Why Club Med is the most misunderstood hotel chain in the world.
When I casually mentioned to friends that I’d be visiting Canada’s first Club Med—the all-inclusive, ski-in/ski-out Club Med Québec Charlevoix, which officially opened its doors to the public December 3, 2021, overlooking the St. Lawrence River about 90 minutes northeast of Québec City—the questions and impressions were many.
It was like I’d asked a legion of aviation experts about the best airline loyalty program, so opinionated were the responses.
Despite the fact that most of the people I know—both professionally as a travel writer and in my personal life, too, according to my unofficial Instagram poll—have never been to Club Med, many had something to say.
But none of the responses were quite accurate, among them:
“Club Med, they’re still around?”
“Isn’t it like a cruise ship on land?
“Isn’t it just for partiers?”
And with the recent announcement by the Paris-headquartered company that another Club Med all-inclusive ski-in/ski-out property will open in Utah’s Snowbasin Resort in December 2024 as the brand’s first U.S. resort to open in over two decades (hardly anyone remembers it, but once upon a time there were Club Meds in Colorado’s Crested Butte and Copper Mountain, too), the tres-French brand in business for more than 70 years is about to become more of a household name across North America.
As someone who’s been to a few Club Meds in France, Italy, and Florida (the Sunshine State is home to Club Med Sandpiper Bay, which is most curiously located along the Intracoastal Waterway rather than the ocean or gulf), I can tell you that if there’s any resort brand that has to be experienced to be understood, this is the one.
Every time I attempt to describe what Club Med is like to people who haven’t been, they either think it’s retro (and not in a cool way) or remember it from the cult 1970s French comedy movie Les Bronzés (French Fried Vacation, in English), which satirized Club Med life to hilarious effect.
For starters, the brand does have somewhat of a club vibe, in spirit—although it’s not one where you pay for official membership or anything.
The experience can skew kitsch (rah rah singing sessions on stage come to mind), but it’s also cool in that it’s just so different from any other big resort experience out there.
The standard guest rooms tend to look like Ikea showrooms, comfortable but no frills.
But it’s the inclusions that are really decadent. What other all-inclusive brand has foie gras and lobster at the dinner buffet and complimentary excursions that range from snowshoeing and ice skating to flying trapeze lessons and the like?
Still confused about what on earth Club Med is? Read on for an unofficial cheat sheet.
Don’t be surprised if the person who carried your bag to your room is scantily clad and dangling from a giant swing on stage come nighttime.
If you’re not used to the Club Med concept, it can be surprising to first meet a fully-clothed Club Med G.O. (Gentil Organisateur, which is the term the brand uses for its mostly young, mostly fit, multi-national staff) checking your passport at check-in only to see them later that day doing aerial acrobatics on stage in something far more revealing during the nighttime programming.
But you’ll soon see that Club Med’s G.O.’s, who hail from all over the world, wear many hats (in addition to many outfits), and are first and foremost charged with facilitating an inclusive vibe at a resort that’s about being active and making connections on vacation (introverts, consider yourselves warned).
It’s usual that a G.O. will ask to join you at lunch or dinner at least once during your stay (they’re loosely trained in emotional intelligence and reading who’d rather be left alone, that said).
And for Club Med loyalists who only vacation at the brand’s resorts around the world, it’s common that they choose their next Club Med vacation based on where their favorite G.O. or resort manager has been deployed since they last saw them, since the resort experience here is as much about the people as the place.
You’re going to be saying “Bonjour” a lot, even if you’re not in France.
It’s safe to say that if you’re a Francophile, you’ll feel pretty at home at Club Med.
From the perfectly flaky pain au chocolat at the breakfast buffet and self-serve espresso machines down every corridor to the staff’s irreverent humor and “French touch” that underscores every stay at the resorts, there’s an overarching Frenchness to the experience—and that’s whether you’re vacationing in Quebec, the Swiss Alps, the Dominican Republic or the Club Med Seychelles, which also just opened its doors in 2021.
When in doubt, a passing “Bonjour” in the hall (after all, not greeting someone when you’re in their presence is considered rude in France) or a “Merci” to a person who could just as likely be Egyptian or Mexican as French or from Chicago dishing up your charcuterie plate at lunch will have you fitting in like a regular, even if it’s your first time at a Club Med.
The food is next-level for an all-inclusive resort
While most Club Meds have à la carte specialty restaurants that showcase regional cuisine (case in point, maple syrup-glazed carrots, rainbow trout, and local charcuterie at Le Chalet at the Club Med Québec Charlevoix), the brand’s omnipresent buffet restaurant (called the Marketplace or Marché, in many resorts) is where you’ll likely dine for most meals
But erase right now any images you have of low-brow cruise ship buffets.
Most of the items in the Club Med spread—from steaks sizzled to order, shellfish, pastas tossed before you, fresh fish and charcuterie and cheese platters—are cooked in the moment, while you watch. And first-timers consistently rave about how surprised they are by the brand’s far-above-par all-inclusive food.
At Club Med Québec Charlevoix–where foie gras, lobster and local and sheep’s milk cheeses are consistently on offer—some 80 percent of the food offerings are sourced from within 65 miles of the resort.
