Comparing family vacations at different price points
The winter of 2008 was brutal, but we were lucky enough to get away twice. The first time was in November to a 3-star resort in Cuba – the Cameleon Villas Jibacoa. The second was in February, to the newly renovated Club Med Ixtapa Pacific in Mexico. Both trips were obviously vastly different in terms of price point and amenities, but we had a wonderful time at both. While some may think that the two trips can’t compare, I beg to differ – and I hope to show that while splurging on a high-end resort may make your holiday a little easier, a cheapie getaway can be just as enjoyable but you have to be a little more prepared.
Both resorts were set on beautiful, well-maintained and manicured grounds. With the hibiscus in full bloom and the tall Royal Palms swaying in the breeze, both the Cameleon Villas and Club Med were picturesque and lovely. Club Med’s grounds were a lot larger and more spread out, but the Cameleon’s area was a little more organic and intimate feeling. The Cameleon’s rooms are small bungalows that give off a very ‘50s vibe, and are scattered throughout the resort. Club Med Ixtapa Pacific’s rooms are located in several buildings located away from the resort’s common areas. The fixtures and fittings of our Club Med room were indeed luxurious – new firm beds with fresh linens, abundant fluffy towels, plenty of closet space, a fridge, a coffee maker, and 2(!) flat screen TVs. Our room at Cameleon Villas was smaller and worn, but it was clean and had the basics – a fridge and a TV. We had reserved cribs at both hotels – Club Med provided a sturdy playpen and Cameleon, surprisingly, had a brand new crib, with a new mattress. I doubt the crib would pass Canadian safety standards, but our daughter was old enough so her head didn’t fit between the slats.
The one thing that we preferred about the Cameleon room, was the terrace outside. While our daughter napped and after she went to bed we could lounge outside and read. Our Club Med room did not have a balcony, so we were pretty much room-bound (at least one of us was) during naps and after bedtime. Balconies and terraces are available as an upgrade at Club Med, with some Ocean views literally ten feet from the beach. They do offer a “Pajama Club”, where you can drop off your kids after dinner and they can hang out and watch movies or sleep, but we felt our daughter was a little too young to enjoy that just yet.
Club Med Ixtapa Pacific’s beach is called Playa Quieta – it’s a lovely long stretch of golden sand that graduates slowly into the Pacific. The water was cooler than I was used to with the Caribbean, but by no means freezing and actually quite refreshing. I was worried that the waves would be rough, but there were only a couple of days where they were. Even then, it was fun to jump in them! At Cameleon Villas, Playa Jibacoa is not the white powder sand of Varadero but was still light and soft and the water was warm and turquoise. Unfortunately we were there on the tail end of Hurricane Noel, so the sea was quite rough during our stay – with the odd Portuguese Man-O-War jellyfish washing up. There is a large reef that makes for excellent snorkeling about 25 feet in, so had the water been a little calmer, that definitely would have been a plus for us.
Both hotels had side-by-side pools, with a deeper one and one more suited for kids. Club Med’s pool area was quite luxurious, with padded teak loungers and pool-side bar service. Cameleon Jibacoa’s pool area was smaller, but totally suited our needs. The loungers were in decent shape and the children’s pool had a great zero entry area that our daughter spent hours playing in. To be honest, I felt the pool deck could use a good scrubbing, but that didn’t prevent us from enjoying our time there.
With regard to activities and amenities, here’s where the comparisons are not just cosmetic. Club Med Ixtapa Pacific has something going on, at all times, for every age group. Going in I was concerned that we’d be pressured to participate but that wasn’t the case. You could be as active or lazy as you wanted. Cameleon Villas Jibacoa did have an activity staff, but the general feel of the resort was one of rest and hanging out, so they weren’t that busy! Prior to traveling with a toddler, activities and amenities weren’t a priority for me, but our one rainy afternoon in Cuba made me wish there was something available for us to do that didn’t involve going outside.
Club Med’s Baby, Petit and Mini Clubs are for babies as young as 4mos., but you don’t have to sign them into the club to utilize their facilities. There’s 2 large playgrounds, a toddler play area, a baby pool, the pool at the Mini Club has all kinds of water cannons, circus school, dance lessons – the list goes on. Everything is clean and new, and all the kids were having a great time. Most of the older ones enrolled in the Mini Club were reluctant to return to their parents at the end of the day!
The staff at Cameleon Villas Jibacoa were friendly and attentive without being intrusive – just as I like it. At Club Med, they have GOs (Gentile Organizers) who are mostly university students from around the world that are taking some time to work at a great job in a beautiful location. They’re very friendly and outgoing – they’ll even join you for meals! I will admit that this took some getting used to for me, but the service and attention was top notch.
I really liked the food at Cameleon Villas Jibacoa. Many say you don’t go to Cuba for the food but here it tasted like real homemade food. The problem was that with a toddler, it wasn’t always conveniently available. Lunch fell exactly at naptime so thankfully we’d brought plastic containers to get it to go. Of course we’d brought lots of snacks, but by the end of the week the favourites were running low and it was occasionally a little stressful with a toddler knowing that for several hours during the day, food was not available! I am by no means a foodie but I was pleased with all the meals, just not the mealtimes.
The food was one area where I can’t say enough about Club Med Ixtapa Pacific. It was incredible. The selection, the quality – even the wine was decent! A bonus for those with babies and toddlers was the constant access to baby food, yogurt, crackers, dry cereals, etc. To be fair, traveling to Cuba means you’re bringing everything you need with you anyway – regardless of where you stay – but Club Med was the first place I’ve seen a company really cater to the needs of parents with really young ones.
The bottom line, of course, is price. If traveling with one child, your whole family could stay for a week at Cameleon Villas Jibacoa for the cost of one adult at Club Med Ixtapa Pacific for that same week. It just comes down to the type of vacation you want and how much you’re willing to spend to get it. In a lot of cases you get what you pay for, and that is true for Club Med. So if you save all year for your one big getaway – Club Med won’t disappoint. However, if you want (or need) to take a couple of breaks away each year, it may well be worth it to you to sacrifice some luxury in order to do that. I’ve always done the cheapie route, so I do feel a little spoiled by Club Med, but we did love the rustic charm of the Cameleon. In both cases, we said we’d be back.