Mitchell Bard 
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© Mitchell Bard 2016

“Vacation” With Baby

Obscene. It was the first word that came to mind when I entered the dining room and saw the amount of food being served at the buffet, enough, it seemed, to feed the entire Dominican Republic for a day. But this was just dinner at Club Med in Punta Cana. My political consciousness was quickly overwhelmed by my 3-year-old son's plaintive whine, "I want chicken nuggets."

The fact that chicken nuggets were served was one immediate indication that this Club had kids in mind. I first heard about Club Med during my single days and heard about beautiful naked people engaged in the Bacchanalian behavior in places like Martinique. Since then, the Clubs have purposely shifted their image to attract families, which helps me feel less like I’m missing something.

As one of a handful of clubs that cater to children, Punta Cana was thoughtfully designed to feed and entertain those from 2 to 11. At the time we travelled (February), we also benefitted from the fact that children 2-5 go free. Though smaller kids eat breakfast and dinner with their parents (the older ones have an option of staying together with their groups), most of the rest of the day and night they are entertained (and fed lunch) at either the Petit or Mini Club.

Besides the noise and tricycles, one immediate difference I noticed between this club and those without children was that no one walked around with large strings of beads. One of the great things about the clubs is that everything is prepaid except special excursions, gifts and drinks in between meals. You pay for the drinks with beads and in the singles clubs, you see men with long necklaces that are reduced to bracelets by the end of the week. At Punta Cana, hardly anyone wore the beads and most were spent on soft drinks for the kids.

The previous year, our son did not enjoy his experience at the Eleuthera Petit Club. At two, he had not yet gone to day care and was not used to spending all day in a social environment. Often, we had to pry ourselves loose from him and leave while he cried hysterically in the hands of the G.O. (Gentils Organisateurs—or counselors for children and grown-ups). When we picked him up, we were told he refused to nap and would just stand in the middle of the room clutching his blanket. Part of the problem was also the relative lack of things to do for children so young. While the older kids could go water-skiing, scuba diving and windsurfing, the two-year-olds were pretty much limited to things like walks to the beach and face-painting.

Having started day care six months earlier, my wife and I decided to make another attempt to prove that vacation with baby is not an oxymoron. By the third day in Punta Cana, Ariel was asking to be taken to the day care as soon as he woke up. And while his parents sunbathed and took a twice-daily snorkeling adventure, he had a day full of activities. At 9:30, the kids were taken to the beach and then to the pool. At 11, they'd have lunch in the dining room, followed by a nap. This year, Ariel slept. And this meant we could take our own naps at our leisure.

The kids’ afternoons were active. They would play on trampolines and go on hunts for crabs and lizards. The G.O.s hadn’t counted on them finding either, so they were unprepared for the panic that set in when the kids were scared by crabs.

Some days we picked Ariel up early so we could take him for a swim in the pool before dinner. We would have liked to take him in the ocean, but he said it was too dirty. In fact, the beach was disappointing, being covered with seaweed that also formed a floating jungle near the shore. Though the water was calm, the visibility was disappointing. You could not even enjoy the most unusual aspect of the coast, a shipwreck on the reef, because the water around it is too shallow to allow swimming or diving around it.

We did convince Ariel—all right we gave him no choice—to take a ride with us in a kayak up and down the shoreline. Once he got over the initial fear of being in a boat for the first time, he enjoyed the novel experience of being chauffeured on sea as well as land.

Though the Petit Club takes the children from 7:30 ? to 5:30 p.m. and again from 7:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., enjoyment of our vacation required us to adopt certain survival techniques for the hours we were all together. The most important was not to try to eat our meals with Ariel. Since we did have to take him to breakfast and dinner, we had to feed him. It's not that we didn't want to, it’s just that any meal with our son, not to mention the dozens of other children of other parents, is not the kind of relaxing meal I look forward to on my vacation. The secret we discovered was to feed Ariel first, take him to day care and then return to have a more leisurely meal on our own. Most people ate in the main restaurant, where you sat at tables for eight and went to the obscene buffet. We preferred the more serene environment in the other two restaurants, where you had to make dinner reservations, but could have civilized breakfasts and lunches. The Hispaniola was a particularly nice place to enjoy a late breakfast overlooking the Caribbean. After dropping off Ariel, we could also enjoy the digestive process.

Last year, we never got to see any of the shows put on by the G.O.s because Ariel insisted on going to sleep—or more accurately, back to our room to serenade us with every lullaby he had heard since birth. This year, he wanted to see the shows. Despite the presence of dozens of young children, the shows were as racy as those for all-adult audiences. They still performed mostly poor lip-sync dance routines often in scanty, Vegas showgirl style costumes. One show that had some of the best numbers included the song from Les Miz with lyrics inappropriate for most kids. I doubt they were irreparably harmed by the exposure.

Ariel looked forward all week to the Batman show, but as soon as it started, with the film score and dark Michael Keaton-like Batman, he wanted to go home. He made it through, but didn't enjoy it nearly as much as the lighter performances.

Some shows were particularly entertaining for the kids, especially those that featured young guests. One was put on by the circus team and gave the young G.M.s (Gentils Membres otherwise known as paying guests) a chance to show off some of what they learned during the week of practicing on the trapeze and trampoline. The best show for everyone was probably the kids’ shows. The toddlers performed in the afternoon, and the parents were all in stitches seeing a bunch of little girls in Madonna-like costumes performing to her music. The highlight for us, not surprisingly, was Ariel's rendition of “The Time Warp” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Later in the evening the older kids did some equally cute numbers that had their parents kvelling.

The vacation could have turned out different. Some parents couldn’t convince or coerce their kids to attend the camp. Some felt too guilty to leave them all day. Not us, we would have preferred to leave Ariel with a family member, but that was not an option. So we guiltlessly let him have his own good time while we enjoyed what we set out for—a vacation.

Getting There

The Club has 319 rooms for 638 guests. Prices range from $720-1,500, with Christmas week being most expensive and the relatively colder months in the winter being cheaper. During the winter, it does rain. Most people go to the Clubs from Saturday to Saturday and it Club Med offers its own charters. If you want to fly on your own, it is possible to come at other days of the week, but it is discouraged. Most people find two weeks too many; we found one not quite enough. The Club is only a five minute ride from -- airport.