VIL­LAGE PEO­PLE

Leonie Coombes learns to feel the love at Club Med in Malaysia

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

IT is a soft land­ing. Af­ter touch­ing down at Kuan­tan on the east coast of Penin­su­lar Malaysia, we are met by Mini, a white-linen-clad Club Med rep­re­sen­ta­tive who takes us to an of­fice at­tached to the air­port for brief for­mal­i­ties. Here we are of­fered a cool drink, handed our room keys and is­sued with iden­ti­fy­ing strips of peachy fab­ric to tie around our wrists. A sense of be­long­ing en­folds us.

On the fol­low­ing 45-minute bus trip I nod off (it is 2am Syd­ney time), but open my bleary eyes when the coach reaches the re­sort’s im­pres­sive guarded gate. At the end of a long drive­way, there it is: Club Med Cher­at­ing Beach. Sweep­ing steps al­low for a for­ma­tion of sev­eral smil­ing, im­mensely good-look­ing young peo­ple in match­ing ca­sual gear, clearly there to greet us. They are stand­ing at ease, but switch to rhyth­mic ap­plause as our small group makes a lack­lus­tre en­trance.

This con­cen­tra­tion of youth and joy looks like an As­sem­bly of God wel­come to the hid­den city of Shangri-La. The ar­cane rit­u­als of Club Med, how­ever, are merely de­signed to cre­ate a vil­lage at­mos­phere in which ev­ery­one feels in­cluded, im­me­di­ately. It mat­ters not if you are econ­omy-crum­pled and world-weary. You can feel the love.

Nice though that is, we just want to col­lapse on snowy sheets wafted by sea breezes far from this ex­haust­ing friend­li­ness. First, though, we must pay at­ten­tion while Mario, the beam­ing Gen­til Or­gan­isa­teur (or GO) in charge of our in­duc­tion, sud­denly grows se­ri­ous: we must not leave the doors or win­dows to our rooms open. To do so is to is­sue an in­vi­ta­tion. Very bad mon­keys, very, very naughty mon­keys, will come in look­ing for food.

I am re­ally sullen about this mon­key busi­ness. So much for ca­ress­ing South China Sea breezes on steamy nights. My 18-year-old daugh­ter looks quite pleased. I’m not sure if it is the promised prox­im­ity of cheeky mon­keys or the pres­ence of all th­ese hand­some young men.

Fi­nally we re­tire to an el­e­vated twin room in one of sev­eral tra­di­tional bun­ga­lows. It is a bit small, the beds are sin­gles, but all the crea­ture com­forts are here, in­clud­ing television, mini bar and a mod­ern bath­room strewn ar­tis­ti­cally with tiny fresh petals. The air­con­di­tion­ing serves as an ef­fi­cient sub­sti­tute for the breezes de­nied us by naughty mon­keys. Re­cep­tion, the pool and the main restau­rant are a three-minute walk away.

Th­ese pub­lic ar­eas of the ho­tel are all new. Deep shady colon­nades link soar­ing pav­il­ions with flag­stone floors. A huge bar is the hub of the re­sort, dis­pens­ing drinks 16 hours a day. The el­e­gant restau­rant of­fers in­door or out­door din­ing.

At our first break­fast, I re­cover from my petu­lance over the mon­keys. Hang­ing off the rafters and rooftops, they con­duct light­ning raids on va­cated ta­bles, grab­bing leftover crois­sants and toast. Some wait pa­tiently un­der um­brel­las by the pool watch­ing out­door din­ers eat. Wait­ers clap hands and shoo them away in a daily farce that al­ways has the same re­sult: guests laugh­ing and mon­keys plan­ning fur­ther sor­ties. One grabs a tub of yo­ghurt and flees, peel­ing off the foil lid as he scam­pers away.

By late morn­ing, the simian pop­u­la­tion re­treats to jab­ber about the ex­cel­lent pas­tries and fruit plat­ters. Those of us who have re­cently ar­rived now know that in fu­ture a uni­lat­eral con­ti­nen­tal, Amer­i­can, English or Asian break­fast should suf­fice. We slump by the pool so the league of na­tions in our tum­mies can find ac­cord. The food choices merely re­flect Club Med: a con­ver­gence of na­tion­al­i­ties. Guests ar­rive from across the world and the GOs come from 38 coun­tries. Mul­tilin­gual and multi-tal­ented, they put the rum­ble in the jun­gle. Their ob­vi­ous du­ties in­clude food, bev­er­age, sport, en­ter­tain­ment and youth clubs, but GOs also dine with you, smile a lot and try to en­force the Club Med rit­ual known as Crazy Signs danc­ing.

It feels like a Wig­gles con­cert for adults when the boppy mu­sic starts to play. That’s the cue, sev­eral times a day, to get on your feet and fol­low the GOs in a set rou­tine of hand­wav­ing, clap­ping, shakes and jumps. The so­cia­ble ho­tel man­ager, Karim Fajr, a for­mer GO who has risen through the ranks, of­ten leads the moves. He’s the high priest of groov­ing and schmooz­ing and we are his tribe.

Some of us, though, don’t want to bond with any­thing but the sun lounge and the cock­tail of the day. We are tol­er­ated, like peo­ple who don’t stand for na­tional an­thems. Ev­ery morn­ing as we re­main res­o­lutely prone, the la­goon-sized pool surges with hy­per­ac­tiv­ity as wa­ter aer­o­bics, pool games and kids’ club swim­ming ses­sions take place.

