19Published: March 1, 1981
By PATRICIA A.LANGAN
After years of protesting that Club Mediterranee was not the place for me, there I was on its doorstep. Beach lures had never worked, but Club Med was now offering skiing in the United States for the first time. Its hotel built on a site adjoining the Copper Mountain ski area in Colorado was being touted as the first built-to-order ski resort of a French company that has had vacation villages in the Alps for years. This one was 75 miles west of Denver, suggesting less travel and more ski time than a trip to Europe, or even to Aspen.
Perhaps this was the answer to the impulse ski trip, without all the usual planning, without all the friends debating where to go and when. The acid test: I would go during the holidays when lift lines are longest, prices the highest, airports most horrendous. It also happened to be the resort's second week of operation.
The doorstep led to a sprawling $9-million complex cast in beige concrete. Within four connected wings are 225 guest rooms with mountain views. When I arrived for a Sunday-to-Sunday package the hotel had a full house, 450 guests, but the ski area had a dearth of snow - 26 inches, melting fast under warm sunny skies. One mountain was totally brown. On another, snowmaking equipment and dedicated grooming had retained cover on most trails. Colorado ski country was in a collective panic about snow conditions, but Club Med was giving it the old Gallic shrug, a gesture we were to see again.
From the moment I walked through the door there was no doubt that the French had occupied the territory. The interior design, use of color, and the voices were in marked contrast to the West outside. Even the Iowa-born manager seemed to speak first in his adopted tongue.
There was no 'warmth of a smile' welcome as advertised, but then I had not arrived with the usual charter busload from Denver. If you first ski somewhere else for a week, as I did, you have to make your own travel arrangements and buy a land-only package from Club Med. In some ways that translates into second-class citizenship. I sat in the lobby for almost an hour before a stern, annoyed Frenchwoman arrived to check me in.
A G.O. (gentil organisateur, or employee) escorted me to my room, number 357, also known as Juno. It was cheerful with white stucco walls, Kelly-green curtains and bedspreads and definitely cozy - about 10 feet by 12 feet with 10 inches between the twin beds. There were seven hangers and four cubbyholes a person for clothes. When my roommate arrived, we found that all the bulky ski clothes did fit, but it was tight. Skis and boots went to a main-floor ski room presided over by one of the leading shrug artists.
Other French touches: a hand shower and no washcloth, which enraged one Californian I met. 'I don't care if they don't use them in Europe,' she wailed. 'This is the U.S.' No locks on the doors either, which may be a Club Med tradition but seems downright spooky to a New Yorker. There is a button lock on the inside doorknob, but during the day anyone can enter an unoccupied room. Anything valuable should be checked, advised the G.O. security man.
Later that Sunday morning buses arrived with charter-flight groups from Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles and New York. There were more families than I expected, most of them with teen-age children (although children over six are welcome). But singles of all ages, including a diminutive 65-year-old woman from Quebec, predominated. Canadians, Australians, Europeans and Arabs drifted into the orientation meeting in the club's circular theater, which became a central gathering place along with the bar bordering the lobby.
During the meeting the chef de village, or manager, introduced his staff and anticipated most of our questions in a casual but thorough way. Tickets for drinks at the bar were an extra expense. There were four pay phones in the lobby - for all of us. No radio or TV. No newspapers.
Be aware, we were told, of the altitude - 9,600 feet - and take it easy while the body adjusts. No saunas or Jacuzzis yet: 'We ran out of money.' But this Club Med had other things, all available at no extra charge: a subterranean disco with violet neon and charcoal walls; backgammon and bridge lessons; French language classes; a library with classical music; warm-up exercises before skiing each morning. And stage shows given by the G.O.'s every night. Shows? In my 10 years of skiing in Europe and the West, there had never been shows.
On to more practical matters. All 450 of us needed Polaroid photos for our ski passes, so lines formed for a surprisingly fast and efficient operation. Next, rental equipment was assigned at the ski room, which has new Rossignol skis and Nordica boots ($59 for the week) as well as cross-country gear.
Since there is no skiing planned for the first day, Sunday is a good time to tour Copper Mountain's town, a mile-long stretch with Club Med at the northwestern end. The club is within a few minutes walk of town and most lifts, and there is a frequent shuttle bus for the three lifts on the outskirts. As close as the town is, I found I did not get to it much because Club Med operates as a self-contained enclave.
