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French Revelation

Forget about beaming us up, Scotty. Club Med 1 is magnifique, and no one made us dance the hokey-pokey

Call me Etienne.

This is, after all, a sea story, and with a decidedly French twist. Like Ishmael, my wife and I thought we would "sail about a little and see the watery part of the world," in this case the Caribbean. Unlike Ishmael, who had little or no money in his purse, we had a credit card with which to book a week's passage aboard the Club Med 1, the "sailing" ship operated by those antidote-for-civilization people at Club Mèditerranèe.

Club Med, which just turned 40, is a French Foreign Legion even farther flung than the French Foreign Legion, what with 110 villages dotting the globe, each staffed by friendly, energetic, talented gentils organisateurs, or G.O.'s, or congenial organizers or, if you will, camp counselors (‚ô´hands up, baby, hands up‚ô´). Their job is to make sure the gentils membres (G.M.'s, congenial members, campers) have a great time. Personally, Club Med never appealed to moi, perhaps because I knew that the pleasures of Camp Van Schoonhoven could never be recaptured.

A traditional cruise ship appealed to me even less than a Club Med did. I am highly allergic to the hokey-pokey—that's what it's all about, I thought. Then somebody told me about the Club Med 1. It wasn't like a Club Med. (Uh-huh.) It wasn't like a cruise. (Uh-huh.) You could go on assignment and take your wife. (We'll pack tonight.)

G.M.'S LOG, SATURDAY, DEC. 1, 1990.

The Pequod she is not. She is, in fact, très belle, all 617 feet from stem to stern. From the outside the Club Med 1 is overwhelmingly white, but it is a soft, sea-foam white. Her most arresting feature, perhaps, is her seven sails, which magically unfurled to catch the evening breeze as we left port. Her polished decks are handcrafted from Burmese teak. Inside, Art Deco touches recall a time of sophistication and elegance. The tastefully decorated cabins, each an unusually spacious 188 square feet, feature hand-rubbed mahogany cabinetry, twin portholes, blue canvas bedspreads, a minibar, television, ship-to-shore telephone, hair dryer...pardon me for getting carried away. It must be the wine. Or the half-dozen Club Med 1 brochures I've read today. I bet Ishmael didn't have 24-hour room service.

Our trip began at 8 a.m. at Kennedy Airport in New York City, where we boarded Club Med's charter flight to Fort-de-France, Martinique, our point of embarkation and disembarkation. The flight was remarkably smooth, save for the ironically chosen in-flight movie, The Hunt for Red October. Thank goodness it wasn't The Poseidon Adventure.

Once aboard the ship, we were ushered into the Salon Calypso, where we were given drinks, photographed, booked and fingerprinted (just kidding). We were shown to our cabin by a G.O. who refused our reflexively American gratuity—no tipping, says Club Med. Then we explored the eight decks, A to H, each one named after a Club Med village. We discovered five bars, two restaurants, two pools, one casino, one disco, one fitness center, one shop (dutifully duly-free), one beauty parlor and the wonderful hall nautique, a minimarina that comes down from the stern like the rear flap of a union suit.

In our English-language orientation session this evening, we were told, among other things, that the ship can accommodate 386 passengers and that of the 275 G.M.'s on board, about 200 were French. I thanked my lucky stars that ma femme speaks the language very well. The Club Med 1, we also learned, is a kind of 40th-birthday present for and from Club Med. She is the fourth and latest in a line of luxury liners with automated sails and was built in Le Havre, France. In this, her first full season, she will sail the Caribbean in winter, alternating northern and southern routes, and the Mediterranean in summer. We were also introduced to Francky, our chef de village—head of the G.O. staff—and a man of immense charm, not to mention diminutive stature.

At dinner tonight in one of the restaurants, La Louisiane, we found ourselves at a large table with several middle-aged French couples. Our smiles were not returned. I elbowed my wife. "Give 'em some French." Our hopes of a Franco-American exchange were dashed, however, when she elbowed a glass of red wine onto the white slacks of France's answer to Ernest Borgnine. The waiter rushed over and said something in French as he sopped up the wine. I thought he was reassuring Commander McHale that the stain could be removed, but my first mate set me straight: "He told him red wine was the hardest stain of all to get out." Our pitiable looks of apology were not returned. We finished our eighth course in utter disgrace.