The best way to avoid all this ex­er­cise is to catch the Club Med mo­torised train to the beach. Here is a scene from a brochure. Um­brella-shaded lounges face a calm sea. Kayaks and Ho­bie Cats line the shore. A bar on the sand keeps us sip­ping. Beach­comb­ing takes us to the far­thest point of this vine and palm-fringed cres­cent and, though it feels re­mote, we are still within Club Med’s 81ha es­tate. Our ap­petites lure us back to nearby Rem­bu­lan, a soli­tary, pavil­ion-style restau­rant over­look­ing the sea.

Lunch here con­sists of a lim­ited choice of cur­ries, Asian dishes and sal­ads. I am re­lieved that I don’t have to think too hard. In the re­sort’s main restau­rant, the se­lec­tion is be­wil­der­ing. Sev­eral sta­tions presided over by chefs dis­pense freshly cooked food to trawl­ing guests clutch­ing empty plates, poised to make the big­gest de­ci­sion of their day. I mainly opt for Malaysian (when in Cher­at­ing . . .) but French, Ital­ian, In­dian, Ja­panese, roasts, fish and salad all de­serve sam­pling. Desserts are quite small so it is OK to have two.

Good qual­ity vin or­di­naire is in­cluded in the tar­iff, as are all al­co­holic bev­er­ages ex­cept for su­pe­rior wines.

Af­ter din­ner there is live en­ter­tain­ment. Once a week, song and dance is re­placed by a pro­fes­sional-stan­dard cir­cus, with trapeze artists, gym­nasts, clowns and ac­ro­bats. A few of th­ese dare­dev­ils are in­struc­tors in the Club Med Cher­at­ing Beach Cir­cus School.

Any­one who wants to learn to jug­gle or even take to the fly­ing trapeze can have a go. Th­ese ac­tiv­i­ties are es­pe­cially pop­u­lar with young guests.

All age groups are well catered for at Club Med. A new area called Pass­world has just been opened, de­signed for 11 to 17-year-olds. Sound mix­ing and edit­ing fa­cil­i­ties, mu­si­cal in­stru­ments, games, mas­sive ot­tomans for sprawl­ing on, a big screen and a kitchen equipped with snacks and cold drinks are pro­vided. Ba­li­nese-born Ando is one of the ex­u­ber­ant GOs who run Pass­world; he plays in­stru­ments, per­forms in the cir­cus at night, loves sport, speaks sev­eral lan­guages and, at 26, has be­come in­tu­itive in his approach to young guests. If the girls can be re­cruited, the boys will fol­low.

Younger chil­dren also en­joy a 12-hour timetable of ac­tiv­i­ties in Pe­tite Club (ages two to three), Mini Club Med (four to seven) and Kids Club Med (eight to 10). Apart from art, crafts and games, they en­joy all the re­sort’s fa­cil­i­ties with their su­per­vi­sors, one of whom is Dane Bren­nan, 22, a univer­sity grad­u­ate from Syd­ney whose skill as a swim­ming in­struc­tor makes him an as­set in the kids’ clubs. Chil­dren who are not join­ers can spend as lit­tle or as much time in th­ese groups as they wish. Non-join­ers arouse my sym­pa­thy. My motto — in­clude me out — means I as­sid­u­ously avoid most phys­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties in this hu­mid, equa­to­rial cli­mate. That elim­i­nates not just danc­ing but golf, ten­nis, the gym, cir­cus skills (as if), yoga, rock climb­ing and fetch­ing my own drinks from the bar. That is one rea­son I have brought my daugh­ter, Stephanie. An­other is to in­tro­duce her to the self-in­dul­gent world of spas.

The award-win­ning Club Med Spa is set in a trop­i­cal gar­den. On ar­rival we are served ginger tea in tiny cups while treat­ments are dis­cussed. Stephanie opts for a Ba­li­nese mas­sage while I choose a pure na­ture fa­cial, a com­bi­na­tion of yo­ghurt, honey, sugar, tomato, tea and cu­cum­ber. No won­der mon­keys hang around the spa. Af­ter a thin layer of jas­mine oil is ap­plied, I glis­ten like a side salad. My daugh­ter emerges eu­phoric, keen to re­turn. Fool­ishly I have un­leashed a barely sup­pressed he­do­nist in a gar­den of earthly de­lights and will pay for it.

Just how heav­enly Club Med is be­comes ob­vi­ous when we go shop­ping. The town of Ke­ma­man, 10 min­utes away in a taxi, proves un­invit­ing, de­spite cheap DVDs, and fake de­signer sun­glasses and hand­bags. A full day’s shop­ping ex­cur­sion to Kuala Lumpur is a bet­ter idea and can be booked through the re­sort’s tour desk.

But the prospect of leav­ing the pam­pered precincts of Club Med even for one day sparks a big ques­tion in my mind. Why bother? Ev­ery­thing is here, in­clud­ing a well-stocked bou­tique with qual­ity hand­i­crafts, clothes and gifts. Club Med has closed its grip on me. I know I’m in trou­ble on our last day when I leap to my feet like some­one pos­sessed, wal­low­ing in the pool one sec­ond and up­right the next to join in the im­promptu danc­ing. My daugh­ter looks at me oddly from be­hind a book. I prac­ti­cally in­sist that she par­tic­i­pates, too, but her way-too-cool aura pro­tects her.

Back home now, I’m read­just­ing. It’s a bit sad do­ing Crazy Signs danc­ing on your own, but I still feel strangely con­nected to the crowd at Club Med. Maybe it’s time I took off the frayed wrist­band. Leonie Coombes was a guest of Club Med and Malaysia Air­lines. www.clubmed.com.au www.malaysi­aair­lines.com.au

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Mon­key­ing around: Clock­wise from top, Club Med Cher­at­ing Beach; rooms have all the crea­ture com­forts; view across the pool to the main restau­rant; bond­ing with cock­tails at the re­sort’s huge bar

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