Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Happy Place

Do you have a Happy Place? A place where you can fully relax, be yourself, and recharge? A place of comfort not stress?

If you're lucky, it is your home. You spend the most time there, so wouldn't it be wonderful to feel utterly at peace in that comfy environment surrounded by friendly, helpful folk? Perhaps it is your parents' residence, your sister's place, or your best friend's apartment. You seek refuge with these loved ones on holidays, vacations, or weekends. They give you strength and remind you who you are when times are tough.

But maybe you don't have that kind of neighborhood, and maybe you don't have a loving memory-filled childhood home still in the family. Maybe you don't have siblings, and maybe your best lifelong friends don't live nearby. That is my situation, unfortunately.

It would be fabulous to be able to escape once in a while to a rustic lake house or ski mountain A-frame. A few lucky souls can do that, but most of us including me can't. We need to find our Happy Place. Create our Happy Place.

For the past decade, mine -- make that ours -- has been Club Med at Sandpiper Bay in Florida. It's not the most beautiful Club Mediterranee in the world by a long shot. It's not situated in an exotic locale. Heck, it's not even on the ocean! Yet it is the only Club Med now in existence in the United States. It is fairly easy to reach from our home. It is family-friendly. And it offers plenty of activities to keep my two sons and myself contentedly busy, if that's what we choose.

I first visited this Club Med in 2004 when my first son, Christopher, was nine months old. I was an exhausted full-time single mother of almost forty-three. It took everything out of me to get my baby down to Florida by plane and to the club by shuttle van. But once there, I was able to kick back because the club has a terrific child-care program. Christopher, who had recently started part-time day care in Brighton, MA, near our Cambridge apartment, slipped easily into the program.

Boy, was I grateful!

I met many parents whose babies or kids even had a hard time adjusting to being in the care of strangers in a strange environment. Mom and Dad would have to pick the children up early, or they couldn't go to the program at all. The parents would then be annoyed because they felt that they weren't getting their vacation.

Not me.

Christopher, bless his tiny soul, was a champ! He must have known how much I needed the break that the six-day-a-week care provided me. I can't remember too many specifics from that very first visit due to the sleep-deprived fog I lived in for years. But I do recall that the highlight of my week was seeing my son on stage in a baby show. He was sitting in a turquoise-colored foam tub and dressed and made up as a clown. His incredible cuteness brought me to tears. Little did I know at the time that this sweet first performance would usher in a decade of many more.

If you are a single mother who has no one to pass your child or children off to, such as an ex-husband or parent of your own, then you have very few choices when it comes to vacations. And who needs a vacation more than a single mother?!

If you have more money to spend on airfare and possibly the club itself, you might choose a Club Med in a foreign locale. Not every club accepts young children. However, the ones in Punta Cana (Dominican Republic) and Cancun and Ixtapa (Mexico) do, for example. I've been to the Cancun resort pre-children, and Ixtapa is pretty far away (read: unaffordable airfare). Thus, Punta Cana is very appealing to me. Unfortunately, getting there requires passports for the three of us -- mine is expired, and I haven't obtained any for the boys -- but, mostly, the added costs for the flights makes that destination prohibitive to us.

Someday. . . .

Beaches doesn't have any U.S. locations, and I don't know a single soul who has been to South Seas Island Resort on Captiva Island in Florida. If you bring a nanny along with you, or do some sort of group share involving nannies and other families, your horizons can open further.

However, my kids do well in a structured program with a lot of others their own age, so the Club Med experience is a sure thing because it is very familiar to me. Since the age of twenty-five when I visited the Copper Mountain ski site, I have stayed at a total of six Club Med locations -- half of them now gone the way of the dodo bird.

Indeed, Club Med is like an old friend. I know what I'm going to get. The relationship takes no effort. And I walk away happy.

Please don't mistake me for someone who resists hard travel. I've zipped around Western Europe and Great Britain alone and spent nearly two years total on two separate trips backpacking Lonely Planet-style through Asia and the South Pacific. Many of the countries I hit are in the Third World, and roughly half the time I was away I traveled alone. But that was long before I became a mother. That kind of exploring is possible with one child -- though I'm sure it's very difficult -- but certainly not with my rambunctious two. Not on your life. Not at their young ages. I'd rather walk across a lava field.

No, what the full-time single mother needs on a vacation is whatever is COMFORTABLE and EASY.

So I've made a point of going back (and back and back and back) to Club Med Sandpiper Bay, which is situated on the St. Lucie River in the City of Port St. Lucie. The club has recently completed a $28 million renovation. It looks very different than I remember it. I certainly didn't mind it before and never found fault with the amenities or accommodations. Yet now it is significantly upgraded with a new spa, picturesque adult pool and hot tub at the river's edge, impressive exercise room complete with triathlete personal trainers, renovated sleeping quarters, and so much more. Suffice it to say, the takeaway for this Sandpiper Bay veteran is that this is almost a brand-new club.