At about 11:30 p.m. the engines were started, the anchor was lifted, and the sails were mechanically unfurled. Standing out on deck, I thought, What a wonderful time this is, the moment a voyage—any voyage—gets under way. Even Ishmael felt there was "many a pleasant haven in store" when the Pequod set sail. That lofty thought gave way to a worldly desire to try the casino, which opened as soon as we left port. Our bad luck at dinner was reversed at the tables. If we invest our small blackjack killing wisely, we will be able to send our two sons through college.

Now, as I finish this entry, I can see through the portholes a sea made blindingly white by the fullest moon imaginable. How nice of Club Med to arrange that.

G.M.'S LOG, SUNDAY, DEC. 2, 1990.

The ship has this drill called the "abandon exercise," in which the crew and passengers walk through what would happen if the ship hit an iceberg, went aground on a coral reef, rammed a competing cruise ship, ran out of wine. In a way, a cruise is a series of abandon exercises in which passengers throw off their inhibitions, make new friends, do stupid things.

Being on assignment for a sports magazine, I was honor-and duty-bound to participate in the many sports the Club Med 1 offers. Unfortunately, most of them are water sports, and my affinity for aquatic recreation usually stops at my Top-Siders. But there I was, bright and early in the morning, waiting on the open hall nautique for my turn to water-ski. I had been up on water skis before. However, that was 10 years and 30 pounds ago, so I had my doubts.

Ma femme went first, and as she bobbed up and skimmed across the water, so did my heart. Piece of cake, I thought, as I watched the towline grow taut between my skis. "Hit it!" I called knowingly. For some reason, I lost my grip on the tow handle on the way up. On the second try I arose, only to keel over. On my third attempt the unseen hand of Ursula the Sea Witch grabbed my skis just as I was about to surface. Glub Med.

In waterskiing, as in baseball, three strikes and you're out. On my way back to the ship, I feigned nonchalance while I imagined 200 Frenchmen watching from the deck, laughing, pointing and shouting, La baleine blanche, la baleine blanche!

Our afternoon was spent stumbling around the island of Bequia, the first stop on the Club Med 1's southern route and the largest island in the Grenadines. Picturesque Bequia is the last of the old-fashioned whaling centers, but there aren't many harpooners left. The people cater to the yachting crowd, and there are a number of scrimshanders and model-boat craftsmen whose wares are well worth purchasing. Taking a Jeep taxi from Port Elizabeth to Princess Margaret Beach, we encountered a lad walking in the middle of the road on stilts.

"Do people do a lot of that here?" I asked the driver.

"Oh, yes," he said.

He took us to the wrong beach, which turned out to have the right place, a bar called De Reef, which served delicious lobster-salad sandwiches. Eventually, after a walk up and down de cliff, we found our fellow G.M.'s, who were playing volleyball, swimming and sunbathing.

We took the D-Day launch back to the ship in time for afternoon tea at the Bar Topkapi. Afternoon tea doesn't sound exciting, but it was, in fact, the perfect way to wind down an exhausting day of relaxing. Tea will, I feel, become a daily high light on this cruise, since it comes with an excellent jazz trio, as well as great macaroons.

Then it came time for our abandon exercise. It was like bumper cars with life jackets. I would be more confident in case of an emergency if I knew where that last strap went.

We had dinner tonight with Jennifer, the lovely public relations liaison, or P.R.G.O., so to speak. We learned that there were two celebrities aboard: race-car driver Dean Hall and Doctor Saito, "the Hemingway of Japan." This reminded me of a friend who once asked one of his Japanese students what his favorite book was. "Goodbye Weapons" said the student.

I drift. Jennifer excused herself to go dance in the show downstairs. Every night there is a show performed by the G.O.'s, and tonight's was a salute to the movies, starring Francky as Fred Astaire. The life of a G.O. is not an easy one, it seems to me, since each G.O. has a multitude of dawn-to-midnight responsibilities—windsurfing instruction, bartending, rehearsing—yet their smiles are constant. How do they do it?

After the show we went to the casino to see how our luck was holding up. Sorry, kids, about college.

G.M.'S LOG, MONDAY, DEC. 3, 1990.

I went into training this morning. The fitness center on the top deck is a marvel unto itself, with state-of-the-art equipment and panoramic views, and if I had had this at my disposal all the time, who knows, I coulda been Wayne Grimditch, the Babe Ruth of waterskiing. However, the nautical hall never opened up—the sea was too rough—so I missed my chance at redemption.

