Club Med's Sandpiper provides many diversions for kids, parents

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Deputy managing editor Gerry Bourbeau took his wife and 3-year-old daughter, Miranda, to Club Med's Sandpiper in Port St. Lucie for a mid-March play date. Although it piqued his interest, he didn't try his hand (or feet) on the resort's trapeze. His report follows:

Officials at Sandpiper, Club Med's inclusive, family-friendly village in Port St. Lucie, are determined to eliminate what they believe is a widely held misperception about their Kids Club.

"What people need to understand is we are not a daycare center. It's not a place to just dump the kids for the day," said chief of village Chris Keeley, better known to everyone as Hammer.

One leisurely spin around the grounds of Sandpiper, and it was clear to us this was no daycare center.

Toddlers splashed about gleefully in swimming pools. Kids whizzed by on inline skates or flopped around on water skis off shore.

Preteens rushed by with their tennis rackets or basketballs. Some daredevils in the bunch swung from the trapeze at the village's circus school.

Sandpiper clearly is a haven for the kind of kids who wear out their sneakers in a month -- and for parents who think they can keep pace with the younger set.

Kid's stuff

The Kids Club is the centerpiece of Sandpiper, which hugs a very green, very serene stretch of shore along the St. Lucie River, a little less than an hour north of West Palm Beach.

Sandpiper accepts kids as young as 4 months old in Baby Club Med and will even welcome teenagers (ages 14 to 17) during school holidays.

Worth noting: For kids ages 4 and up, the cost of the Kids Club is included in the price of the package. For younger kids, however, parents will have to pay an additional $175 per week per child.

Kids gather at the clubhouse each morning at 9 a.m., where they join up with other youngsters their age and the G.O.'s who will lead them through the day's adventures. (G.O., by the way, is shorthand for a Club Med staff member; guests are known as G.M.'s).

For the toddlers and preschoolers, the pace and activities are pretty tame, as you might expect. Miranda, less than a month from her fourth birthday, was permitted to flip-flop between the 3- and 4-year-old groups, depending on what was on the agenda (she chose cookie-baking with the 3's over tennis with the 4's, for instance, but joined the older kids for some fun on the trampoline the next day). The G.O.'s were very flexible in that regard.

Things generally were a lot more strenuous for the older kids, who learn to sail and water ski, test their Rollerblading skills on the regulation half-pipe, or even fly through the air with the greatest of trepidation on the 33-foot-high trapeze at the circus school.

(Kids as young as 4 can give the trapeze a whirl; all wear a belt with ropes attached that tether them to high wires above the trapeze. Below is a net and two G.O.'s, who hold the ropes and can pull kids up if they begin to fall, or lower them to the net when they've had enough swinging).

The circus school is the pride and joy of the folks at Sandpiper, and almost all the kids attending spend some time training under the big top during the week.

The fruit of that labor is an actual circus performance one night each week, where kids get to show off their newfound acrobatic and juggling skills to a packed house of G.M.'s armed with popcorn, cotton candy and Camcorders.

There's also golf, basketball, tubing and tennis, including Sandpiper's new ATP/Club Med Tour Tennis Camp for the more serious-minded players.

In what is described as an intense, three-hour-a-day, four-day tennis boot camp, participants learn from professionally trained instructors and get a chance to compete in tournaments. There is an additional charge for the ATP course.

A recent addition to the mix is Crazy Lab, which is kind of a Mr. Wizard meets the Absent-Minded Professor production where kids participate in a variety of fun and educational science experiments.

Kids Club activities continue until 5 p.m. each day, with a break for lunch.

After a dinner break, youngsters are invited back for some evening activities, which gives mom and dad a chance to enjoy a romantic dinner for two or maybe a bottle of wine on the beach at sunset. Parents are free to sign their young ones in and out of the Kids Club as frequently -- or infrequently -- as they'd like.

Sandpiper also is one of only a handful of Club Meds worldwide that offers a Siesta Club. For an additional $20 fee per child, parents can get the little ones into their jammies, march them back to the Kids Club, and the G.O.'s will tuck them in and keep an eye on them until 1 a.m.

The parents

So what to do while the kids are off working up a sweat?

Well, there's just as much for mom and dad to do at Sandpiper. The 18-hole golf course, 19 tennis courts and all the activities open for kids also are available to their parents -- including the circus school.

