By Robert Pimm
Financial Times, December 12 2003
Anna and Owen think Mini Club Med is brilliant.
“I don’t think anyone in the world could be busier than we were today,” says Anna, aged eight. “But the 14 July party was useless. They kept playing all these French songs, we had to guess the title. We didn’t know any of them.” Owen, aged 10, adds: “Then they played the first verse, and you had to sing the rest. In French.”
I ask what those children did who don’t speak French.
“They left,” he says.
Two holidays: one French, one German, both all-inclusive, both child-friendly – and this summer our (very British) family planned to test national stereotypes to destruction by taking both. The first surprise was that the food was better at German Aldiana in Fuerteventura than at Club Med village in Palmiye, Turkey.But the big difference turned out not to be what the two provided, but who they were providing it for. Basically, Club Med customers come from many countries; Aldiana customers come mainly from Germany. So which works best? The answer wasn’t what we expected.
“Wait ’til you get to Club Med,” I say to Owen. “It’s famous for its food.””I don’t see how the food at Club Med can be better than at Aldiana,” he says. “I had pizza for every meal.”
Julie Grieu, hotel manager at Palmiye, says: “We vary the food according to the proportion of customers from different countries. At an Asian village there’ll be more Asian food. But there must be something for the kids, like pizza and pasta. And there’s always a French touch.”
When you’re cooking for 1,000 people every day, however, any real concept of “French” or “German” cuisine goes out of the window. The Club Med Villagio restaurant has the perfect location: from the tables you look through palm trees to beach umbrellas and the sparkling blue Mediterranean. We rate the food at both places mouth-watering. But while Club Med has the best desserts and great bread, Aldiana wins on freshness and variety.
“The Germans are more communal than the French,” says Cyrus, a Belgian guest at Club Med. He’s right: at the octagonal tables of Aldiana, we always end up chatting to our neighbours. Maybe it’s because everyone turns up on the dot at opening time and seats are at a premium. At Club Med, no one ever shares our table and people seem relaxed about meal times.
Perhaps they’re not sure when to turn up. Aldiana has a daily German newsletter, complete with personal announcements (“Happy Birthday, Ingrid!”) and all the latest on eating, sports courses and entertainment.By comparison, Club Med’s daily programme is a dry thing that appears only on noticeboards. That’s not surprising: having to produce daily 12 pages of French, German, English, Hebrew, Russian and Turkish must be discouraging.
Olivier Braud, Club Med Palmiye’s PR man, shows me the multilingual instructions at the Turkish bath. The advice is sound: “For hygienic reasons, do not let your clothes on. Cover yourself with a towel. Thanks to keep quiet for the other customers.” But someone’s not getting the message: as I sit gently steaming on a slab of hot marble, a gang of screaming teenagers rampages through the hammam having a water fight.
None of this means cross-cultural exchanges can’t be enlightening. “Your French football team is great,” a Turkish cook tells a bemused French teenager at the salad bar, “but none of them are French. They’re all blacks and Arabs.”
“A Japanese family coming to one of our villages wants to see something French,” says Julie Grieu, “and we always celebrate 14 July, everywhere in the world.”
At Palmiye the 14 July pageant is ambitious. On a lawn beneath the Turkish sun, participants are divided into Gauls (teenagers, led by Asterix and Obelix); Egyptians (smaller children, led by a gold-clad Cleopatra and three real live camels); and Romans (all-adult bad guys, led by Caesar on a white charger). When the Romans kidnap Cleopatra, the stage is set for an epic battle as waves of children pelt the Roman fort with flour bombs and dead fish. A riotous good time is had by all.
But not everyone knows what’s happening, despite the commentary. “I didn’t realise we were supposed to be Egyptians until I saw the camels,” Anna says. “And what were the Egyptians doing in France, anyway?”
Maybe it’s inevitable that Aldiana is aimed at the German market. It’s not obvious that other nationalities would flock to a camp which advertised itself as “run by Germans”. Yet the staff seem to have been injected with joie de vivre. They are not only friendly and helpful, but so flexible that during our stay I see one guy teaching archery and table-tennis, doing magic tricks and stilt-walking, dancing, cooking omelettes, singing in a show and DJ-ing in the disco.
There are a few differences in the way the clubs work. At Aldiana, you have to book tennis courts; at Club Med you just turn up. The archery lessons at Aldiana are more safety-conscious. Mini Club Med (ages four to 10) is streets ahead of Aldiana’s Dolphin Club. But both places are run by talented teams of good-looking twenty-somethings from around the world (officially GOs, or “gracious organisers” at Club Med; unofficially, GYBs, or “gorgeous young bodies”).
Mini Club Med has such a mouth-watering menu I want to join up myself.”Children’s clubs are great,” I say to Owen.”But children’s clubs aren’t for children,” Owen says. “They’re for adults.”
Faced with a choice of archery, arts and crafts, canoeing, circus school, football, magic lessons, mountain biking, snorkelling, tennis, water-skiing and wind-surfing and snorkelling, the children decide to go hunting crickets.
It’s all a matter of taste. Setria is a French nurse of Spanish-Algerian origin. Atilla is a Turkish accountant who grew up in France. We meet over a beer by the pool one cool evening.”We have 15 nationalities among the staff here at Palmiye,” Setria says. “No-one speaks less than three languages.””That’s right,” Atilla says. “We have a little bit of Europe here.”
I like the mix of visitors catered for at Club Med. But in the quest for European heaven, Aldiana’s all-German-speaking community seems more vibrant, and the club simply works better.
On the way home, I ask Anna which holiday she liked best.”They’re both good,” she says. “And I loved the flour fight on 14 July. But I like the sound of Club Aldiana better than Club Med. Aldiana sounds smooth and soothing, like a holiday camp. Club Med sounds short and jerky: more like a back street club, like Moe’s in The Simpsons.” I then ask her if she actually knows what happened in France on July 14.
“Asterix was invented?”
Robert Pimm stayed woth Club Med Palmiye. One week’s all-inclusive holiday starts at £525 per adult and £370 per child (aged four to 11) including return flights fom London Gatwick Price also includes transfers, full-board accommodation, beer, wine and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, most sporting activities and tuition, children’s clubs, evening entertainment and insurance