The Club Med Experience, Relaxing in San Salvador, Bahamas

Club Med…The name conjures up beads exchanged for drinking, wild beach parties and fun for the young. Skimpy bikinis and sexy outfits. Club Méditerranée, commonly known as Club Med, is a French collection of vacation resorts found in many parts of the world. Club Med was started in 1950.

Vacations come with expectations and often are scripted. Can any inclusive vacation really be a trifecta of vacation activities, food, and drink…sprinkled with a celestial beauty at night and the quintessential beach setting?

Trying a Club Med vacation was something I never really thought would be part of my travel experience, particularly in retirement since I moved to an East Coast beach full time when I retired. Very close friends went often and finally suggested we try a week in December with them to see what it was all about. The trip was to Columbus Isle in San Salvador, Bahamas in December 2011. This small and beautiful Bahamian island of San Salvador is supposedly notable for once being widely accepted to be the initial landing point of Christopher Columbus in 1492.

What could be bad about getting away from the onset of winter on the east coast?

The experience from the arrival in Fort Lauderdale to checking in at the Spirit Airlines counter is the first contact with the Club Med “image.” From the United States the only departure point for the charter flight to Columbus Isle is Fort Lauderdale. It is up to the traveler to book their own flight from wherever they originate to arrive in Fort Lauderdale in time for the charter flight.

As the Great Member (GM) you retrieve your luggage from whatever flight you came into the Fort Lauderdale area. You must then take you and your luggage to Terminal 4 which is the terminal for Spirit Airlines. The airlines is a bit low end but a Club Med representative meets you, checks you are on their list, and shows you to the two flight check-in counters just for Club Med. Since as a GM and you are flying on the Club Med charter, there is no fee for carry-on luggage which is a relief. The lines for regular check-in are long and slow moving so it is nice to step up to the Club Med designated counters and complete the passport process and obtain the boarding pass quickly and easily. The seats are assigned and they do keep companion travelers together. Spirit Airlines can be a real problem going and coming. The airline is not obsessed with schedules. Late arrivals and late departures are fairly common. But, you are on vacation! Chill! It is one of those happenings in life over which you have no control.

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View from the airplane just before landing

After a brief one hour flight to the resort, deplaning is always a mystery in this tiny airport at San Salvador, Bahamas. Sometimes the plane parks near the Bahamian entry building. Sometimes the flight ends at an inconvenient point on the tarmac which requires a long stroll across a steamy and hot blacktop. In any case, there are no pictures of the small entry building permitted and Bahamian immigration and flight officials enforce a ban on those “first moment” on the ground photos. Going through customs is disorganized and rather nerve racking. The Bahamian Security employees check your luggage, supposedly for alcohol or other items not allowed into the country. However, no one tells you what is or is not allowed. Once through the Customs, the rest is fun.

From here, it is all the “Club Med” experience.

Club Med has levels of membership. These are “special rewards to show our appreciation for your continued loyalty” and are gold, silver, and turquoise. One doesn’t buy into a level. You move through the levels based on the amount of days or and the total amount of expenditures you have accumulated for your visits to Club Med. So, we started as Turquoise and have since moved to Silver. The close friends we travel with each year are Gold. In fact, they have visited Club Med resorts 38 times! There are a variety of benefits associated with each level. This is a wonderful example of the organization’s effective marketing strategies and targeting the audience most engaged in the Club Med ambiance and type of travel experience.

If you are an entry level Club Med member, you take the bus the short distance to the resort offices for check in. You are escorted in groups to your rooms. If you are a gold member, you are taken in a small van and arrive with your own GO. Drinks and warm wet cloths are provided and you are escorted individually to your room. Luggage arrives shortly thereafter. There is a lovely swan towel shaped welcome gift on your bed with a lovely note and a soap complimentary gift.

Depending on the level of membership, other benefits are available including discounts on boutique products and certain island excursions. The highest level of accommodation is reserved for the Deluxe Residence Owners which is similar to a Timeshare option.

