lot of sound and motion throughout the day, especially by the pool and the bar - but there's something attractive about its unaffected retro charm.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Virgin Blue and Club Med. Virgin Blue flies daily to Hamilton Island from Brisbane and Sydney.