Promised a deserted island with "the most transparent waters in this region," we pulled into the Tobago Cays this afternoon to find two other cruise ships, one of which was the Wind Star, an earlier version of the Club Med 1. Hence the deserted island looked like Coney Island by the time our tender arrived. Upon somebody's recommendation, we followed a path across the narrow spit and came to...more people. As my wife sunned herself among the weeds and ants, I went snorkeling—that I can do. Hmmm, some very interesting specimens. Eku. Hairoun. Red Stripe. No, they're not fish, but brands of Caribbean beer. There was more debris underwater than marine life.

For the first time on the voyage, there was talk of a mutiny. Afternoon tea, however, calmed things down. Personally, I thought we should have tried to board the Wind Star. I envisioned myself swinging across on a rope, a la Captain Blood, fencing the other ship's passengers with my tuba (snorkel).

Obviously in need of some form of competition, I sought out the Trivial Poursuite game listed on the day's activity sheet. This turned out to be a two-team affair, with a G.O. reading questions off Trivial Pursuit cards. My team was predominantly French, so there was something of a communication gap between the Americans and our capitaine, who bore a remarkable resemblance to Tommy Lasorda. Needless to say, we were trounced. The winners were given a bottle of champagne. Told it was Mexican champagne, the Gallic Lasorda announced, "I would not feed that to my pigs."

The luxury became so routine. Massage for me, facial for my wife. Drinks. Another show with the ever-clapping, heel-clicking Francky. (In this one he introduced every one of the 75 or so Mauritian waiters by name.) At dinner in L'Odyssèe, the more desirable restaurant upstairs, we were seated with two other couples, one from Brooklyn (Beth's a lawyer, Steve's an insurance broker), the other from Berlin (Edith's a filmmaker, Horst's a gynecologist). The dinner conversation was so delightful that we barely escaped being vacuumed up by the Mauritians. We also missed the balloon-popping lambada contest downstairs. Damn.

At the roulette table sometime near dawn, my chips stood sentinel over 4, in honor of my birthday. Twice it hit, so the children are headed back to college. Me and Club Med are now 40.

G.M.'S LOG, TUESDAY, DEC. 4, 1990.

You haven't had mal de mer until you've had it in French.

The day began innocently enough when we were awakened by the clanging of duty-free wine bottles bumping into one another. Dear, did you leave a wake-up wave? Since the nautical hall was again closed, we headed into Saint George's, the port city of Grenada, right after breakfast. Grenada is known as the island the U.S. rescued from the Cubans in 1983, but what I didn't know was that this was the spice island Columbus was looking for all along. He left, though, before he discovered the nutmeg and cinnamon and clove.

The spices, constantly hawked on the street, give the town its flavor, and the hills give it its character. We built a lot of character this morning, visiting churches, schools (so many different uniforms!), shops, the Houses of Parliament and Fort George. The weirdest things about walking through Saint George's were the Christmas decorations and the reggae carols. It didn't look, or feel, a lot like Christmas.

Laden with spices and fragrances and a toy steel drum, we headed back to the Club Med 1 in late afternoon. I found a birthday present, a Club Med T-shirt, on the bed, thanks to Francky. I was touched. Or maybe that was the first sign of seasickness.

The next sign came during cocktails—no more champagne, thank you—and the third sign came during my gala birthday dinner when Dave from Cincinnati said, "Gee, you're looking a little pale." This after three glorious days in the sun.

"I think I'll just get a little air," I said. Flinging the door open, I went out onto the bow deck and greedily gulped the gale-force winds. I returned to the table in time for dessert, presented to me by several serenading G.O.'s. One of them was Olivier, the chef de sport, the No. 2 G.O. on any Club Med staff. Earlier in the evening Olivier and I had talked about playing some golf at our next port of call, Barbados, and suddenly the thought of a land sport had tremendous appeal for me. Not only did I make Olivier promise we would play golf tomorrow, but I also enlisted Steve from Brooklyn.

No after-dinner drinks, no casino, no disco tonight. Just some Dramamine, this entry and the shroud of sleep.

G.M.'S LOG, WEDNESDAY, DEC. 5, 1990.

As we were walking back along the docks of Bridgetown to the Club Med 1 late this afternoon, we passed the Song of Norway, a gargantuan passenger ship, as it backed out of its slip. Over its loudspeakers came this announcement: "We are now leaving Barbados and entering...the Bingo Zone. Remember, the more cards you buy, the better your chances of winning." At that moment, we knew we were on the right boat.

Thanks to my bout with mal de mer, I had gotten a good night's sleep. At breakfast I found out I had slept through: 1) a great disco show in which the G.O.'s imitated rock stars (awww) and 2) a sea so rough that a giant wave washed over the bow (awww).

