Club Med is another country: France, to be precise. I have been to one in Italy and one in Ibiza, and my in-laws have been to Club Meds in Morocco, Turkey and Sicily. They are all in France.
Nearly all the staff above cleaning level are French, and their knowledge of other languages is rarely good. The local doctor in Ibiza, fluent in English, German and, of course, Spanish, was baffled that one of the biggest complexes on the strip was inhabited by people with whom he could not communicate. But that's the French for you. When they go on holiday, they take their cities with them. I can't quite understand why they like it (I prefer abroad to be foreign), but if you want to go to France and you are not bothered what country it is in, Club Med has its advantages.
The food, for one. French chefs, French food - all free, or at least included in the package price. Wander through the heaving buffets at lunch time, or tunnel your way through infinite variety in the evening. Tough. Unfortunately the wine is not French - it is whatever local plonk has been shipped in. My party laid no claim to subtle palates, but even we were surprised when a blind tasting in Ibiza revealed that none of us could distinguish between the red, the white and the rose.
Then there is the unpressured atmosphere. Club Med is, in essence, an upmarket holiday camp, with plenty of games and entertainments if you want to join in. But you don't have to, and no one (except perhaps the camp joker) will bother you if you want to grill gently in the sun and read pulp fiction. You can find yourself so seduced by the atmosphere that cynicism can turn into tolerance and even enthusiasm. Many hard-nosed holiday-makers have ended up joining in the end-of-evening knees-up. Embarrassing, but true.
Some of the Club Meds are attractive. In 1996 we stayed in Metaponto, on the instep of Italy. Its residential village is draped delightfully in bougainvillaea, and the restaurant is a strikingly original wooden structure (though not, as we discovered during a rainstorm, a waterproof one). The almost-all-in pricing will appeal to many. Prices look high (close to pounds 900 a week in August at Metaponto) but you can sleep, eat, drink (wine at least), sail, canoe, go to the gym, play golf and tennis etc without spending a penny extra. It's only if you want a drink from the bar that you should take care: Club Med's answer to the euro, the red, green and yellow coupon, is not recommended for those with budgetary restraints.
But the main reason my extended family has descended serially on Club Meds is that many of them are geared for children. The ones we chose all had Mini Clubs - for five-year-olds up - and some had Baby Clubs, starting at either two years or four months.
When the child clubs work, they work brilliantly. My wife's nephew and niece, aged 10 and eight, ended up as stars on the full-size circus trapeze at Metaponto (we all tried it - it's terrifying). To them, the Mini Club was heaven on earth.
But, and this is where my enthusiasm starts to falter, some of the children's facilities were not good. At Ibiza last summer the same kids were unimpressed by the Mini Club. The Baby Clubs were a real problem, though often more for parents than for children. Most of the Gentils Organisateurs (GOs) who ran them were indeed kind, but they were also young (mostly students) with no training in looking after children narked at being dumped by their parents, the Gentils Membres (GMs).
The GMs, for their part, frequently found intolerable the guilt of leaving a child screaming, to go and sit by a pool with Dick Francis. They knew the screaming rarely lasted for more than a minute or two, but for many the anxiety was difficult to bear. They did not feel gentils, and the time the child spent in the Baby Club often reduced throughout the holiday - sometimes to nothing.
The lack of training among the GOs is one reason why Club Med has had so much stick recently. It is, in fact, a symptom of the real problem - a failure to be consistent. Variety is good; varying standards are not.
And Club Med finds it difficult to be consistent partly because the clubs themselves are so different. Whereas Metaponto was spacious, quiet and attractive, Ibiza was noisy and somewhat cramped; until a few years ago it was an ordinary hotel on the main strip, and it showed. My in-laws tell me that Metaponto was outpaced by Palmiye in Turkey, with Kamarina on Sicily also scoring well. Ibiza failed to do much for the brand.
The way to counter this inconsistency is to carry out research beforehand. It is possible to have a wonderful holiday at Club Med and to come back relaxed and slightly plump - with your children in a similar state, having spent much of the time away from you. But only if you go to the right place. You can choose what you want from the brochure: children's facilities, gym, circus school, multimedia workshop (whatever that is). But it is worth sniffing around for recommendations, or lack of them. Many Britons have visited a Club Med, so don't book without asking around.