"What do you mean, ’The beads are gone?’" I’m standing at the front desk of Club Med’s newly updated Buccaneer’s Creek resort, staring in confusion at the attractive local staff in their traditional Martinican eyelet-lace blousons. They’re equally baffled by my question. When I visited last, in 1982, the only way to buy drinks at the bar was to trade in a handful of cheerful pop beads. Back then, both male and female guests made jewelry from this cheap-chic wampum to accessorize their pareos and string bikinis. It was part of the hedonistic fun. Now that Club Med has decided to shed its old "sun, sand, sex" image, the beads (like the nude beach and all-night disco) are passé. The clerk hands me a scratchy plastic wristband—the kind worn at hospitals and NASCAR events—to identify me as a guest of the resort.
Champion athlete Gerard Blitz founded Club Mediterranée as a nonprofit association for the appreciation of outdoor life. The ﬁrst village, Alcudia, opened on Majorca in 1950. Guests slept in tents, ate at picnic tables, and washed their own dishes. (Bar beads arrived in 1957.) Club Med claims that this egalitarian postwar getaway was the first all-inclusive vacation retreat. From the start, the company, now with 100 resorts, has had a knack for "discovering" prime barefoot venues—in French Polynesia, Brazil, Thailand, Mexico—before anyone else. Mark Wiser, vice president of marketing for Club Med North America, says, "Our original premise was to find a spectacular location, provide a basic level of comfort, attract nice people, and expect good things to happen with that kind of synergy." Of course, along the way, and certainly by the time I saw Martinique, Club Med had also earned a reputation as a haven for swinging singles. The company carefully alludes to this party-hearty experience as "the Thrill of Living at 200%."
Back in the eighties, when I first walked into the plein-air lounge at Buccaneer’s Creek, the libidinous scrutiny was as intense as at a frat-house beer bash. On my recent visit, other guests were too busy lining up for an impromptu pétanque tournament to ogle arrivals. The new BC is definitely PC. The disco shuts down before dawn. The room directory has a gentle reminder about responsible alcohol consumption. (Energy drinks here actually outsell champagne.) Proper attire is requested at meals. Kids are welcome, although there is no Mini Club, the children’s program at other Club Meds. There’s also a spa with detox massage, a new alternative to sleeping it off in your room. Strolling past the gym, I do a double take at the yoga class. It’s packed. With middle-aged French people.
When the resort fully reopens, in late April or early May, the 293 guest quarters will be lavish by Club Med standards. Rates have risen to $1,775 per person for seven nights, all-inclusive, but they’re still a bargain compared to Curtain Bluff on Antigua (from $2,625, all-inclusive). Thanks to a consortium investment of $60 million (partly made up of government funds from France and Martinique), Buccaneer’s Creek was rebuilt from the ground up. Enhancements include air-conditioning, mini fridges, flat-screen TV’s, and rain-shower bath fixtures. There are now 44 suites along with the usual rooms. Even so, the rooms are still boxy, most of the buildings are set far back from the beach, and few windows open. But who wants to stay in watching CNN (the only English-language station) when there’s an outstanding sunset view from the dock and, on the way, the island-born bartender at Le Madou, who’ll pour you a Martinican white-rum "shrub" infused with passion fruit?
"Have you tried this bread?" asks Tatiana. "It’s killer." The tall blonde saws at a white-chocolate loaf at the bread station in Pays Melés, the main dining room. She’s right. Even in the humid tropics, the French always manage to bake perfect croissants and baguettes. It amazes me that nationals whose daily fare is one of the world’s greatest cuisines seem content with a steam-tray buffet on their holiday. Of course, many Caribbean all-inclusives resort to mass-appeal food-service solutions. But Club Med has tweaked the dining options at several of its upgraded venues; Martinique’s Le Belle Créole restaurant will have a French-Caribbean fusion menu (not ready during my stay). At least the waitstaff delivers decent wine to each table. At my first dinner, the unmistakable aroma of calf’s liver wafts from the sauté chef’s skillets. I happily join the long line.
What Club Med does best, possibly better than any other resort, is inspire loyalty. This is due largely to the summer-camp social dynamic between the multilingual staff, referred to as G.O.’s (gentils organizers), and multinational guests, or G.M.’s (gentils members). Can you imagine an employee at a Four Seasons plopping down at your table with, "Hi! Mind if I join you for lunch?" Or donning a shark costume and riding a skateboard through the buffet line, playfully biting at guests’ ankles?There’s even an unofficial Web site (www.clubmedplanet.com) that ardent G.M.’s can use to track their favorite G.O.’s as they transfer between resorts. This, along with the spontaneous interactions on the beach and around the hors d’oeuvres table, reminds me of the fan base for such cultural icons as the Grateful Dead and the Boston Red Sox. As Wiser puts it, "Nobody ever cried leaving a Hyatt for the airport."
So how do you shift opinion about a brand with such a well-established image?Burberry did it. So did Apple, Cadillac, and Howard Stern. Says president and CEO for Club Med Americas, John Vanderslice, "The best thing I can do is open up a symbol for experiential travel. Our guests want genuine memories, less brass and glass. And they’re not looking for conga lines." Another possible answer is that Club Med guests, although they’re no older than before (the average age is 40), are wiser about what they want on a vacation, and the resort’s programming has matured to meet their expectations. Hence, fewer booze bashes, more craft classes and cultural excursions. It also helps to have sexy partnerships with Crunch Fitness, Moët & Chandon, Quiksilver, Lacoste, and Puma. Buccaneer’s Creek was the inspiration for a new madras-and-lace resort line by the hip Brazilian beachwear company Rosa Chá.
Like Club Med, Martinique is working hard to lure back U.S. travelers. In 2001, when American Airlines stopped direct service from San Juan, the island fell off the Caribbean map. It deserves another chance; it’s a charming destination, not as crowded as St. Bart’s or Anguilla. Last fall, American Eagle introduced four flights a week from San Juan. A Marriott may open in Fort-de-France soon; there’s already a Relais & Châteaux affiliate, Hôtel Cap Est Lagoon, in Le François.
But Buccaneer’s Creek got there first (in 1969), and its Marin Bay setting includes one of the island’s best beaches. Charter yachts fill the protected harbor; women fry codfish and shrimp accras on the street corners of Sainte-Anne; fishermen still set out in wooden day boats. As a beau geste to its regional hosts, Club Med buys produce from island farmers, gives English lessons to town merchants, and now hires three-quarters of its staff locally. "The first version of Club Med took nothing from our culture," notes Muriel Wiltord-Latamie of the Martinique Promotion Bureau. "That has definitely changed."
At a fruit stand near Sainte-Anne’s church, I snatch up pure cacao, vanilla beans, and nutmeg grown in the rain forest. From the viewing platform atop Morne de Gommier, across the bay from Buccaneer’s Creek, I see other tempting beaches and peaks worth exploring. As my taxi departs for the airport, I offer four little words of wisdom to a resort that is embracing its core joie-de-vivre principles again: Bring back the beads.
Shane Mitchell is a T+L contributing editor.