Plus there are Wave Runner tours, an exercise room, aerobic workouts throughout the day and early-morning yoga.

Of course, if your idea of high impact is taking the stairs to your second-floor room, there are plenty of deck chairs around the village's five pools and at the cozy little stretch of palm tree-dotted beach in a cove adjacent to the restaurant. And the bar opens at 10 a.m.

Thought for food

The dining experience at Sandpiper is just what the active family requires -- self-serve, buffet-style. Quick in, quick out. Amazingly there are almost never any lines at the restaurant, even at the busiest times.

The food, in general, was carefully prepared and quite varied for buffet fare, with often as many as two dozen items to choose from. Important to note is the availability of hamburgers, hot dogs, tacos and chicken fingers at every lunch and dinner. Beer, wine and all nonalcoholic drinks are free in the restaurant during meals.

For a quieter and slower-paced dining experience, Sandpiper offers an alternative, adults-only restaurant next to the main dining area. It's only open evenings, and reservations are a good idea.

Rooms with a view

Rooms at Sandpiper are spacious and simple. Features include a television with lots of kid-friendly programming (Disney Channel, Animal Planet, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon), a minifridge, an easy-to-operate air conditioner and heating unit, a hair dryer and a huge walk-in closet.

One of the biggest highlights for us was our private balcony overlooking the river. Most of the 338 units have a view of the water, but the recommendation here is to request a room in Building G, which is far enough removed from the club's activity that most of the time all you'll hear is the whirring of an air conditioner, the river brushing up against the shore and an occasional splash from a pelican in search of a meal.

There are no suites at Sandpiper, only traditional units, so there are no indoor sitting areas for the grownups or the big kids to retire to. Larger families can opt for adjoining rooms, though.

One final word of advice: Don't leave home without your watch, because clocks are rare at Sandpiper.

That seemed a little odd for a place that runs on such a tight schedule of activities.

Agents earn at Club Med

PORT ST. LUCIE -- Club Med wants agents to know it's still in their corner. The company has held fast on its commission policy, continuing to pay agents 10% on all bookings. Agents who sell at least $750,000 annually can earn up to 17%.

The company also announced plans to makes its product available on GDSs by the end of the year.

At Sandpiper, air-inclusive, seven-night rates for the summer start at $1,290 per person for adults, $737 for kids ages 4 to 11 and $555 for ages 2 and 3 from Boston, New York and Washington.

For nonair packages, prices are $1,078, $434 and $217, respectively. Three- and four-night packages are available, as well.

Sandpiper rolled out several other features for summer:

• For families looking to get a jump on the season, there are value rates available on inclusive land packages from April 27 through May 25. During that period, a seven-night stay is priced at $700 for adults; $280 for children ages 4 to 11; and $140 for 2- and 3-year-olds. Value rates also have been set for the late summer/early fall. From Sept. 14 through Oct. 25, a seven-night, land-only package is priced at $890 for adults; $357 for kids 4 to 11; and $175 for kids 2 and 3 years old.

• A Kids Stay Free program is available from June 1 through 15 and again from Aug. 24 through Sept. 7.
Under the program, one child age 11 or younger stays free for each paying adult.
Air fare is not included, and parents still must pay for enrollment in the Baby Club Med and Petit Club Med programs ($175 per week).

• Also introduced at Sandpiper for this summer are fourth- and fifth-night-free promotions.

• Take Two specials offer a 50% discount for the second week when guests stay for consecutive weeks. That's up from the 30% discount Club Med normally offers.

• Golfers can drive, pitch and putt to their heart's content with a Golfers Package that for $129 offers unlimited greens and cart fees for a full week on the links.

For more information, call Club Med at (800) CLUB-MED or visit www.clubmed.com.
-- G.B.

Some stuff's not included

PORT ST. LUCIE -- What's not included in Sandpiper's inclusive price?
• Drinks other than with meals (includes water, soda, etc.).
• Excursions (including Wave Runner tours from village beach).
• Baby Club Med (4 months to 23 months).
• Petit Club Med (2 to 4 years old).
• Siesta Club (evening child-care program).
• Airport transfers (when purchasing land-only package).
• Spa services.
• Boutique items.
• Washers and dryers.
• Golf greens and cart fees.
• Individual tennis and advance golf lessons.

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