There are a few basics to understand about the personnel you will meet.

The Chef de Village is the head person at each resort. These are usually highly energetic and multi-skilled individuals who are in-charge and responsible for all aspects of the resort. The Chef de Village is highly social and moves daily through the dining areas, the activities, and the pool, easily chatting with guests, answering many of the questions visitors have, and ensuring that the entire experience is up to your expectations.

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Chef de Village #2 with GM

A GO is a “gracious organizer” and a “GM” is a “great member” – you!

The GOs are young people who excel in gracious enthusiasm and cheery and helpful attitudes. They work 6 days a week for many hours. In a setting like Columbus Isle, the island has no other option than the resort. The Club Med employees have no option to drive and there is nowhere to drive anyway. The special feature of Club Med is that the GOs and GMs are expected to play, share meals, drink, and dance together every day and night. Any interactions beyond social are totally up to the participants but since this a mostly a family or couples resort, it is not prevalent. Some of the GOs are couples, some are married. Some are merely doing their six months until they are moved on to their next assignment.

The GEs are the General Employees consisting of housekeeping, food service, and the groundskeepers. The GEs are native Bahamians. The Bahamian government and Club Med are about the only options for employment although there is another small resort, Riding Rock, and two marinas. Some of the subcontractors at the Club Med do hire local divers for the dive operation and masseuses for the spa. The Bahamians are not enthusiastic but most are resigned to their employment and do their job.  In conversations with locals, education is available on the island. Skilled trades and higher education are obtained in Nassau but the income level of most Bahamians is low.

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Dining Service Staff on White Night

 

Guests (the GMs) are predominately French and French is spoken by all employees, who also are required to speak English. All notices are provided in English and in French. Sometimes staff will speak and check if there are any English speakers participating in an activity and if there are none, only French is spoken. The French are similar to the many I have encountered in America’s national parks and in France. While there are certainly many individual exceptions, they don’t seem to move over when walking abreast on a narrow path. Many do not say hello, or bonjour, in greeting. The women are generally quite thin and fit. The gentlemen, not so much, but they are definitely thinner than most American men. Smoking is an issue for me. A surprising number of the French do smoke cigarettes and apparently do not believe any health warning information and are not aware of secondary smoke as a concern. The next largest group is the “English speakers” and consists of Canadians and Americans who arrive on Saturdays. The French come on Wednesdays.

There are no rules that are posted at this Club Med with exception of a few signs posted as one walks along the path parallel to the beach. In French and English is a request to not feed the birds. Oddly, there are few birds at all on the beach. Briefly sighted in the area of the spa was an American Kestrel. On occasion a single Bananaquet can be sighted under an eave. A small group of juvenile coots can be scene rarely wandering among the palms pecking at the ground.

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The pool is small but faces the ocean and affords a beautiful view of the beach area. In the past it was not heated so it was very chilly. This time the pool is comfortable, ranging from about 75 to 82 degrees. It is crystal clean and well maintained. Until the beginning of our second week, there was only one child splashing about. Week 2 of our trip, the French schools closed for the holidays so currently there are about 10 + children merrily splashing around.

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The pool area has many reclining lounges and about fifteen cabanas which are helpful if the day is windy or the sun too intense.

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A particular ritual occurring every day is a group dance or crazy signs led by the GOs at varying intervals during the day around the pool.

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 The beach is white, fine sand with small seashells in the less traveled areas. There are lounges and wooden open thatched covered areas along the expansive and deep beaches.

Towels are a bit of an issue. There is one location and that is a bit of a walk from the pool area. It is also closed during the noon hour which is sometimes when a guest leaving the beach or pool for lunch might wish to refresh their towels. Also, towel cards are issue, one to an individual, which is to be used to exchange for a towel. Seems like a rather archaic system since towels are large and blue, very distinctive. The luggage is checked thoroughly by the Bahamian Security prior to checking out and any towels would be confiscated..

