The last time I holidayed at a Club Med resort was 15 years ago. I recall arriving in Bali, bleary-eyed and confused, and the chaotic bus ride to Nusa Dua didn't help. When we disembarked at the resort, we were embraced by a dozen frenetic GOs (Gentils Organisateurs or entertainment staff) who threw floral leis around our necks, shoved rainbow-coloured cocktails in our fists and serenaded us with the Club Med anthem, which went something like 'acajou-jou-jou'. All I wanted to do was crawl into bed, but this cheery bunch of pranksters wouldn't allow it until I accepted that, yes, I was having loads of fun.
Still, the Club Med experience offered certain advantages - an all-inclusive package of airfares, transfers, accommodation, wine and extravagant amounts of mostly very good food. Most boasted a Mini Club, where your children could be taken off your hands for 12-hour stretches, a concept that led to just about every other resort in the world following suit.
In those days Club Med was very much about group activities - sitting with strangers at big tables for meals and an exhausting program of sports and entertainment posted daily. If you weren't a joiner, you were made to feel a bit snobbish. In theory, you could chill out by yourself, but in practice the GOs felt obliged to check you were having fun, even when you were dozing in a deck chair with a copy of Valley of the Dolls on your lap, and a quiet rest by the pool was inevitably interrupted by 20 people diving in to play water polo.
So when I heard that Club Med had taken the experience up a notch or two with its first 'Five Trident' Club in Mauritius, I was intrigued. After all, the Club Med happy-camper philosophy seemed diametrically opposed to what people want from five-star hotels that is, luxury, service and privacy.
The Club Med La Plantation d'Albion is situated on the western coast of Mauritius, a small island with a population of 1.25 million that lies off Africa beyond Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. It's a 10- to 12-hour flight from Sydney, depending on the tail winds, and about eight hours from Perth. The west coast of the island is remarkably free of development, except for a rash of ugly condominiums currently being constructed at the foot of the mountains (to house fleeing South Africans, apparently) and a 'Cyber City' that will provide call centres for French telecommunication companies. The coarse, coral-studded sand may not be as white as the more touristy east coast, but it's more than compensated for by lush foliage, magnificent sprawling trees and a tranquil seascape, free of noisy speedboats and Jet Skis. The roads are mostly single-lane, winding along the coast and through the interior sugar cane fields that cover 80 per cent of the island. It's very bucolic, with craggy, volcanic mountains jutting picturesquely above the green plantations. The people are a mix of Hindu and Creole, with French, Chinese, English and African lineage. Many women wear saris and there are small, gaudy Hindi and Tamil shrines in the modest villages. A French dialect is commonly spoken, though all the signs are in English.
We arrive at La Plantation D'Albion after a one-hour taxi ride from the airport and I brace myself for the 'acajou-jou-jou'. Surprisingly, there is no mob, just two female GOs who greet us with cocktails in the glamorous reception hall and show us to a lounge where we complete formalities. A pale apricot ribbon is tied around our wrists to identify us, I suppose, but as there's no other resort for miles, it comes off after a couple of days. We're taken to our rooms without any hullabaloo, for which I'm grateful.
My beachfront suite is situated right on the sand, about 15 metres from the water's edge. It's vast, spanning 70 square metres. There's an enormous sitting room with a well-stocked mini bar (all drinks, including Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne, are included in the upfront price), a bedroom with king-size bed and enough wardrobes and facilities (such as a dressing table) to suit a serious fashionista. The bathroom is similarly luxurious, with a separate shower and toilet, double vanity basins and a fabulous square black-slate bath that looks out onto a tropical garden with alfresco shower. Sliding glass doors open onto a large terrace, furnished with sun lounges and a low-slung table and chairs, situated right on the beach (which is public, but dotted with security guards mumbling into walkie-talkies). The décor is a fusion of French and Mauritian plantation themes with polished wooden floors and lots of bold colours. Though the resort is only a year old, original trees on the property have been kept and the new plantings of bougainvillea and other exotics are fast growing into a jungle, populated by the occasional mongoose (and monkey, I'm told).
Unlike many other Club Med properties, all the five-star touches such as room service and laundry are available. There's a safe, hair dryer and robes, as well as products from the fabulous Cinq Mondes spa. A fruit platter is delivered every afternoon. The housekeeping service is exemplary, efficient and discreet. During the six-night stay I have only a couple of complaints. The black slate bath is so huge it takes 45 minutes to fill up - apparently. I never get this far as my bath refuses to fill more than an inch, even after someone comes to look at it. And the shower floods if you wash your hair. But I've been in many five-star hotels where design triumphs over practicality. There's always the sea to bathe in.
