"HE WILL BE A GECKO."
"He will be a Gecko."
A Gecko—right. The woman on the phone from Club Med Eleuthera was simply telling me which child-care group, or "mini-club," my four-year-old son would join when he and I arrived in the Bahamas. He would be a Gecko—as opposed to a Shark or a Soft-Shell Crab or a Sand Flea or whatever.
"Theo, we're going to the Bahamas."
"What are their kids' names?"
Our reasons for heading off to see Mr. and Mrs. Bahama and their offspring were unsurprising: five hedonistic days in the sun. More surprising was my choice of Club Med. I'd first heard of the fun-in-the-sun chain in the 1970's when it blossomed as a singles destination of choice. You either flocked to those grown-up play groups by the sea, or avoided them like the plague. I avoided them like the plague. But in recent years friends who I'd thought wouldn't be caught dead glancing at a Club Med brochure were making reservations and coming back tan, rested, and gushing about how great it was for the kids. No, really, they'd say, there were children's activities all day and into the evening; you could sign the kids in and out of their clubs at will; they had fun and you had time to relax. So when I found out that Club Med Eleuthera was one of the family-oriented ones—and single-parent-friendly to boot—Theo and I booked, packed our Hawaiian shirts and our Walkman with two sets of earphones, and left New York.
At first glance, the place looked typically resortish: bougainvillea-lined paths winding past palm trees, lots of sky, bright sun, soft breezes. But in the main plaza, which centers on a stage area and is ringed by the reception desk, a gift shop, and a pool, another element was introduced: kids. They were everywhere, running around in small and large packs, swinging from a trapeze, bouncing on a trampoline.
We dumped our bags in our simple, comfortable room, and in a matter of minutes were on the beach, a beautiful crescent of fine, sticky sand, the turquoise Atlantic surprisingly warm and calm. Although the club was full this spring-holiday week, the beach was only lightly sprinkled with humans. Theo played at the water's edge with four other small guests, whose Mom told me, "They'd better do the program—otherwise, why are we here?" She would have gone on but at this point her youngest deposited some sand in Mommy's mouth.
Why are we here, indeed?
We were all there to spend time with our kids, but we also wanted a break from them. Let them be Geckos so we can read a book. It sounded promising. That evening I signed Theo into the Geckos, prepped him a bit on the fun he'd be having, and turned in early.
Theo was feeling Gecko-friendly the next morning at breakfast. Meals are buffet-style and communal at Club Med Eleuthera, and you are generally seated at tables of eight. G.O.'s (gentils organisateurs—that is, the staff) sit with G.M.'s (gentils membres—that is, us). The fare changes daily, but certain kid staples remain on the permanent menu. (There was a seafood night during our stay—a terrifying thought for some children—and while I was loading Theo's and my plates a bespectacled preteen in front of one of the safer trays of food confided, "There's a run on the chicken nuggets tonight.") Normally the prospect of such forced togetherness would be a grim one—I loathe those mandatory breakfast conversations with strangers at bed-and-breakfasts—but here it made sense. The kids would amuse one another, while giving the adults something to talk about. That first morning we sat with a family from Boston.
"I want that," said Theo, indicating a bowl of Froot Loops, which he'd never seen before. As I returned with the requested cereal, one of the parents said, laughing, "You can't pre-select. They're on vacation, after all—adults do the same thing." She was right, of course, though I was secretly pleased when her daughter spotted my chocolate croissant and decided she wanted one, too.
After breakfast, I walked Theo down to the airy cottage that served as the Gecko clubhouse. He still seemed game. Parents are not encouraged to hang around the kids' clubs, so I left him to his first activity—Circus—and went off to amuse myself. Running along the beach, I felt something like elation. What a vacation this would be! Time with Theo: to play in the sand and go swimming. Time without Theo: for reading, running, and other grown-up activities—say, assignations with Belgian trapeze instructors, or sipping poolside daiquiris, or just staring into the middle distance reflecting on life and . . . Belgian trapeze instructors. Which is exactly what I was doing an hour and a half later when the Geckos came into view—about 10 four- and five-year-olds, with five counselors, headed for the pool, and the day's second activity, Scuba. I set down my iced coffee and watched.
He will not be a Gecko.
