The company is replacing old-style communal holidays with a new generation of sophisticated resort-hotels
By no means everyone at The Sunday Times Travel section is a fan of Club Med. Sean Newsom, our ski editor, laughed when I told him I was going. “My wife and I went there a few seasons back, and we hated it,” he said. “It seemed French in all the wrong ways – bossy, old-fashioned and a bit patronising. We had to eat at communal tables and buy a book of tickets if we wanted a drink at the bar, which we didn’t much, because of all the relentless holiday-camp entertainment at night. The worst thing about it, though, was the lack of specialisation among the staff. I saw the guys who’d been fitting boots at the ski-hire centre working in the restaurant the following day. It didn’t inspire confidence.”
He did, however, admit that he’d been the wrong person to test it. “We were a couple hoping for a romantic week in the mountains, which isn’t really possible when there are shoals of children swirling round your ankles. The families who were holidaying there seemed much happier.”
Club Med executives concede that, during a period of financial instability in the 1990s, the company rather lost its way. Now, with new investors, it is aiming upmarket – building hotels with better facilities, different room categories and superior standards of service. Eventually, the basic clubs will be phased out.
This represents a significant change of tack for Club Med, which was built on a postwar ideal of egalitarianism and communal living. Guests – known as Gentils Membres, or GMs for short – all bedded down in the same simple rooms and spent their days engaged in group activities. But today’s society is more atomised: people want more time alone, more privacy and more luxurious accommodation. After a day’s skiing, many people want a table for two, not 22.
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The new Club Med aims to meet these demands. Out goes communal dining, in come tables for two or four. Out go drinks vouchers, in comes a free bar – wine, spirits and cocktails included. And staff now do specific jobs.
Peisey-Vallandry certainly looks the part.
Interiors are plush and solid, a pleasing marriage of traditional and contemporary, with lots of glass and chiselled stone, solid wood beams and cherry-red walls. Our family suite was spacious and comfortable, and had a bathtub and plasma television screens – both new for Club Med.
The location is outstanding. Peisey-Vallandry may not be a name that trips off the tongue of every English-speaking skier, but it has charming runs through wooded hills and lies in the heart of the Paradiski area. To one side is Les Arcs, to the other La Plagne. Guests can ski out and ski in, with 250 miles of groomed pistes on their doorstep.
Club Med remains very, very French. Food is taken seriously: we ate oysters and foie gras, lobster and scallops, wild boar and capon; the salads were freshly made, desserts were exquisite, the cheeseboard was gargantuan. Yes, it was a buffet, but to compare it to the grub dished up at some British-run chalets would be like comparing Heston Blumenthal with Heston M4 services.
We had one grumble. Despite claims that the hotel caters for children aged four months and up, it didn’t offer highchairs, booster seats, baby cutlery or afternoon tea. Our youngest, 18-month-old Helena, survived on ham sandwiches smuggled out of the restaurant at lunchtime. Not that she cared – she got to swim in the pool every day.
And there was still no escaping the evening entertainment. Maybe I’m getting old and stupid, but I found some of it rather good. One evening, the bar was transformed into a cocktail lounge, and there was an excellent house band that belted out rock, soul and jazz classics. Our eldest, Callum, 9, was transfixed. “Way cool!” he declared.
Other guests I met were similarly impressed. Alexandra was typical: an elegant Parisian lady in her forties, she had been brought up on Club Med holidays and, in her youth, had spent a summer working at a resort. “To be honest, I stopped going to Club Med after that,” she said. “It started going downhill. The people were not so classy and the staff addressed you as ‘ tu’. But this place is very different. And the children love it.”
I can see why the new, improved Club Med might still not impress Sean, but for a boy of nine, who can stay up late to watch rock bands and order his own drinks from the bar, it’s little short of paradise.
The perfect family ski hotel? Well, almost.
Personally, I have reservations about the all-inclusive concept. At Club Med, you pay one price, which includes not just your meals and drinks, but your ski pass and lessons. It’s good value – unless, like me, you get fed up skiing with a group all day. One of the advantages of staying in Paradiski is that you can spend all day exploring the furthest reaches of Les Arcs or La Plagne. You can’t do this if you’re determined to get back for lunch.
Still, this is a quibble. Peisey-Vallandry is, as we say in our family, way cool.