But not completely.

The three of us, as always, have a great time when we visit. The boys love the kids' program. They spend their days in circus school; on the flying trapeze; playing soccer, basketball, and tennis; swimming; sailing a catamaran; creating art; preparing for the evening shows; and more. They transition into a new social setting seemlessly, making fast friends among the other kids and the wonderful staff. And for my part, I swim; skipper my own catamaran; play tennis, beach volleyball, and ping pong; do water aerobics and yoga; dance; etc.

Each time we've gone to Club Med our vacation has looked different, and that has kept it interesting. For the boys, that has meant more activities as they've gotten older. Charlie, age 7 3/4, was able to sail for the first time this visit. Since he is not yet a strong swimmer, I went along with his group in the catamaran. Though he wore a life vest, I was pretty stressed out sitting beside him when the wind picked up, and the boat began to keel. Another time during the week Christopher, age ten, took a turn at the tiller while both Charlie and I were aboard. It was my older son's first time ever sailing a boat himself -- not just getting a ride -- so it was extra special that his brother and mother got to witness the milestone.

Proud mama.

For me, every trip to Florida has been unique. The first few times at Club Med I was a complete wreck from exhaustion. Some days I took naps in the room. I participated in few sports because I simply couldn't muster the energy. Somehow, though, I managed to pull it together enough to not only enter the weekly ladies singles tennis tournament but also win it.

As the years passed, I grew more rested. I played more sports at Club Med, but one thing was a constant: that tennis tournament, which I always won. I always took home at least one medal. One year I treated myself to a rental jet ski on Mother's Day. Another year we explored the estuary via airboat. A third year my vegan boyfriend at the time joined us for half the trip. Club Med definitely wasn't his scene, yet he had fun and was very helpful when it came to the travel day -- assisting me in getting our rental car back to the agency, carrying bags and pushing a stroller through airports, and hailing a taxi back to my then-apartment in Cambridge.

One time I capsized during the weekly regatta. The sailing staff had to come out in a motor boat to give me instructions on righting the craft, but I sailed it to shore myself without any physical help. I remember a year when a murder-mystery play was offered during dinner. I recall watching stand-up comedy in a small club-within-the-club behind the golf shop. Waterskiing was very popular in our early years. I loved slaloming on the river, though I was a bit nervous about the alligators.


Christopher saw a manatee near the beach. A rare sighting, indeed. Charlie and I have only glimpsed snakes and many geckos. However, we've all watched a brazen squirrel eat bacon right off Christopher's breakfast plate! My oldest son lost a tooth eating an ice cream cone in the dining room one year. Regretfully, I was so distracted by the largest bowl of chocolate mousse I'd ever seen that I forgot to take it with us when we left the meal. I returned soon after and searched high and low with no luck.

Our most recent trip, which began with a Winter Solstice flight into the glorious sunset, overlapped Christmas. We celebrated the holiday by taking photos with Santa and a Benjamin Button-like Mrs. Claus, participating in or watching a parade, and opening one small wrapped present each set under an orange lamp in our room!

Most years I have elected not to rent a car. The club offers a shuttle service to and from the airport, so we have availed ourselves of that. Even this amenity has changed over the years. We've ridden in a small bus-like vehicle; a minivan; an SUV; and, this time, a white stretch party limo complete with a colorful starry-light sky!

A couple of times I have driven an Enterprise compact in order to visit cousins in nearby Vero Beach and Palm Beach. Those get-togethers mean a lot to all of us because we rarely see any of our cousins. A different year a third family of cousins picked us up at the club and took us to a hamburger joint and their home where we listened to the two school-age sons play their musical instruments.

However, the lion's share of our time visiting Club Med Sandpiper Bay is spent within the resort's confines. Enough is offered to keep us occupied and then some. The food is plentiful and beyond delicious, and the presentation is first class. It's difficult to leave lunch or dinner without grabbing a piece of white chocolate bread on your way out.

For the first time in nine visits, I was injured -- more like semi-injured -- during our stay last month. I had plantar fasciitis in my right foot. As a result, I did not play tennis (or win any medals), volleyball, soccer, or basketball. I also kept away from the exercise rooms and classes for fear of putting too much weight on my painful foot.

However, I was able to swim, do water aerobics, sail, and play ping pong. It may not sound like much, but it was plenty because my primary goal was to relax and recharge my batteries. To that end, I happily lounged in the (scarce) sun, cooled off with a dip, reread The Catcher in the Rye, and soaked in a hot tub with other visitors.

Mission accomplished . . . and, one month later, my plantar fasciitis is much improved! I've since gone downhill and cross-country skiing several times each without issue. I am not ready to go for a run, yet my week at our Happy Place did me more good than I imagined it would.

If, like me, you don't have a built-in Happy Place then go out and get one -- because everyone needs a Happy Place.

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