Even before he spotted me, I could tell he wasn't into it. Independent and outgoing, Theo is not a joiner. So I signed him out, and for the next several days we were inseparable. Belgian trapeze instructors?Not this time. I was doomed to standing under a "palm-palm tree" applying "sun scream" to my four-year-old while discussing the relative merits of "Blue Skywalker" and "Dark Wafer." But as one mother pointed out over lunch, the mere existence of the clubs—even if the kids choose not to participate—is useful. "I tell them, you can spend the day with your club, or you can watch me read," she said. "Either way, they never complain."
So neither Theo nor I complained, and together we took the full measure of what Club Med Eleuthera has to offer. Curiously, it manages to be organized and casual at the same time. I found it best to avoid the main plaza, which can be noisy, with people speaking into cordless mikes and organizing the sort of competitions that always seem to end with guests falling comically into the pool. But walk 50 yards in any direction and you have solitude and silence. Whether it's natural soundproofing or just felicitous wind direction, it works.
You are, of course, in Club Med Land, not the Bahamas—with the usual pluses and minuses of a hermetically sealed environment: No contact with the local culture. Minimal intrusion from the outside world (there are no phones in the rooms, no newspapers at the gift shop). But what a pleasure it is, especially for a city parent, not to have to worry as your kid tears hither and yon—at worst, disrupting a class of step-aerobicizers.
Soon Theo had a best friend, another Gecko-gone-AWOL named Nicky. With an assortment of other kids, they would run off to investigate some pressing thing. It was like having your child on a long, invisible leash. Theo hied into view regularly with bulletins—"I'm faster than ants!"—before zooming off again. In the evenings most of the kids would sit cross-legged on the floor (the grown-ups opting for folding chairs) to watch the evening's loopy but charming entertainment. It wasn't as if, by forgoing Geckohood, the kids lost out on all the fun: a staff member was always available. Some of the G.O.'s had once been G.M.'s themselves. "This is my fifth time, but only my second as a G.O.," said Brendan, known to his young charges as "Juggler Man," during a break from Trampoline.
Actually, Theo will be a Gecko.
On our next-to-last day, Theo, deeply in his pirate phase, agreed to take part in a Gecko treasure hunt. The news that Nicky would also participate won him over. I had to promise to wait by the poolside bar so that when the Geckos tramped through, Theo could, if he wanted, ditch the group and rejoin me.
And that's where I was—listening to a blender's soothing whir, relaxed and, finally, alone—when the Geckos crested the small hill above the pool, hot on the trail of buried treasure. Theo barely waved: all was well. Half an hour later I picked him up as planned.
We left the next morning, tan, happy, and, in Theo's case, rested. But before we left, I suggested a final visit to the ocean. "We don't have to go in," I said to my son, "just go say good-bye." "Let's go in, so we can kiss it." Sweet, I thought.
We're in, rolling in the gentle surf. "So, let's kiss the ocean," I say.
"You do it."
I fell for it. I leaned down and a swell caught me full in the face, leaving me sputtering as Theo's belly laugh carried down the beach. For him, the perfect end to a perfect vacation.
AT CLUB MED ELEUTHERA, rates start at $931 per person (12 and up) per week, plus $651 for a child 611, or $462 for a child under 6. To reserve at any Club Med, call 800/258-2633.
George Kalogerakis is the features editor at New York magazine.
You don't have to stick with the Bahamas to get a childproof sun-and-sand vacation. Here are four other Club Med Family Villages that feature holidays by the sea.
While mom and dad hit the golf course, the littlest ones can lounge at the all-day Baby Club. Thanks to the Twilight Baby Program, which runs from 7 to 11 p.m., parents are free to make plans after hours, too. Ages: children four months to 12 years, year-round; Teen Club, school holidays only.
PUNTA CANA, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
Water sports abound at this tropical retreat. Children can learn to scuba and snorkel — in their own mini-pool. It's also easy to explore Santo Domingo and nearby rain forests. Ages: children 2 to 12, year-round; Teen Club, school holidays only.
Keeping the single parent in mind, this village plans special get-togethers, such as sunset cruises. Kids can take up kayaking, archery, trapeze, and sailing. Ages: children four months to 12 years, year-round; Teen Club, school holidays only.
Teens rule at a special Teen Club. Jungle horseback rides, night volleyball, and mountain biking are favorite activities. Ages: children 6 to 12, school holidays only; Teen Club, year-round.