Monday, May 10, 2010

The Stress-less Côte d’Azur

Everyone loves the idea of the South of France in summer. But the reality? The crowds, the traffic, the high prices, the attitude? Not so much.

But at Club Med Opio in Provence--which reopened three years ago after a $40 million renovation--it's possible to avoid every one of those height-of-the-season hassles. Within an hour of my arrival, I felt blessed rather than stressed. Call it the kinder, gentler Cote d'Azur.

Club Med Opio is a great base for exploring the famous hill towns of Grasse, St. Paul de Vence, Mougins and others. Cannes is down below at the seaside, just 16 kilometers away, with Nice and Monaco further up the coast. The Club’s Excursion Desk organizes sightseeing trips and also works with guests to plan custom sorties. With three pools to choose from, there’s never a shortage of lounge chairs. With multiple bars and cafés, chilly drinks are always at hand.

The 435 rooms (which range from standard to balcony to suite) have cool stone floors, puffy white duvets and shiny red armoires. Bathrooms are fitted with creamy stone sinks and showers big enough for two. A plasma TV picks up a few English channels and the A/C blows stronger than the legendary mistral. My Club Room was small but filled with conveniences, such as twisty halogen spots for reading in bed, powerful hairdryers and plenty of electrical outlets (converters and adaptors are available but it’s best to bring your own).

Club Med Opio offers tennis, golf, archery, trapeze, 4x4 treks, guided hikes, painting classes and other activities, either free or for a small fee. There’s a lovely spa, a well-equipped gym and a few exercise classes each day. A smart shop sells sparkly cover-ups, sunglasses and other resort essentials.

At the legendary buffet, the chefs work to blend local Mediterranean specialties with “safer” international dishes, pleasing foodies and non-foodies alike. The choices were so extensive, in fact, it would be hard to imagine even the pickiest eater going hungry. Local wines are placed on every table; beer, coffee, juice and soda you serve yourself. A second restaurant, at the golf course, offers table service and an à la carte menu.

Club Med’s all-inclusive policy is a particular treat in summer when local restaurants are crowded and often very expensive. The savings can be substantial: in this part of France it’s common to pay 5€ for a café au lait and 60€ or 80€ per person for a mediocre bistro meal. The Club Med no-tipping policy is a convenience as well.

This is one of the Club Med properties that has comprehensive facilities and activities for babies (four months and up), toddlers and teens. There’s a children’s restaurant, a circus school for kids, a baby-food buffet and more. Opio beautifully illustrates the company’s ongoing commitment to the upscale family market.

If you’re thinking that a stay at Club Med Opio means giving up any of the pleasures of a French country vacation, that’s simply not the case. After a day of hiking, I felt totally pampered as I kicked back on a deep terrace couch, Pastis in hand, and watched the sun set over the valley. The scents of lavender, jasmine and pine perfumed the early evening breeze. A handsome GO (gentil organisateur or staff member) played soft Brazilian-style guitar while I eavesdropped on the conversations (in Dutch, Italian, French, Spanish and British English) around me. If there was anything less-than-perfect happening here, I wasn’t going to be the one to find it.

Seven-night all inclusive packages start at 1057€ ($1352, £910) per adult, land only. For more info or booking:

Photo by Tommaso Coerini via Flickr. To see more of his work, click HERE.