Sicily: Flying tonight at Club Med
A small boy is climbing a ladder into the hot sun. Twenty feet up, he steps on to a narrow platform, from where he can see his parents, struggling with the zoom of their new digital camera in the amphitheatre below.
He draws a breath, grips the bar tightly, then he is away, slicing through the air like a pint-sized Tarzan. Ladies and gentleman, I bring you Joshua Rocker on the flying trapeze…
I had never expected to see my son in circus flight (and I certainly never would have tried it at his age — safety harness and net notwithstanding) but that was part of the fun at Club Med.
We had come to Kamarina, on the southern coast of Sicily and the largest of Club Med’s 80 international resorts, without preconceptions. It was our first Club Med experience, though some friends had spoken highly of their visit the previous year to Palmiye, a four-trident club in Turkey. Kamarina was a standard three-trident: “Just think of it as a more upmarket French Butlins’ and you’ll be fine,” a friend advised.
The trip from the airport, where Mount Etna smoked in the background like some fat mogul puffing on a cigar, took just over an hour and a half through the rugged countryside.
At first sight, the club made a favourable impression; a welcome of pink frangipanes fringing the access road to what seemed like a country estate.
The holiday villaggio has plenty of local charm: limestone cottages with terracotta roofs cluster prettily among bright Mediterranean flowers. But appearances can flatter. Our first-floor room, for all its china blue and orange colour scheme, was spartan and not well-lit: it had air-conditioning and a precariously perched wall-mounted TV, yet far too little cupboard space to unpack our clothes.
The sight of the bathroom, however, almost sent my wife Karen straight back to the airport: the shower tray needed a good scour, some of the grouting was discoloured and a clump of black mould was growing out of a cracked tile.
When we complained, we were offered another room in the village or at the hotel. The hotel room was brighter, more comfortable, better furnished and had a sea-view, making the choice a no-brainer. Happily resettled, we could start to enjoy the holiday. At first, the 230-acre site can seem bewilderingly large but once you get the hang of the colour-coded maps, it is easy to get around.
The cottages lead to the smart, well-kept agora, the attractive central square with its bar, reception area and boutiques selling designer swim and sportswear. There was also a craft fair while we were there, where Karen found stylish jewellery with Etna stones.
Stretching below the agora is the enormous swimming pool — more like a lake, since it must be six times the size of your average pool; its terraces blossoming with parasols. A brisk five minutes’ walk away, past the amphitheatre and its circus gear, lie two decent strips of beach, which were lovely for an early morning stroll.
The waters were placid enough for Joshua to snorkel safely by the shore, while further out, a flotilla of trainee sailors lined up behind the instructor boat like ducklings following their mother.
At Club Med, your body can be as active as it desires; a morning “bottoms and tummies” class, a bout of beach volleyball, then aqua fitness or tennis on one of 25 courts set among woods of eucalyptus and fir. Or you can follow the Seinfeld philosophy, and do nothing.
Clubs for tots, children of different age groups and teens operate six days a week, and some parents seemed only too keen to deposit their brood at nine in the morning and collect them 12 hours later.
From past experience, we held little hope of leaving Joshua, especially as the club was mainly French and Italian-speaking. But to our pleasant surprise, a delightful Cambridge languages student, Amber from Mill Hill, who worked with the 8- to 10-year olds, eventually talked him round.
The blessed Amber was one of the hundreds of gentils organisateurs or GOs — a soft G as in “Gigi” — the nomadic tribe of mostly young people who are Club Med’s equivalent of redcoats.
We were braced for a certain amount of in-your-face larkiness, having been forewarned that GOs can play practical jokes. But they turned out all to be tres gentil — good-humoured, helpful and hard-working.
Soon Joshua was eagerly joining the schedule of archery, wall-climbing, rollerblading, mini golf, circus skills and more, while we were left to enjoy our loungers — and our liberty — at the pool.
The hotel, a three-minute walk from the agora across a garden of date palms and banana plants, has its own pool, which is smaller and quieter, although open to all. Here, we set up camp, irrigated by capuccinos and clubba coladas — a pina colada without the alcohol — from the pool bar.
All drinks are included in the package (save champagne and some premier liqueurs), which should spare you an extras bill. You can get excellent Illy coffee at the agora bar, while watching a lizard outdo the circus performers by walking upside down on the ceiling.
During our stay in the second week of July, the club was close to full with around 1,200 guests, but we never felt crowded. We ate dinner early — at around 7.30 or 8 — to avoid any queues. Kamarina has four restaurants, plus a cafeteria at the beach, and the catering, given the numbers, was far better than we anticipated, with good pizza and pasta, excellent salads and fish and tempting desserts, although it seemed odd to serve Carte d’Or ice-cream in Italy.
Lunchtime barbecues, alas, were mostly beyond the pale for kosher-observant eaters, featuring on one occasion a dozen lambs, roasting aromatically above charcoal for a Moroccan feast, along with belly-dancing GOs. Pre-dinner, cocktails and canapés such as fried mozzarella balls were dished out on the hotel terrace by Rossana, its feisty manager. Karen, who could be breathalysed after a wine gum, happily initiated herself into tequila sunrises.
After dinner, the gentils membres —that’s us — would congregate in the agora, where kids’ talents shows were staged nightly, followed by a ritual blast of Euro-disco that had people waving their arms up and down in full barmitzvah dance mode.
Then it was off to the amphitheatre for some circus acrobatics or the big green tent for a show by the G0s to ‘80s hits. Meanwhile, at the hotel bar, Rossana would be holding court with New York, New York or Italian ballads. As we headed for bed, the teens set off for the nightclub. Since Kamarina is pretty secluded, you must hire a car if you want a break from the village, or take an excursion such as the one or two-day tour to Etna. We took a morning trip to Ragusa 45 minutes away. The market proved a disappointment but when we crossed the ravine into the old town of Ibla with its baroque churches, we were entranced. Our all-too-brief stop, which included tastings of orange and peach granita and chilli-flavoured chocolate, left us with a yearning to return.
Across the dinner table one night, a Frenchman — staying at Kamarina with his family for a second time — told us that this was one of the best of the nine or so Club Meds they had visited.
Our experience seems to indicate that if you only want a room to flop in after a fun and exhausting day, the village will do. But if your budget stretches to it, the hotel is a far more congenial option.
Club Med Kamarina (08453 676767; www.clubmed.co.uk) offers club rooms in a bungalow from £566 per adult/£402 per child for a week up to £1,150/£922 in high season. Club rooms in the Kamarina Hotel from £680 per adult/£424 per child for a week to £1335/£975. All prices include flights, transfers, all meals and beverages and most wine and spirits. Children under 2 years stay and travel free: children 2-5 stay free: children 6-11 up to 60 per reduction on adult price, from 12 to 17 20 per cent reduction. Savings of £150 per adult and £75 per child for bookings before February 28