One of the more interesting important aspects of traveling to Club Med is the “color of the day experience.” A different clothing color is suggested for each day. The schedule for our visit was:

Saturday – Cappuccino

Sunday – All White or the “White Night” as it is known

Monday – 45 and Black

Tuesday – Elegant

Wednesday – Black and Pink

Thursday – Blue and White

Friday – Black and Flashy

This does help organize packing and while it is optional, it identifies participants willing to engage in the many performance options that are quite American Idol like. When a guest stays for two weeks, it can be a bit of a stretch since the “45” is a Club Med clothing item and is sold in the boutique only and by a subcontractor. Many 45 pieces of clothing are available from t-shirts to dresses to bikinis. So, unless you have a special Club Med box for your paraphernalia at home there is a limited opportunity for wear.

Meal times at Club Med are mostly at the guests’ options but within their pre-established guidelines. Breakfast is from 7:00 to 10:30. Lunch is from 12:30 to 2:30. Dinner is from 7:30 to about 9:30 at the main dining areas.

A special dining experience is available by reservation only at Watlings at the far end of the resort. The beach bar serves great espresso, latte, and cappuccino and all variety of alcohol throughout the day, along with some snacks. The Verve Lounge opens at 6:00 pm and serves shelf alcohol, wine, champagne, and coffee until the evening ends. Drinks can be taken to the pool area but there is no pool side service for drinks or food.

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An “Activities of the Day” schedule is available on the wall outside of the main bar area and in the reception area. The schedule indicates the Evening Dress Color, the type of food for the restaurant (Fusion, Bahamian, Mediterranean, Spices, Latin), excursions, locations of events, games, tournaments, and entertainment. The activities at the resort are endless. Most are no-cost, part of the all-inclusive package. The ocean activities include paddle boarding, kayaking, and Hobie catamarans. Kite surfing and the jetski s are available at a small fee. The snorkel boat is free and equipment is available.

Diving classes resulting in a PADI certification and several dives a day are reasonably priced. There are two dives available for the morning dive boat and one dive for the afternoon dive boat. Most visitors wear wet suit vests when diving, even in May and June. Our friends who have been to this Club Med 12 times to dive have amazing photos and video of the marine life. In Snorkeling Guide to Marine Life, Florida Caribbean Bahamas by Paul Humann and Ned DeLoach, the marine life is examined in detail accompanied by photos and descriptions.

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Various day trip options are available for a cost through a third party provider, including a lagoon tour, lobster sunset picnic, tour of the island (on a school bus), and fishing. Tennis and tennis lessons are free and based on skill level. Ping pong and Bocce Ball are great fun, along with beach volley ball. Tournaments of all varieties of activities are frequent and there is an awards ceremony.

I walked around the perimeter of the resort daily, about a mile plus. It is a healthy option to tour the outskirts of the resort and see the staff living areas, the roving chickens, and the Sumba and yoga areas.

Another option is to buy a float mat at the Boutique (they blow it up)and use it to float in the ocean, bobbing around and floating out to the coral reef off shore and look at the fish swimming below. Since I didn’t want to deflate the raft and bring it home, I found a young teen girl at the pool to give it to at the end of my trip.

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Bikes are for rent for one half day or a whole day. This is one of the best ways to see the sights of San Salvador Island. Depending on your stamina (bikes have the big tires) you can peddle through Cockburn Town, the local Marina, Place Christophe Columb (Christopher Columbus Monument), the seawall, and the Olympic Torch marker. The largest community on the island is Cockburn Town, and is the center of all activities on the island, having the home of the Post Office, stores, telecommunications, many churches, and electricity generators. Visiting the rest of the island on your own is easier on the motor scooters which can be rented just outside of the entrance to Club Med through an island company.

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**An important note is that if you are used to driving on the right side with a car or bike, driving is the opposite – cars and bikes drive on the left. Unfortunately, walking appears to be up for grabs. Walking opposite the traffic does not seem to be a local practice.

