Probably the comment I heard most often during my recent visit to Club Med Cefalu in Sicily, which coincided with the village's grand reopening after a 15-year hiatus, was: "I don't usually like all-inclusives, but …"
All-inclusives are a popular choice for many travelers, but for those of us who consider great food and wine, interesting activities and local ambience important parts of the travel experience, not every company fits the bill.
Club Med, however, with its international staff, lively entertainment, watersports venues and, especially, devotion to the culinary arts, shares that focus.
On the flip side, Club Med hasn't historically catered to travelers who also want spacious, luxurious accommodations. But increasingly, the brand's traditional, simply furnished, smallish guestrooms are giving way to a more high-end experience.
Enter the Club Med Cefalu, located on Sicily's rugged northern coast, which represents the brand's first 5-Trident resort — its highest designation — in Europe and is part of the company's expanding Exclusive Collection.
The 304-room village, which is a new iteration of a Club Med that operated on the same site from 1956 to 2006, doesn't disappoint.
On arrival, a staffer led me along winding landscaped paths to my "villetta," which turned out to be a stand-alone cottage on the water with a private deck, junior-suite-style bedroom with a desk and bistro table set-up and a massive bathroom with a soaking tub and separate rainfall shower.
A guestroom at the Club Med Cefalu.
I spent a fair amount of time on that deck, which looked directly onto the Mediterranean Sea and offered a never-gets-old view of a centuries-old stone tower that was lit up at night.
Public areas at the village include the Azzurro Bar, with a huge infinity pool, plenty of open space for those who want to mingle and cozy nooks for those who don't.
The pool is flanked by stages at either end, where one night we were treated to scenes from famous Italian films — from "La Dolce Vita" to so-called spaghetti Westerns — accompanied by a live orchestra and an opera singer. Another night, the Palermo orchestra entertained us with rousing operatic pieces while the conductor encouraged spectators to clap along. Other evening entertainment included a waterfront Champagne party, a Cirque du Soleil act and a DJ dance party.
Mingling is a huge part of the Club Med ethos, but it's never forced. Staffers are encouraged to approach you, dine with you and remember you from previous conversations when they happen to see you again.
This is particularly true in the restaurants, where empty seats at your table are considered an open invitation for these kinds of interactions.
No discussion of the Cefalu village would be complete without describing the buffet tables groaning with made-to-order pasta with squid ink, shrimp or whatever the chef is serving that day; salad bars whose array of fresh, local vegetables, olive oils and accompaniments go way beyond the usual; daily surprises like branzino on a bed of quinoa; an assortment of baguettes, pain de campagne (country bread) and croissants that would make anyone forgo their low-carb diet; and dessert concoctions and gelato that are tough to pass up.
Michelin-starred chef Andrea Berton, who was on hand for the opening, oversees the menu, which features locally sourced products, including cheese, sausage, pistachios, wine, grappa and fish.
Eateries include the indoor/outdoor La Rocca for buffet dining; Il Palazzo in the 18th-century palazzo, which was carefully preserved during the renovation and where guests can choose complimentary a la carte dining or a for-a-fee chef's tasting menu; and the Riva Beach Restaurant and Il Covo Bar on the water for outdoor barbecues.
While this isn't a designated family village, ages 8 and up are welcome, and the options for daytime activities are designed to appeal to a variety of ages and interests.
Watersports are huge, for example, and include sailing, kayaking, snorkeling and stand-up paddleboarding. Landlubber activities include tennis, archery and workouts in the fitness area.
There is also a preserved 17th-century chapel on the property for weddings, vow renewals and other special events.
My favorite place in the village is the Club, accessible via a winding path around and even through rock formations, where floating docks, lounge chairs and a sandy beach offer direct access to the sea.
For a bit of pampering, the Spa by Carita offers facials, massages and a signature treatment that combines both.
Daytrips are another key attraction at the resort, and the easiest one to take advantage of is to the ancient village of Cefalu, accessible by boat for an additional fee or on a complimentary guided walk of only about 20 minutes. Here you can shop for grappa, local wines, olive oils and the colorful ceramics for which Sicily is famous. There also is an ancient cathedral, a Unesco World Heritage Site, that seems to jut straight out of the massive rock formation behind it; the Mandralisca Museum for art and pottery; and plenty of outdoor cafes and restaurants.
Guests can also arrange other excursions at the Discovery Center and even rent a Fiat 500 for a day of self-guided exploration.
On the property, staffers drive around in buggies offering lifts to guests who are in a hurry or are simply tired of walking, and transfers to and from Palermo Airport are included with air-inclusive packages.
Club Med Exclusive Collection
In addition to Cefalu, the Club Med Exclusive Collection includes the Albion Plantation in Mauritius and the Club Med Miches Playa Esmeralda along the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic, set to open in 2019 as the first 5-Trident Exclusive Collection resort to open in the Americas, according to company president Henri Giscard d'Estaing.
In 2020, Club Med will open its first village in the Seychelles, a 5-Trident Exclusive Collection Resort on St. Anne Island.
In addition, 85% of the villages currently operating have 4-Trident designations, and so far, seven of those offer 5-Trident zones for guests who want a more upscale experience within the village.
The objective is that by 2020, 10% of Club Med villages will be part of the Exclusive Collection, d'Estaing said.
Rates at the Club Med Cefalu start at $163 per night, per adult.