Joy to the world
Leonie Coombes finds there’s fun for all at the newly chic Club Med on Indonesia’s Bintan Island
HAPPINESS, happiness. Sacrebleu , is that all they think about at Club Med? This obsession goes back to post-war Europe and the foundation of the company. There was a short supply of happiness in those days but the fixation continues. Now much of its promotional material bears the message: ‘‘ Where happiness means the world.’’ The French version is more generous: ‘‘ Tous les bonheurs du monde .’’ It translates as ‘‘ all the happiness of the world’’, an offer so vast it requires scrutiny.
On a mission to measure happiness I set out for Club Med Bintan Island, which is in Indonesia but reached via a one-hour high-speed ferry ride from Singapore. Conveniently for international travellers, the ferry terminal is 10 minutes from Changi Airport and, upon arrival at Bintan, a large island with a 105km coastline, it is a similarly short distance to Club Med.
This resort has obvious potential as an alternative to Singapore for travellers in need of a recuperative stopover. But to extract all that happiness may take several days.
I arrive, with a small group of fellow travellers, to a Club Med baptism. This is nothing less than a full happiness immersion. Assembled to give us a smiling welcome is a contingent of those unflaggingly cheerful young people who comprise Club Med’s multicultural, multilingual staff. Their roles encompass reception, entertainment, sports, child care and asking guests in several languages how they are as they rush to beach volleyball or yoga. General manager Ryan Leach, a buoyant Californian who bears the title chefdevillage , extends greetings followed by a dance performance from locals in vibrant national costume. We come up gasping, but absorbed into that joyful fold.
Any residual disaffection for the world, which most travellers feel after a long wearisome haul, evaporates as we stroll through the resort. Its situation is gorgeous, stretching along 250m of exclusive golden sand facing the South China Sea. Colourful gardens line the paths to our rooms, set in low-rise blocks. This chic property has recently benefited from a $6.5 million refurbishment, bringing the resort up to the standard expected by sophisticated holiday-makers.
Newly decorated bars and lounges, located in the resort’s breezy four-storey hub, look out to ships at sea and on to the pool, the oceanic blueness of which fills a huge forecourt and looks a likely source of happiness.
So does the Santai Bar that opens on to it. This convivial hotspot, where staff and guests mingle each night, is a cocktail of vibrant colours and funky furniture bearing the stamp of French interior design. In the afternoon, we retreat to its cool environs and sip iced water and lime.
Superior-grade rooms have happiness meters pinging to high. Here persimmon and tangerine cushions are strewn on a bed facing a flat-screen television while a private balcony faces the sea. I foolishly turn on CNN and the marauding world enters, threatening the happy vibe, which was also threatened in the 14th century when plundering Malay pirates with bows and arrows cruised these shores. I discard that unsettling image and note how much happier it is now they are gone.
Stealing into the bathroom I find peace in a large shower and two handbasins, both surrounded by Crabtree & Evelyn scented goodies. Air-conditioning, a day bed, minibar, DVD player, safe and iron might not, separately, contribute much to all the happiness of the world but throw in two boxed chocolates on the pillow each night and feel those endorphins kick in.
Maybe your happiness bar is set high. Deluxe rooms and suites should get you over, with furnished terraces, sofas, a bath and the option of a room-service breakfast. These spacious retreats are popular with honeymooners and families.
Even if you bring the children, romance is still a holiday option thanks to the freedom offered by Petit Club and Kids Club. Stories abound of youngsters who wept at the prospect of leaving these exclusive areas where child-loving staff keep the two to 11 age group occupied all day.
At night, private babysitting is available or there is the Pillow Club, a childminding service that allows parents to enjoy Club Med’s evening entertainment (there is a small charge for these services).
The program of daily activities for children includes much of the fare that adults enjoy, such as crafts, movies, beach games, watersports and circus skills.
Trapeze is hugely popular with guests from five to 75. Patient staff, who double as performers at the weekly circus show, assist Barnum & Bailey wannabes in safety harnesses to swing through the air with varying degrees of ease. One Aussie in his 60s shames many teenagers with his first attempt.
That’s happiness for one kind of swinger. Another species can be found a buggy-ride away at Club Med’s Ria Bintan Golf Club. The 27-hole course, designed by Gary Player, is flung beside rocky coves and encircling small forests. It is ranked the best in Indonesia and one of the finest in Asia.
Some of us need not raise a sweat to feel happy. Club Med Bintan Island is based on the concept of renewal and in its spa my city tensions are broken down by Rini, whose firm fingers coax tight shoulder muscles to surrender. Aromatherapy classes do the same work on my rigid, work-obsessed mind, which wafts waywardly on airy trails of geranium, lavender and citrus.
The ocean offers a different kind of bliss. At a snorkelling spot close to the resort, I float like driftwood over coral as a vivid spectrum of curious fish swim past my mask. And fulfilling a long-held urge to sail a Hobie Cat also sets my emotional compass to true north. But, as the chefdevillage is fond of saying, it’s just another day in paradise.
Families, lovers, sporty types and layabouts unite in the joy of eating. In the cool Waterfall restaurant every meal is a trip around the world but the authentic Japanese, Indonesian and Chinese cuisine keeps drawing us back. We drink frequent toasts to freshly prepared, inviting meals and become exceedingly joyful, which is even easier when most alcoholic beverages are included in the tariff. In some places such generosity may rouse suspicions about quality but Club Med standards are high.
Offering a more limited menu is the Terrasse restaurant, an atmospheric open pavilion clinging to the coast. One balmy night, as waves slap the equatorial shore, we sip champagne here, eat grilled lobsters and spare not a thought for cares beyond idyllic Bintan Island. At this moment, without realising it, we are living the creed enunciated by Club Med’s founder nearly 60 years ago.
He did not quantify happiness or even offer it, but wisely put the onus where it rightfully belongs: on us. His philosophy is a useful souvenir for daily life: ‘‘ The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now.’’ Leonie Coombes was a guest of Club Med.
Club Med Bintan Island has a special offer on sale until October 31: an accompanying partner stays and eats free. Valid for travel to April 30, 2009; some blackout dates apply. A 10-day package starts at $3624 ex Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide for the first adult and $1424 for the accompanying adult. Included are economy-class air fares, transfers, three buffet meals a day in a choice of restaurants with wine, beer and spirits, open bar and day-long snacking. Also covered are sporting and recreational activities with tuition plus evening entertainment. More: 1800 258 263; www.clubmed.com.au.
Source of happiness: Sink into the ocean blue of the swimming pool at Club Med Bintan, Indonesia