Copper Mountain's appeal is that of a new, planned ski village on a small scale. Integrated modern design links its 30 buildings with heavy use of natural woods. There is no neon, no trace of pseudo-Tyrolean Vail, no hodgepodge of buildings from different eras that you see in older resorts like Aspen. Everything fits: small restaurants with fireplaces, apres-ski bars, a bookstore, grocery, post office and chocolate shop.
The mountain is large by Eastern standards with a summit of 12,050 feet, 48 trails and 10 chairlifts, one with a protective bubble cover. It has mostly intermediate skiing (60 percent) and by Western standards is just not the big time. Because Copper is closer to Denver than Vail or Aspen it attracts a lot of weekend skiers and traffic on the slopes can be bad - another reason to take a walk on Sunday afternoon or go cross-country skiing.
Before dinner that night L'Ecole de Ski Fran,cais held its first sort of the skiers. You tell them how you ski, ranking yourself on a scale of six up to one, beginner to expert. (Most skiers were in No. 4 - intermediate.) Instructors are then assigned to each group. Practically everyone joined a class, although guests can ski on their own with the six-day pass provided. The pass is also good at Keystone Mountain, 15 miles away, which is reached by shuttle bus.
Not all of the 35 instructors were French - there were 13 Americans and 6 Canadians - but they all taught French technique. They were well organized and professional, and sometimes they took over the theater for an equipment clinic before dinner - an hour of advice on how to buy and care for boots and skis.
The ski groups met Monday morning for a runoff on the mountain to separate the weak from the strong and move those who misjudged their own ability. My group of eight in a No.2 class drew a French instructor, Christian Aubert, a low-key man who soon won the respect of his flock: a Buffalo businessman on a family vacation, three California bachelors, two teen-age boys, a Rumanian doctor and me.
Each morning we met at 8:45 and skied until noon. Then we broke for lunch at the club. At about 2 P.M. we were back in class for another two hours, a practice that is common in Europe but rare in this country, where people are more likely to ski with friends in the afternoon. There were good reasons for staying with the group. Besides giving us individual attention and correction, Christian managed to find the best snow and shortest lift lines, although Club Med instructors, unlike Copper Mountain's, cannot cut lines with classes.
The expert runs were closed because of the lack of snow, and elsewhere there were rocks and ice, but somehow Christian managed to lead us into 'Copperopolis,' a tree-lined run from the top, for a workout in the moguls (mounds of snow) at moments when there were few other skiers about. 'We ski the boomps now' could mean turning on the soft peaks rather than in the shiny rockiness below or even learning to jump from the top of one mogul to another before turning.
After lunch we often headed for runs like 'Windsong' and 'American Flyer' - intermediate cruising runs on the less-traveled northwestern side of the mountain where we could concentrate on speed.
Luckily the long hours on the slopes were burning up calories. Unlike any ski package I had experienced before, the food was exceptionally good and unlimited. Four French chefs and three Americans turned out fresh flaky croissants for breakfast, sumptuous cold buffets along with hot dishes at lunch and five-course dinners that began with homemade soups.
Although the dining room is large enough to seat all 450 guests at once, it is divided by wooden beams and columns into small sections of tables for eight. At lunch the options were dazzling and, as European custom dictates, this was the big meal of the day. Dinner was a set menu: perhaps cream of carrot soup, a Creole fish course, chicken tarragon and vegetables, and a freshly baked fruit tart for dessert. Pitchers of red and white table wine just kept coming.
When dinner ended, the show began - an event that drew a yawn from more than one guest but was clearly the high point of the day for the G.O.'s. After a while you realized that every G.O. was singing and dancing in addition to regular duties. The manager, as master of ceremonies, seemed totally consumed by it all; one night he changed costumes five times. Some shows are original; others are mimes to sound tracks of Broadway shows. There are rehearsals, real costumes with sequins, tails and feathers, and an elaborate sound system.
Western disco dance lessons before dinner were a hit so the G.O.'s decided to produce a Western show with French dubbed in - a winner. But a number that sent some people running for the exit was repeated every night. To the song 'We Are Family,' all the G.O.'s and guests did arm motions and waving in unison, a routine that had distinct echoes of an American kindergarten.