We felt a little silly, Olivier, Steve and I, carrying golf bags (provided by Club Med) off the ship, but we also noticed a few jealous stares. We took a cab to a nice little nine-hole course at the Rockley Resort and proceeded to bring the surrounding chalets to their knees. Modesty forbids me to go into detail about my round. Well, since you insist, I did have consecutive birdies, and the guys started calling me Seve.

My wife, meanwhile, was taking one of four excursions offered by the Club Med 1 today: the Villa Nova tour. Since the trip included not only a visit to the Villa Nova estate but also a stop at St. John's Church, she wondered if the excursion had a Big East connection. In the afternoon we were reunited for a helicopter tour of Barbados. I especially liked the part where the pilot headed the chopper for a cliff, pulled up suddenly, dived down and flew along the shore so close to the waves that you could feel the spray. Mal d'air.

We decided to have dinner with the Brooklyn couple at a restaurant called Carambola, on the Caribbean side of Barbados. The restaurant was suspended over the water, with breakers occasionally at our feet, and the food was almost as spectacular as the view. We actually had to hurry back to make the ship's 10:30 p.m. curfew. We entered the Blackjack Zone for a while, but we spent most of the rest of the evening on an aft deck, sipping something or other with our friends from Brooklyn and Berlin, talking theology under the stars. It was a good day. Good night.

G.M.'S LOG, THURSDAY, DEC. 6, 1990.

This truly was a day at the beach. We dropped anchor off Mayreau and claimed the island in the name of a picnic. In the morning I went snorkeling with Ron from San Bernardino, and we discovered a graveyard of conch shells. I can still hear them clinking like muted bells as the waves washed up and down.

Again it was too rough to water-ski, so I drowned my sorrows in volleyball. Funny, nobody called me Karch.

Then came time for the actual picnic. All the lobster you could eat, all the wine you could drink. That is the great advantage of traveling with the French: They know how to eat and drink. And contrary to what many Americans think, they do not bite. My wife and Horst got into an animated gastronomical conversation with some French couples that had me laughing even though I could hardly understand a word they said.

Back aboard ship for tea, we were enchanted by a sound that's music to any New Yorker's ears—gunfire. They were skeet shooting, of course, from an aft deck. It proved to be a pretty good spectator sport, seeing which shooters could turn the most clay pigeons into red vapor.

The big event of the night turned out to be dessert. In the Calypso Lounge, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (funny—I hadn't noticed before that they were on board) presented an extraordinary array of g‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¢teaux, so extraordinary that passengers were videotaping it. Let them eat cake.

G.M.'S LOG, SATURDAY, DEC. 8, 1990.

Yesterday, the last full day of the voyage, began with a mini-voyage aboard a catamaran from Sandy Island to White Island, off Carriacou. After we landed, my first mate and I went exploring and found ourselves cut off from our group. She reminded me that this was how Gilligan's Island started, with a three-hour cruise. A three-hour cruise. Since the island was about the size of the Club Med 1, we found our way back to the group. There was excellent snorkeling off White, but we didn't have much time.

On the way back to Sandy Island we were served wine and cheese as the flying fish flew by. The captain of the cat dared us to try a shot of Sunset Very Strong Rum. I dared, and cleaned out every germ in my body. Hey, it was an abandon exercise.

The snorkeling at Sandy Island was like being dropped in an aquarium, and that's how we spent most of the afternoon. Back aboard the ship the nautical hall was open for only the second time on the voyage, but alas, I had an appointment on the bridge to meet Captain Alain Lambert.

He explained how the automated sails operate, and he even unfurled a sail and moved a boom for me, pointing to their pictures on the bank of computer screens. He assured me that the sails were not for show, that the Club Med 1 can go 10 knots on sail power alone, 14 knots on her engines and 17 knots with both working. The sails also save the ship 25% in fuel costs. "She is wonderful," he said of the boat, "but she is a little nervous."

We wistfully dressed for the last evening aboard ship, a dressy affair. Everybody looked so nice, if a little sad. We had dinner with our pals from Brooklyn and Berlin once more, and we all said we would do this again, perhaps in the Mediterranean. Since bags had to be out at 7:30 a.m., we all retired early to pack.

It's after breakfast now, and everyone is getting ready to leave. In a few hours the whole cycle will begin again. A whole new set of G.M.'s will arrive, and the G.O.'s already seem to be saving their smiles for them. No matter. We had a great time, but more important, we made some friends. Like Ishmael, we got more than we bargained for on the voyage.