HUATULCO, Mexico - It's nearly 4 a.m. Where is my 14-year-old son?
Only at Club Med, I think, would a 2:30 a.m. curfew - the first he's ever required - not be sufficient.
Matt arrives sheepishly a few minutes later. "Sitting by the pool with a bunch of friends. Lost track of time," he apologizes.
This is the teen who didn't want to come to Club Med because it would be "so boring." Instead, he's found himself smack in teen heaven. Offering Club Med's only organized year-round teen program, Club Med-Huatulco draws more teens - typically 100 a week and as many as 250 during school breaks - than any other resort I know. It lavishes attention on them with teen-only activities, from water polo to shopping excursions, horseback rides through the jungle, teen-only dinners and late-night beach parties.
Decidedly cool young counselors lead the way. Taline Sheriff, a gorgeous, dark-haired, 25-year-old University of California grad, for one, had a gaggle of teen-age boys following in her wake wherever she went. If the teens are playing beach volleyball and Taline spots a prospective player, she encourages him to join in. If they're gathering in the open-air bar before dinner, she's got one eye roving the crowd for other teens she can invite to join the crowd.
"We get the teens to help recruit, too," says Ashley Guide, the 26-year-old Texan who oversees the children's and teens' programs here. "The key is to pull them in with the activities, and for the GOS [that's what they call counselors here] to be very visible."
The teen program is looser in structure than the one for younger children: A daily schedule is posted on the bulletin board so teens know where to find the group any hour of the day. One day's schedule read:
* 10:30 Water polo
* 12:30 Lunch
* 2:30 Beach volleyball
* 3:00 Water sports - kayaking, sailing and windsurfing
* 4:00 Softball
* 7:00 Games
* 7:45 Dinner
The teens - anyone 12 or older - also may join in any of the adult activities at the 50-acre resort, from step aerobics to tennis clinics, sailing lessons to soccer games to flying-trapeze workshops. Early every evening, I see adults and teens together playing basketball, volleyball, pingpong and softball. Other teens and younger siblings are playing in the surf or splashing in the giant pool.
This is the largest Club Med in the Americas, with a capacity for 1,000 guests in hillside casitas that wind down to four Pacific beaches. During the week we spend here, my son Matt is too busy with new friends and the jampacked schedule (as are his two younger sisters) to remember he had to be cajoled into this trip.
He doesn't even miss television; the modest rooms with tiled floors have neither TV nor telephones. They do have air conditioning and private balconies overlooking the sea with colorful hammocks. When we arrive at 4 a.m. from our charter flight, 7-year-old Melanie hits the hammock rather than her bed.
Matt and 12-year-old Reggie are thrilled that their room has sliding floor-to-ceiling cabinets and sliding glass doors to the balcony, enabling them each to have a small private room connected by the bath.
The rooms are simple by design and in accordance with Club Med's philosophy: "We don't want guests spending a lot of time in their rooms," explains the club manager, Gino Andreeta, at 33 a 10-year Club Med veteran.
"I'm glad there's no TV," said 16-year-old Erin Garrison, from suburban Boston. "You're out doing stuff instead of being in your room watching something."
The teens I met, though they are the first to tell you they don't want to follow an organized schedule (this is vacation, after all), seem glad to be getting so much attention.
"It's not like anyone is telling you what to do," explains 13-year-old Matt Belitsky, who lives in Stowe, Vt., and was vacationing with his dad. "You stay for the activities you like and leave when they're doing something you don't like."
That's not to say the kids spent much time with their parents, however. This is not the place to come for family togetherness; even the 6-to-12-year-olds were busy with their own organized activities.
"You know, I feel like we're on separate vacations," mused Woody Lawson, the mother of two teen-agers from Hingham, Mass. "And I don't like it. We don't have that many vacations left before they go away to college!"
I came to Club Med with my three kids over spring break, drawn as were many families I met by a low-price deal being offered that week. (Summer until just before Christmas is value season.)
I wanted to see how the company that has made its name synonymous with family fun in the last decade runs programs for that invariably difficult-to-please teen group.
In 1997, more than 85,000 kids vacationed with their families at a Club Med in the Caribbean, Mexico or the United States. This comes at a time when parents as well as the travel industry are grappling with how to keep teens happy on vacation, as their numbers continue to grow. According to the census bureau, there are nearly 30 million youngsters aged 12-19.