At 11 P.M. when the show ended, people drifted to the bar before the disco opened at midnight. About that time couples began to materialize out of the mass of G. M.s (gentil membres, or guests). Until then the social scene looked pretty much like a huge ski house in Vermont. Clusters of people talked, had a few drinks together, then moved on. There did not seem to be many weeklong romances, except perhaps in the teen-age contingent, which also seemed to be the group that was happiest at Club Med.
Many people just decided to go to sleep about 11 P.M., behaving like serious skiers whose legs had nothing left for dancing. For the top three classes there was another demand on energy. The instructors began promoting a Club Med slalom race, and some classes ran a course on the mountain to prepare. But Christian kept our group at work on step turns and skating.
At the bar one night we found ourselves being challenged by another No. 2 group that had identified us as hotshots, and a competition was arranged. The next day I was flattened on the ice at high speed by a careless beginner, but an in-house infirmary kept our team intact. 'Dr. Mark,' who looked more like a surfer than an M.D., bandaged my swollen arm ($10) and pronounced me ready to race, but not to fall down.
By the morning of the race there was real camaraderie in the classes. More than a hundred skiers went down the course wearing Club Med bibs after jumping off and tripping the electronic timer. Some skied off into the woods, others fell. I made it to the bottom in 59 seconds, but 48 seconds was the winning time. That night the G.O.s entertained with an awards ceremony.
Our last class was on Saturday morning, leaving the afternoon for the first free skiing of the week. The club had organized a bus trip to nearby Vail for shopping and sightseeing, but for those of us who did not go it was a chance to revert to old habits. The group I joined planned a picnic on the Solitude sundeck atop Copper Mountain. Cheese, fruit and bread cajoled from the club kitchen were supplemented with wine from the town delicatessen. As we piled onto the lift with knapsacks of food, the mood was like getting out of school: no schedule, no G.O.s, just sunshine, fat bluejays and 10 friends.
Whether the Club Med formula will work for American skiers depends on who those skiers are and what they want most. For beginners and intermediates who want to learn or get better, the value is outstanding. For advanced skiers, the mountain probably is not challenging enough for a whole week, despite good instruction.
My land-only rate during a premium holiday week was $698. For a room with bath, three meals a day, five and a half days of lessons and a six-day lift ticket, plus all the extras, that is not bad these days. Some Copper Mountain prices by comparison: $60 a day for a room, $15 for a day's lift ticket, $15 for a lesson and $2 for a mere hamburger.Club Med also throws in an insurance policy that covers bones, baggage and cancellations, but not lack of snow.
It is a combination of ingredients that is hard to match in the United States right now. It is camp, Killington and a Third Avenue singles bar. For me, the formula needs more snow and less show, but is just right on cold buffet. If You Go ... to Club Mediterranee at Copper Mountain, try to avoid holiday weeks, unless you enjoy being a moving target for inexperienced skiers or find long lift lines a nice place to meditate. At Christmas and New Year, you will also pay more.
A package from New York costs $953 between Jan. 4 and April 12 (flights, ground transportation, meals, skiing, tips and taxes). All trips are based on one week, double occupancy. There are no single rooms. For children 6 to 12 the rate is $794. If you want to make your own way to the club, request a land-only plan for $625 (children, $469) and make your own travel arrangements. Do not expect any help from Club Med. The plane reservations are easy, but getting to the club from Denver may not be. Unless you rent a car or join a taxi pool, you will have to deal with Trailways buses (303-623-6819) at Denver's Stapleton Airport. On weekends they leave for Copper at noon and 1 P.M. on a reservation-only basis
Regular ski classes are available for children at Club Med, but there is no nursery or day care program. Copper Mountain does have a nursery (the Belly Button Bakery: 303-668-2882) at the nearby base building, which is open from 8:30 A.M. to 4:30 P.M. for ages 2 and over.
Calling the Club Med toll-free number (1-800-528-3100) is the easiest way to book your week. The club accepts American Express, Visa and MasterCard and sends brochures. A $25 membership fee is added ($12 for children) but that gets you into all 85 Club Meds for a year. - P.A.L