Entertainment

A guest NEVER needs to be bored. There are activities from early morning to late at night. The pool organized activities sometimes border on the intrusive but then…there is always the beach. There are games all afternoon and evening at the Beach Bar. There are sailing regattas, tournaments, and spontaneous “animation” events all day long. In the evening there are always fashion shows, dinner events, and entertainment shows in the Theatre, including Cabarets, show times, bands at the Verve Bar, parties at the Beach, BBQs on the beach, parties everywhere, live music by the pool, and spur of the moment “events.”

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Animation Coordinator

English speaking parties are scheduled at the Beach Bar to facilitate meeting the other Americans and Canadians. The second week in December there were 61 invitations sent to the group. Since the resort is full, it would appear that nearly 600 of the guests were French speaking.

Weather

While we all desire “perfect” weather, sometimes interesting is just as good. Apparently, in May it can be quite hot and very sticky. In December, a light wrap for outside evening activities is a must. It can rain intermittently, although there was a full day of rain while I was there. An umbrella is likely important as well since there are none sold in the boutique.

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The Landscape

There are some beautiful flowers and unique trees in the resort.

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The Rooms

The rooms are nice, not high end but great for the price and the view. Air conditioning is not a high priority in the resort so prepare to be a bit warm. The beds are new and very comfortable. The bathrooms need renovation and are scheduled to be completed by the next season.

Really, you won’t be spending much time in your room…this is an outdoor vacation!

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Sunset from the room

Another important aspect to some on vacation is access to their mobile devices, phones, and TV. There is Wi-Fi available but it is usually a weak signal and the further you get from the Main Lounge area, the more difficult it is to access. Unless the guest is a gold member, there is a cost per week. There are phones in each room but calling internationally is quite expensive and a code is needed. Text services are available through some mobile phone services and WhatsAp works in any country. Mobile phones will work depending on the plan for each guest’s mobile phone.

Bugs can be an annoying problem are more evident in multiple foot, ankle, and leg bites after rain and when the sea grasses are washed up on the beach by the wind. Guests are warned not to bring their towels from the beach into the room to avoid sand fleas in the room. Mosquitos bite at dusk. If you wish to have protection, bring your own Deet based product. There is an aloe 7% product sold in the boutique but it is not very effective. Spraying in completed throughout the resort each night but makes no difference at dusk.

The Boutique frequently has big sales. Sometimes I have purchased $95 items on sale for 75% off. Mostly the sales are theme based and reasonable. The typical Boutique prices are high but a spur of the moment vacation purchase can be fun. If you are a large sized individual, male or female, there are no sizes for you. If you don’t want to buy a tiny bikini, bring your own swimsuits.

The Goodbye

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Departures from the club are generally a cheery experience and most of the GOs come to the main lounge and affectionately hug everyone and chat about our wonderful experiences with each other. Delays are not uncommon due to the necessity to wait for the flight to arrive from Fort Lauderdale bringing the next group of GMs from America and Canada. It is probably much better to not schedule a connecting flight within about three hours of your expected arrival in Fort Lauderdale or the stress can ruin your absolutely wonderful vacation.

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A people watching opportunity of sitting in the outdoor departure area is to watch the deplaning folks from the colder areas of the US and Canada. Most arrive with Hugs boots, heavy coats, pale skin, and a look of enchanting anticipation of their week or more to come. The upcoming weeks there are the Christmas holidays and the resort is at capacity with people seeking a warm weather holiday.

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**Important Health Note

All of your medications and general health care and beauty products need to be brought with you. There is no pharmacy on the island. There are no medical services. There is an infirmary with a nurse only option for a very limited number of hours a day. There is a Scuba Doctor visit 8:00 – 8:15 am, 12:00 – 1:00 pm, and 5:00 – 7:00 pm. Any clinical care for accidents or unexpected health conditions must be obtained by flying to Nassau on a specially chartered (and very undependable) flight. If I had a health condition that might be unstable, I would not come to this Club Med.

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