And on vacation as at home, they're increasingly making their desires felt. Nearly 60 percent of teens polled for the recent Nickelodeon/Yankelovich Youth Monitor survey indicated that parents listen to where they want to go and what they want to do when planning trips. No wonder "Vacations rank high as something teens like to do with parents," explains Michael Wood, a spokesman for Teenage Research Unlimited, a market-research firm that polls 2,000 teens twice annually.
That's as long as parents don't expect their teens to spend every minute with Mom and Dad, Wood adds. "They want their own space and freedom."
That's the key, I decided, to Club Med's success with this crowd: The not-yet-driving teens are able to have more freedom than they can anywhere else.
They don't even need Mom and Dad to buy meals or sign releases so they can take out sailboats or windsurfers, because all activities and food are included. Soft drinks and nonalcoholic concoctions can be bought outside of mealtimes with ticket booklets purchased at the front desk.
The kids eat when they please: There's food practically all day with breakfasts served at two restaurants from 7:30 a.m. till 11:30 a.m., lunches served from 12:30 p.m. until 4 p.m. and dinners until 9:30 p.m. With bountiful buffets offering everything from gazpacho to sandwich fixings to grilled local fish and barbecued chicken, guacamole and dip, and 10 varieties of ice cream, even the teen-age boy with the most gargantuan appetite won't go hungry. There are Italian buffets with several kinds of pasta, Tex-Mex ribs and even a Moroccan restaurant serving couscous.
Even better, my kids liked eating with their friends. Seven-year-old Melanie would eat with her Mini Club GOS, very pleased to be serving herself burgers and fries from the buffets; 12-year-old Reggie preferred to enter the restaurants with a couple of friends, sitting at a table for eight. All tables are large to foster making new friends. Matt always ate with a large group of teens. After the first day, I had to beg to get them to join me for a meal.
While there were rumors of tequila parties among some of the older kids (18 is the legal drinking age in Mexico), I didn't once see any rowdy kids in the dining room or around the resort. In fact, I was downright impressed with how well-behaved they all were. Club Med, one parent joked, is great for honing the kids' social graces.
"This place is a confidence builder," agrees Susan Littlefield, who was vacationing from suburban Boston with two teen-age girls. "They learn how to handle themselves in new social situations, in a safe place. They don't have to ever worry about seeing these people again."
As a single-for-the-week mom, I didn't feel the least bit conspicuous. When my kids spurned my dinner invitations, I found plenty of convivial company: When my kids were gone all day at their activities, I shopped in the nearby town, La Crucecita, chatted on the beach or had lunch with my new friends. Had I been able to rouse Melanie earlier (Mini Club started shortly after 9 a.m.), I would have gone to tennis lessons and aerobics classes.
The one drawback to all of this fun: the heat. At well over 90 degrees every day, it was too hot for him to play tennis or baseball, according to Matt. That's why everyone stayed so close to the water.
"We don't have time to rest. That's our problem," said Mike Zopf, who was vacationing with his family from Steamboat Springs, Colo.
Karen Syball, a day-care provider from Connecticut, says no place offers the vacation value Club Med does, with so much packed into one price. Anyone who has traveled with an older child or a teen knows how much it can cost each time he wants to rent a kayak or she wants a snack from the beach bar.
As the week goes on, I see Matt less and less. He sleeps in while I get Melanie and Reggie up and ready for their group activities, and then he saunters down to the restaurant for a late breakfast of chocolate croissants, eggs and fresh pineapple and mango, then joins his buddies at the beach or the pool. I see him one day in the middle of a group playing beach volleyball. I catch a glimpse of him another afternoon taking a group of teens out to sail on a Hobie Cat. Later, after dinner, there he is in the midst of a line-dancing crowd doing the Macarena.
"This is the most awesome vacation I've ever had," he says as we're leaving to catch the flight home. Since we got home, the calls and e-mail have been flying with his new friends. They're already angling for a return trip.
When you go
Cost: Summer and fall traditionally are the least expensive times to visit the various Club Med locations. From Washington, costs are about $1,100 for adults and about $100 less for kids.
Super deal: Club Med's new Family Escape deal - you pick the VTC week; Club Med picks the family village. The cost, including airfare, is $849 per person for mid-week departures through early December from Washington. (Weekend departures are available from New York for the same fare.)
Reminder: Teen programs only available at Huatulco, Mexico.
Information: Call 800-CLUB-MED or visit its Web site at http//www.clubmed.com/.
Pub Date: 5/17/98