Even we at Traveler realize that staying in remote eco-lodges isn't all that easy when you're traveling with kids. So when Associate editor Susan O'Keefe recently traveled with her family for some fun in the sun at Club Med, Ixtapa, located on Mexico's Pacific coast, she was glad to see how the resort chain is doing more to offer authentic experiences for guests...
Uncovering Culture: As much as a resort experience can offer culture, Club Med introduced an authentic taste of Mexico. Kid's activities included making pinatas and masks, and painting clay sculptures. Evening entertainment featured costumed traditional folk dancers and live mariachi music. One evening, vendors from Zihuatanejo set up an open-air market and sold wooden saints, mosaics, papier-mache puppets, wooden toys, and hand-embroidered dresses. In the dining room, Mexican cuisine was prepared fresh daily. We tried dishes such as chilaquiles (an egg and chicken casserole with green salsa), chiles rellenos (stuffed peppers), huachinango (grilled red snapper), homemade tortillas, tortas (sandwiches), and salsas made from tomatillos and local guavas.
Bye-bye beads: Less is no longer more when it comes to amenities at Club Med. Gone are the days of unlocked guest rooms and exchanging beads for a cerveza. New to the scene are spacious family rooms with kid-high, built-in desk areas (perfect for coloring during pre-dawn wake-ups), flat-screen TVs (though they don't really need them), and hair dryers, thick robes, and slippers. The showers are equipped with an extra handheld nozzle, which is great for getting shampoo rinsed off little ones. Club Med Ixtapa's $20-million makeover also included spruced-up outdoor sitting areas, with chic chocolate brown rattan furniture topped with salmon-colored pillows. Around the pool, kids and adults can snooze and get shelter from the strong midday sun on large, canopied daybeds—they seem more SoBe than Club Med, but somehow are really practical in the setting. The property is a kid haven: Facilities include a circus trapeze area, a restaurant just for kids with petite tables and chairs, extra pools to accommodate toddlers and new swimmers, an in-line skating area, miniature golf, and tennis courts. On the water, a fleet of sailboats, catamarans, and sea kayaks are available to use daily. Adults will like the new spa with its outdoor chaise lounge terrace—perfect for taking in the wide ocean views and sipping tea before your treatment.
Can you leave to explore? Of course you can, and we did for a day in Zihuatanejo, an authentic fishing village about ten miles away. The taxi ride from the hotel cost $14. We went to the large outdoor market that is just off the waterfront and bought handmade leather sandals and local sea salt, vanilla, and coffee to bring home. Go early to catch the fishermen bringing in their morning haul. At noon, several food vendors along the waterfront grill the fresh catch and sell delicious fish tacos and bocadillos (little sandwiches). Club Med has programs for visitors to see local endangered turtles and baby crocs. They also offer horseback riding on a local beach, deep sea fishing (where my husband and son spotted humpback whales and sea turtles), and boat excursions to a few nearby islands.
Just a decent kids' camp? After seeing my kids in several resort camps through the years, I can comfortably say that Club Med does it the best. At the heart of the program are the Club Med GOs (guest officers), camp counselors that come from all over the globe (we met GOs from Brazil, Mexico, Canada, France, and Switzerland) and spend up to a year at the resort before moving on to a different location. They are enthusiastic, and the way they interact and befriend young vacationers is heartwarming. GOs often sat with us during dinner and breakfast and shared stories with our children about where they were from. I tried to find a disgruntled GO, one that would tell me it's all work at Club Med and no fun, but I was told that you know early on whether you are GO material or not. The ones who aren't, leave quickly. I'm sure if I was college-age, I'd consider being a GO just for the friendships and adventure.
All-inclusive, really? My kids did a double take when I said they could have a second virgin pina colada on our first day. That's right, superstar mom indulging her kids...only because I wasn't being nickeled and dimed at the tune of $9 for a fruit smoothie, like some cruise lines and resorts (even some that claim all-inclusive) charge guests. No extra charges were applied during our stay and we didn't need to call to book a sailboat or tennis time, nor pay extra for a tennis clinic. And no, we weren't charged after we drank the four bottles of water left in our room each day. We mostly dined at the resort's main (and sometimes noisy) restaurant El Encanto, where food (some prepared to order) is served buffet-style, but it was a nice change to dine at the resort's two other restaurants where we were seated and waiters served our meals. The new, palapa-covered Luna Azul is tucked away in a small palm tree forest. A candlelit path brings you to the mostly adult restaurant that features fusion cuisine and an actual wine list. Eating here felt like having a romantic date off property for the night. Club Med's other restaurant, Miramar, sits the closest to the beach and serves breakfast and grilled items like kebabs throughout the day. At night it turns into an Argentinian-style steak house. Sometimes the all-inclusive gig can mean lines at the bar waiting for your margarita, but even with the resort at full capacity during our visit, we never waited in line for a drink or meal. And though much of it is help yourself, waiters still managed to take drink orders at the beach, even if it was just for a glass of ice water.
Best moment: As a parent, there is nothing better than watching your own kids expand their comfort zones and flex new muscles. At Club Med, there are several opportunities to do this, but our favorite one was the all-kid (ages 3-17) circus performance held one evening. In the open-air theater we watched as our 3-year-old dressed as a tiger jumped through hoops and roared, our 6-year-old, dressed as a clown, wheel-barrowed and somersaulted across the stage, and our 11-year-old joined tweens in a full acrobatic show. Older teens hung from a trapeze—a skill they learned only days before. Amid the daily excitement (the energetic pace of Club Med can get tiring at times), we found quiet moments to be together and hang on the beach, look for sea creatures in tidepools, search for iguanas that lived on the property, and watch the sunset before heading off to dinner. We all learned a bit of Spanish and enjoyed speaking it whenever we could.
A Plus For Parents: Overall, I loved that my kids had so much fun and made new friends. I liked that we didn't have to dress for dinner. That the kids could drop a fork on the floor of the dining room, and I wasn't stressed—all the tables around us had kids behaving like children too. That they could laugh and squeal around the pool where adults were relaxing, and I didn't feel like I needed to shush them. Kids rule at Club Med; yes, but parents ultimately have the most fun.
Photos: Children's suite and facepainting photos, courtesy Club Med; Tiger photo by Susan O'Keefe.