Utter the words “package” or “all-inclusive” in the context of a holiday and you might receive a withering look from friends and colleagues, on a par with parking a caravan on your driveway, possessing toilet seat covers or carpeting your bathroom.
But these days, the financial reality of cancellation is more problematic than the snobbery of holiday perception. So, why not consider something different?
My neighbours are seasoned Club Med holidaymakers. Three bottles into a neighbourly episode of lockdown fizz, we discussed taking another holiday together. Perhaps we’d join them on an all-inclusive package trip to Gregolimano in Greece? The holiday was a shade over £1,200 per person for seven nights, including scheduled BA flights from Heathrow. It’s easy to drop that kind of money on a weekend away, so why not?
Until now, my reference point for an all-inclusive holiday has been Curtain Bluff in the Caribbean. Off-season room rates are £500 per night, per person and considerably more at their peak. It’s truly epic, but a real wallet burner. So, we signed up for Club Med, thinking it would either be a bargain or a suspended sentence.
With previous holidays cancelled and the complications of trying to rearrange plans, one of the criteria for this holiday was to take the stress out of booking. Yes, the holidays are Abta and Atol protected, the best kind of insurance for dealing with a company that goes out of business. But Club Med goes one step further.
You’re covered if you catch Covid-19, or the border rules change in the country you’re visiting. Or your home country. In fact for every possible disruptive scenario that’s out of your hands. And it spells it out on its website. In this day and age, with so many companies trying to avoid paying out, peace of mind and a simple and upfront guarantee aren’t words to be ignored. There’s real value in receiving this level of protection.
Whatever your destination, the upfront costs of travel have soared. I won’t bore you with all the rigmarole over pre- and post-holiday Covid tests, but that’s just where it begins.
Our holiday proper started with “meet and greet” parking at Heathrow’s Terminal 5, costing £139 (steep, but similar to the cost of an Uber Exec). Wearing face coverings while schlepping bags around is not pleasant, and I’d not repeat the Weatherspoon’s breakfast experience — mostly because it took so long to arrive that we almost missed our flight.
But I was glad to have eaten it because the days of a full in-flight service are truly over. Today’s meagre BA rations are a bottle of water and a cereal bar.
The cheery Club Med rep greeted us at the airport and chaperoned us into a shuttle bus. Upon arrival at the resort, what looked like a tasty glass of fizz turned out to be lemon water. Things got worse when we were shown to our room. It was dark, damp and more like a hostel than a hotel.
When I found the room telephone (in the shower, in case you wondered) to inquire if this really was the best they could offer, I was invited to meet a Gentil Organisateur (gracious or nice organiser), or GO for short. They could not have been more helpful. On seeing our room, he offered an “oh la la” and immediately organised a swap to a brighter one with a view, and apologised. Things were looking up!
The best thing about avoiding yet another staycation? Guaranteed sun. The resort’s long stretch of sandy beach is glorious. Fluttering blue and white striped umbrellas, an abundance of sun loungers and gently lapping waves into the sea. We prepared for dinner with a long swim.
But what about the all-inclusive food? The main restaurant is a huge self-service affair, but it’s not an institutional cafeteria with piles of food hanging around all day. Everything is cooked to order, fresh and delicious.
OK, so the house vino isn’t amazing. If you want Laurent-Perrier or Miraval, have it but you’ll have to pay. If austerity is the name of the game, the local rosé and house brut prosecco whet the old whistle particularly well with a salty crisp accompaniment.
Those of you observant of my previous column will note that this holiday does not seem particularly conducive to dieting. My nutritionist, Michele, is probably beside herself by now, but her diet is about making choices and there are plenty of healthy options.
Every morning we played tennis. There are 12 pristine courts. Anne-Sophie, a pro-tennis player turned GO coach, took charge of “ze English”. Superb! Alternatively, you can go wakeboarding, water skiing or sailing, or (for the less adventurous) tone your wobbly body with aqua aerobics. The six-packed French instructor was accompanied by banging dance music. Despite not really understanding what they said, we had a hoot. Then it’s straight into internationally understandable beer pong before lunch.
In its time, Club Med revolutionised the concept of the all-inclusive holiday. The French are good at a revolution. In 2013 the company was bought out of bankruptcy, again, this time by the Chinese conglomerate Fosun, which has injected capital and knowhow to up the game of this institution.
This is an active holiday. It doesn’t meet my definition of luxurious, despite the “premium” branding that Club Med applies. Still, even though we were in Greece, we felt like were in France.
Despite Club Med’s best efforts, this is not an international crowd. Vincenzo, the “chef du village”, presides over all activities (Think Ted Bovis from Hi-de-Hi! but thin, French, the colour of a mahogany sideboard because he’s had so much sun, and matching polo shirt and shoes for every occasion).
His mostly French team are omnipresent and make a real effort to get you involved, and they’ll speak English if they must. Yet most of the guests are French or Belgian. The GOs are fundamentally classy Butlin’s red coats. They sing, dance and get dressed up in outfits. But there are no wet T-shirt competitions or pint-downing contests.
The concept works, mostly because it’s not stuffed full of Brits. Our fellow holidaymakers included the MDs of banks, owners of family-run companies, professionals and families. They’ve been coming to Club Med for years. Although there’s a total inability by any of the staff to make a proper cup of tea, we were made to feel very welcome — particularly when we rebelled against the line dance moves that everyone but us seemed to know by performing the “bicycle”. This involves four people with moving body parts serving as handlebars and a seat.
Despite any misgivings you might have about an all-inclusive or package holiday, Club Med is definitely worth considering. It’s incredible value for money and extremely active. Brush up on your French and immerse yourself in the cult that is Club Med. I’ll definitely be back for more.
James Max is a radio presenter and property expert. The views expressed are personal. Twitter: @thejamesmax