The brand has adapted its focus from party place to family-friendly.
When Club Med first launched in 1950 in Spain’s Balearic Islands, the idea for the resort was to move past the tristesse in the wake of World World II and create a communal atmosphere for a vacation where everything was included.
As the rumors go, there was a period when the brand’s partying took on levels that some vacationers may find a bit too, shall we say, daring (I had a few people ask me if Club Med wasn’t a swingers resort, during my informal poll. Answer: not anymore, anyway).
But around 2004, the company decided to move in a new strategic direction to attract a more upscale market as well as to appeal more to active families. Club Med, which had 120 resorts at the time, closed down those that couldn’t make the shift and put the cash from sales into new locations and the remaining properties that were poised to better transition.
Today, according to President and CEO of Club Med North America and the Caribbean, Carolyne Doyon, over 90 percent of Club Med’s 70 properties around the world are four- or five-star. The spa and wellness offering alone at the Club Med Québec Charlevoix—a four-star property with the largest pool of any of the brand’s ski resorts and a mountain-view sauna in the Nordic-inspired spa that rivals any I’ve seen in Scandinavia—is a good example of just how upmarket the brand has gone.
It’s pricey, but childcare and tons of perks you get few other places are included.
Childcare for ages 4 months up to 17 years old–things like ski lessons at the mountain resorts, trapeze lessons, guided family hikes, tennis lessons, and teen discos are among the many included activities wrapped into the all-inclusive rates at Club Med properties everywhere from Mexico to the Alps. And you can pack your schedule as full as you like with socializing or the sporty life (there’s nightly entertainment, too, in the form of stage performances, live bands, DJs, and the like).
“It’s a camp for adults where you can have your kids taken care of, too,” is how June Misner, a travel agent with McCabe World Travel, explains Club Med to her clients.
She admits the resort isn’t a fit for everyone.
“I don’t offer it to everyone because I know who it’s right for,” Misner says. “It’s for people who don’t want to spend any time in their rooms. The whole idea is to get out of your room and take advantage of everything that’s included.”
And that’s a lot—everything from foraging tours, ice skating, and snowshoeing tours during the winter months at Club Med Quebec Charlevoix, to archery school, tennis lessons, trapeze school, and pickle ball at Club Med Ixtapa Pacific in Mexico.
The number 45 is key—and it has nothing to do with a former U.S. president.
If you notice the number 45 plastered all over the t-shirts and hoodies of guests and staff at a Club Med Resort, it’s not a political statement.
Back in 1995, when the company had its 45th anniversary, a trend started among guests sporting a 45-emblazoned shirt with the name of their favorite resort. It’s a trend that continues today among loyalists and another conversation starter in a place where conversations are already very easy to start.
There’s also usually a weekly themed night at Club Meds where everyone is encouraged to come clad in their 45 gear (shameless marketing genius), in addition to other theme nights where G.O.s and G.M.s (that would be gentil membre, aka nice member, aka resort guest) might be requested to wear all white, sport tropical colors, or some other informal outfit suggestion of solidarity. This is a non-judgmental crowd, however, and if you opt out, nobody cares.
Is it kitsch? Sure. But remember, there’s nothing cooler than confidence.
And Club Med is really only as fun as you let it be. So if it’s not cool enough for you, maybe you’re just too cool anyway.
All-inclusive ski vacations are pretty much the best thing that can happen to families with young kids.
If you’ve ever tried to take young kids on a ski “vacation,” you quickly learn that shoehorning tiny feet into tight boots, managing stray gloves, and keeping mini masks from fogging up is hardly the stuff of vacation dreams.
And while Club Med has far more properties in tropical destinations than wintry ones, all its resorts offering ski-in/ski-out access to big-name mountains—think Val Thorens in France and St. Moritz in Switzerland—wrap lift tickets and group ski lessons for kids and adults into the other many all-inclusive offerings.
For adults who would like to enjoy skiing on their own sometimes, without the pizza and French fries crowd in tow—and perhaps a spot of apres after the day’s last run—knowing that your children aren’t even missing you (in fact, they probably have forgotten you altogether, because no hotel does a kids clubs like Club Med) is the epitome of a hassle and stress-free ski vacation.
You might end up wishing you followed a different career path when you were young.
If you’re a people person, one of the most fun things about vacationing at Club Med is chatting with the outgoing and worldly G.O.s to learn about all the places life and their peripatetic jobs have taken them. Club Med’s more than 23,000 employees around the world represent 110 different nationalities.
From the person serving your cappuccino at breakfast (Fernando from Cancun, who told me to call him Speedy Gonzales when I met him in Quebec comes to mind) to your archery instructor or the person changing your toddler’s diapers while you hit the spa, most G.O.’s have a friendliness and casualness about them that makes conversations come naturally—and most of them have traveled the planet, too, thanks to the job.
And while I hardly squandered my 20s and 30s, the first time I went to a Club Med I felt a pang of remorse that I didn’t even know I had the option, out of high school or college, to perfect my flying trapeze skills while getting some real-world cultural experience with colleagues and guests from all around the world while working for a hotel chain where championing a multi-cultural feeling is among the founding values.