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