Joy to the world

Leonie Coombes finds there’s fun for all at the newly chic Club Med on In­done­sia’s Bin­tan Is­land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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.

Check­list

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

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