November 21, 2018

The stress-less Cote d’Azur

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

But with the summer reopening of Club Med Opio in Provence — after a $40 million renovation — it’s possible to avoid every one of those hassles. Within an hour of my arrival, I felt totally 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 10 miles away, with Nice and Monaco farther 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 cafes, chilly drinks are always at hand. Carefully hired and impeccably trained, the staff (employees are still known as gentils organisateurs, or GOs) is fully bilingual, young and infectiously friendly.

The 435 rooms are pristine, with cool stone floors, puffy white duvets and shiny red armoires that provide more than enough storage. (Rooms range from standard to balcony to suite.) Bathrooms have creamy stone sinks and showers big enough for two. A plasma TV picks up a few English channels and the air-conditioning 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).

But the Club Med concept has never been about rooms; it’s about hanging out with people from all over the world, enjoying the surroundings and public spaces, learning new skills and sports and chilling with family and friends. Communal areas are large and comfortable, with plenty of space for quiet or conversation, for curling up to read, for cool drinks in the shade. Club Med Opio offers tennis, golf, archery, trapeze, 4×4 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 small but smart shop sells sparkly cover-ups, floaty linens for men and women, sunglasses and other resort essentials.

At the legendary buffet, the strategy is to blend local specialties with “safer” international cuisine, 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. While not glatt kosher, the buffet features a vareity of fish and vegetarian options. 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 a la carte menu.

Club Med’s all-inclusive policy is a particular treat when local restaurants are crowded. And with the dollar at its current low, the savings can be substantial: in this part of France it’s common to pay 3.50 euros for a cafe au lait and 50 euros per person for a mediocre bistro meal. The no-tipping policy is a convenience as well, as the “How much should I tip?” issue simply never comes up. Lock your wallet in your in-room safe and relax.

Club Med Opio 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 (seven-night all-inclusive packages start at $1,068 per person, land only).

Companywide, Club Med is in the midst of a $530 million restructuring, letting go of less desirable clubs, renovating others and building new ones from the ground up. Club Med Albion, which recently opened in Mauritius, is the first to be rated five tridents, the company’s highest rating. Three more new Clubs will open in the next two to three years.

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 long 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 scent of lavender, rosemary, jasmine and pine perfumed the early evening breeze. A handsome GO played 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.

Julie Mautner is an American food and travel writer living most of the year in the South of France. Her work appears in Conde Nast Traveller UK, Food & Wine,, American Way, Wine Spectator and many other publications.