Reporting from Grace Bay, Turks and Caicos Islands—The last thing I expected to see when I arrived at Club Med's Turkoise resort in the British West Indies was a gray-haired guy balancing on a walker. Before I had a chance to blink twice, another gray-haired guy rolled by in a wheelchair.
Was this the hedonistic singles resort I remembered from the '80s? Or had I taken a wrong turn and ended up at an assisted-living facility?
But along with the graying crowd at the adults-only Turks and Caicos Islands resort were enough thirtysomethings (and spry 40- to 70-year-olds) to keep the dance floor vibrating until 2 a.m. every night.
The French-owned Club Méditerranée, which operates more than 80 resorts worldwide, has evolved through the years, targeting a new — and younger — clientele at most of its resorts and offering more upscale services and accommodations.
I'd come to Turkoise, on brilliantly blue Grace Bay on Providenciales (Provo) Island, with some friends who were looking for a little partying and a lot of relaxation. That goal was a 180-degree departure from my first visit to a Club Med village more than 20 years ago, when a friend and I were looking for a lot of partying and a little relaxation.
Conditions were primitive on that first visit. No TV, no air conditioning, bad food, beds so hard that sleeping on the floor seemed preferable. I was more comfortable in a pup tent at Girl Scout camp when I was 8.
Fast forward to 2010: escargot in puff pastry in the dining room, massages in a bungalow overlooking the bay, chocolate mints on the pillow at night. And all those things that had formerly been lacking: TV, air conditioning, a comfortable bed — the resort had become sort of a Holiday Inn with perks. The perks, of course, are an important part of Club Med's all-inclusive experience: Guests can eat, drink, play and dance the night away for one set price. During my visit earlier this year, the cost was less than $1,000 a person for a seven-night stay. (To see similarly priced vacations, go to http://www.clubmed.com.)
While I was enjoying the Caribbean vibe here, other vacationers were discovering much more luxurious surroundings at upgraded Club Med villages in Ixtapa, Mexico, and Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. Both of these villages feature the company's new resort-within-a-resort concept, said Chief Executive Xavier Mufraggi. Guests pay more — up to $5,600 a week during the peak holiday season — but have suites, concierge service and a semi-private pool.
"I grew up visiting some of the best hotels in the world," said Kristin Eberstadt of Southampton, N.Y., "and I think the environment at Ixtapa is competitive. Plus, my kids love the independence and fun they have while they're there."
Guests such as Eberstadt, 39, are Club Med's new target audience: affluent, active parents.
The change in strategy came in 2005, said Mufraggi, when the club closed 30 of its 110 resorts and adopted an upscale family concept, investing $1 billion in renovations. Adults-only villages were a casualty: Only five, including Turkoise, remain. Many of the others encourage kids, offering special programs for children from babies to teens. For the youngest children, there are baby and toddler clubs. "Nobody can do what we do for babies and kids," said Mufraggi. Older kids can learn to sail, swing on a trapeze, play tennis.
Turkoise, one of the most popular clubs in the Americas, is still on the renovation list. A few beach chairs are broken, the construction is blocky '80s-style and the dining room and outdoor entertainment areas need to be refurbished. But no one can fault the club's location at the edge of stunningly blue Grace Bay.
This 12-mile strip of sand and water is one of the main attractions of Turks and Caicos, a 40-island British crown colony east of Cuba that caters to the rich and famous. High-end resorts, where overnight stays can top $1,000, draw Americans, who like the islands' proximity to the U.S. It's a 75-minute flight southeast from Miami, close enough to make it an attractive short-holiday destination for the East Coast platinum-card crowd. (It's about seven hours from L.A.) Other pluses: The currency is the U.S. dollar, crime is minimal, locals are amiable and everyone speaks English.
Many of Grace Bay's resorts are luxury palaces that rival the Caribbean's top spots. But the granddaddy of them all on this prime curve of sand is Club Med's Turkoise, which pioneered the tourist industry here when it cut a road from Providenciales International Airport and opened its doors to GMs (gentils membres, or gracious members) in 1984. The achievement is a Club Med hallmark: One of the company's secrets to longevity in the über-competitive tourism industry is to blaze a trail into some of the world's best potential vacation spots, arriving first and scoring the best locations and beaches.
The club continues to pioneer new vacation sites; it's concentrating on China, where a ski resort is scheduled to open in November. Seven additional clubs are planned in the next 10 years, Mufraggi said.
Meanwhile, Turkoise continues to draw return guests; some come to scuba dive, snorkel or sail Provo's clear waters, others just to sit on a beautiful beach and recharge.
"When I vacation, all I want to do is read my favorite book, eat, sleep, drink and do nothing," said Song Kanter of Seal Beach. "There's no pressure. That's what I love about it. It's a perfect place."
The club here doesn't have the chic, expensive lines of its pricey competition up the beach, but neither does it have the high rates. And there are other perks: trade winds that keep it from being too hot and muggy; a reef that calms the waves, making swimming safe and easy; a lagoon that's an unearthly shade of turquoise; and a night sky so full of stars it shimmers.
One night, one of my friends went on a "cultural quest," taking advantage of Club Med's international clientele to learn some foreign words, specifically, how to swear in 20 languages or more. It was one of the most energetic things she did during our stay.
I ran into the man with the walker one afternoon at lunch. He'd injured his leg on the flying trapeze. But no regrets, he said. He would try it again next year.