The property hugs the coast over 21 hectares. The resort has two parts - a more vibrant (read 'noisy') section houses the main restaurant, theatre, bar, recreation centre, excursion centre, reception, boutiques and the main pool. Then there's a 'Zen' area, which has the Cinq Mondes spa, the gym and Turkish hamman, infinity pool with full bar service, Le Phare restaurant, where a late breakfast and lunch is served for those who like to sleep in (and dinner in high season), and the chic L'Alouda bar, a pavilion that's open to the sea breezes.
Behind this are tennis courts, basketball and volleyball courts, soccer fields, an archery course and a golf driving range. Free lessons are available when you wish (only the scuba diving demands a fee), and daily tournaments are held. In the ruins of an old fort in the heart of the club you can take various aerobics classes such as Body Balance and Step. And at the busy end of the beach (which is public) there's a water sports centre for kayaking, sailing and snorkelling.
The philosophy of this club is that you can do everything or nothing. I tested both options. I tried nothing first, hanging out at the quiet Zen pool or on my terrace by the sea. The only interruptions were welcome ones - the pool boys bringing drinks from the bar. The club does cater for children, but there is no special kids' club. There were a few cute French kids in killer outfits but they caused little disturbance. Mostly, I had the Zen pool to myself. I suspect this would not be the case in high season, when the club hosts 500 people, but the Club's elegant Chef du Village, Eric Lejeune, insists the resort never feels crowded. It's a village with hotel services, he says, with the privacy of a hotel but the culture of a club. Most guests are married couples and honeymooners - 70 per cent Europeans, mostly French, in high season and about 15 per cent South Africans at any time. I spotted one Australian couple only. They were in their fifties and recently married, the husband having been to many Club Meds over the years. The wife was a bit disappointed, I suspect, that there wasn't as much partying going on as she'd expected.
Doing nothing is not an option for long, though, mainly because you spend much of your waking time stuffing yourself with food and wine. It's almost impossible to resist the mind-boggling buffets on offer in the main dining room, with its pleasant terrace overlooking the beach. If you choose, you can have five-course meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner, comprising great salads, roasts, casseroles, grilled fish, Mauritian curries, sushi, Asian noodles, pizza, French desserts and cheeses, delicious breads, fresh-baked croissants, tropical fruits - and so it goes on. Unlike other Club Med restaurants, which are self-serve, chefs help dish out your selection for maximum attractiveness on the plate.
I tried to work off some of this, and went for a power walk one morning with Mauritian-born GO Emanuel, who took me to the local village of Albion and back along the beach. I took a golf lesson, I walked the treadmill in the gym, I did a few laps of the gently heated Zen pool, I watched a cooking demonstration. That high level of activity achieved, I felt I deserved a few sessions in the spa, which is one of the best reasons to go to this particular Club Med.
I'd been to the Cinq Mondes spa in Paris and knew it to be one of the better spa chains in Europe. The philosophy is to bring together superior treatments and rituals from India, Thailand, Morocco, China and so on. The spa is housed in a beautiful pavilion on a quiet stretch of beach. There's a tiled hammam and two black slate rooms like small temples for the Moroccan ritual, Japanese baths, massage tents open to the sea, and cabins with heated beds for Ayurvedic treatments, which include the Soin Royal Sirodhara, a treatment unique to the spa that culminates in warm sesame oil being dripped on your brow.
You can buy a package of daily rituals for your stay, prices are additional and not insubstantial. I can recommend the two-hour Rituel du Maghreb (about $270), where you are steamed in the private hammam, scrubbed and enveloped in a body mask before being taken to a tent by the sea where you are massaged to the rhythm of the tide.
To a great degree Club Med's ambition to create a five-star destination has succeeded. The accommodation, service, location, spa and Zen area are all très chic. However, the entertainment, so much a part of the old Club Med philosophy, hasn't moved on. There was a pretty bad lounge singer who was ubiquitous in the bar. And one day I walked past the main pool to hear the dulcet tones of a musician crooning, "Leave your werries behind you" from a Mamas and Papas' tune.
And you have to be careful if you choose one of the outside excursions, which can border on visits to extremely touristy and mediocre attractions. Far better to get the club to arrange a tailor-made trip around the island by taxi ($150 for eight hours).
As it was, I could have been on any tropical island. The GOs move country every six months, so they're of little use if you need to know the local customs. But, really, for some people that's the appeal of Club Med. No need to trouble yourself with what's outside - you're cosseted by the brand. (You can buy Club Med everything at the boutique.)
Club Med aficionados know what to expect and it's comforting. Except, this time, they might get more than they bargained for.