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I have fond childhood memories of visiting Club Med properties in the Caribbean with my family. So when the opportunity arose to review the brand’s only U.S. location — Club Med Sandpiper Bay, just 30 minutes from my house — I jumped at the chance.
Unfortunately, what was supposed to be a relaxing, three-night getaway over Labor Day with my wife and 6-year-old daughter went totally awry. Thankfully, we managed to salvage most of the long weekend thanks to Airbnb and some fortuitous circumstances that kept us safe (and happy) over the holiday.
Here’s the full story of why we pulled the ripcord on our Club Med stay — and how Airbnb came to the rescue.
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Booking Club Med Sandpiper Bay
Back in early June, I received an email from TravelZoo, advertising a flash sale at Club Med properties. One of my colleagues had flagged the Sandpiper location for a possible review earlier in the year, but my schedule (and the rates) didn’t work out at the time.
But when I checked prices for the summer, I was excited to see that a three-night, all-inclusive stay for my family of three would set us back just over $1,500. While not inexpensive by any stretch, we’d enjoy all of our food, drinks and activities on property — including a kids’ club. And that rate booked us right into a superior family room, with a separate area with bunk beds for our daughter.
Before booking, I also read up on Club Med’s COVID-19 protocols, and they sounded much more stringent than what’s typically found here in my home state of Florida. According to the company’s “Safe Together” initiative, we should’ve seen:
- Staff wearing masks (required)
- Guests wearing masks (recommended)
- Hand sanitizer throughout the resort
- Temperature checks upon check-in and periodically during our stay
- Changes to dining options
Satisfied with what seemed like sufficient measures to keep us safe, we booked the stay, and I began to look forward to revisiting my fond childhood memories.
Sadly, that was not to be — as we stayed on the property for a grand total of 18 hours (of which most were spent in the room).
Our arrival — and swift departure
We arrived shortly after 5 p.m., and we were greeted by a very friendly employee at the lobby atrium. There was a short line to check in outside, but we were soon asked to step inside to an available agent. Alexis was incredibly friendly in getting us checked in, and while not all of the guests inside were masked, every staff member was — and there was sufficient space for social distancing.
Our temperature wasn’t checked, but that could’ve just been an anomaly.
We hoped for the best as we headed to our building.
The room itself was perfectly suitable for a long weekend, dated but still spacious — including a fridge, plenty of space for our clothes and a separate room for our daughter.
It also looked out over the beach area of the property, situated on a small cove off the St. Lucie River.
After some unpacking, we decided to venture out to grab a drink and explore the property a bit, and things quickly went downhill from there.
At the bar just off the main pool, we ordered drinks from the fully-masked bartender, and we found a comfortable place to sit — outside, and spaced well apart from other guests. So far so good.
I then decided to go searching for a bite to eat, thinking that our spot would be a perfect setting for a pre-dinner snack. I figured that wouldn’t be a problem, given the following restaurant details from the “Safe Together” page of Club Med’s website:
- Reduced capacity in restaurant, allowing for more distance in-between tables
- Increase the range of opening hours to offer more dining flexibility
- Expanded outdoor dining areas
- Focus on single plated dishes and custom preparation, giving chefs more freedom to express their culinary creativity
However, at 6:30 p.m., there was just one option for getting something to eat — a full, self-serve buffet in the main restaurant, including signs that food was not to be taken out to consume elsewhere.
To be clear, a buffet isn’t my favorite dining style even when there isn’t a pandemic raging in my home state. However, I struggled to see how this approach fit with any of the above items.
There were a grand total of two individually plated dishes — a small bowl of tuna ceviche and a plate of fried fish with tartar sauce and coleslaw. There were a number of outdoor tables, but many were reserved for guests of La Bouchon, the premium wine cellar that came at an additional cost.
And the only other dining spot available to guests was a Lucky Lime Taquería, a takeaway taco shack — which only opened when the main restaurant was closed.
Flexible and single-plated this was not.
We ultimately had to wait 45 minutes before there was an open table on the deck, and since we were ravenous by that point (and still more than an hour from the taco shack’s opening), we had no choice but to eat at the buffet.
We sanitized frequently and kept our distance, and while most guests wore their masks around the food stations, compliance was nowhere close to 100%. We scarfed our meal and quickly retreated to our room for family movie night — only partly disturbed by the dance party that carried on until midnight.
Sleeping on it didn’t make us feel any better — so in the morning, we made the decision to get out of there. We quickly threw our stuff back into the suitcase and broke the news to our daughter (she was devastated about missing out on the kids club).
Thankfully, it was after 10 a.m. by this point, so the buffet restaurant was closed. We thus grabbed a quick bite from the taco shack — which in fairness was quite good — before heading down to check out.
On the way, I found that the hand sanitizer stations on our floor and in our building’s elevator were completely out. And while we waited and then completed the check-out process, I saw at least five parties arrive to check in — with zero masks and no temperature checks.
This solidified the fact that Club Med Sandpiper Bay wasn’t trying very hard to implement the brand’s “Safe Together” protocols — and confirmed our decision to leave.
Interestingly enough, the front desk agent didn’t even inquire as to why we were leaving two days early. It wasn’t until I pressed about obtaining a refund for the unused nights (the reservation was prepaid) that he had me fill out a form to submit to guest relations, documenting why we were departing early.
And though that process seemed to take forever, we were finally out the door and away from an uncomfortable situation — thankfully with greener pastures ahead of us.
Our new plan, thanks to Airbnb
Once we made the decision to leave Club Med, we then had to figure out where to go next. Sure, we could’ve just driven home — but we had already paid for a dog-sitter, and we were looking forward to an escape from our normal setting.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have many options. Hotel points can be great for last-minute bookings, but given the holiday weekend, few properties were available. Those that still had inventory were either in less-than-desirable locations or were limited to premium rooms (and thus quite pricey).
That’s when we turned to Airbnb. We used the map search functionality and went up the east coast of Florida (to no avail). We then went south a bit — and stumbled upon what seemed to be a mistake: a gorgeous-looking, one-bedroom penthouse on Palm Beach for a base rate of just $164 per night. Even with the taxes and fees, we would spend less than $500 for the two remaining nights of the long weekend.
I booked with my Chase Sapphire Reserve (to earn 3x points), and we started the drive south.
The apartment wound up exceeding our expectations. It had everything we needed, including a fully-furnished kitchen, 75-inch smart TV and even beach chairs, a beach bag, cooler and umbrella. The double ceiling gave it an airy feel — and allowed for a loft space above the bathroom that my daughter was thrilled to call her bedroom.
We also had access to a number of community amenities in the building, including a library with books, games and puzzles to borrow — as well as a pool, which we never found to be crowded.
But our favorite part of the property was the location. It was right over the bridge from West Palm Beach — across the street from a Publix supermarket and very close to the beach. There were a number of cute-looking boutiques and shops within just a few blocks, and the Henry Flagler Museum was just a five-minute drive away.
It also just so happened that we were visiting during Flavor Palm Beach, a month-long dining event featuring dozens of restaurants across Palm Beach County. Each participating establishment offers specially-priced, three-course meals for lunch and/or dinner — and a few were within walking distance of the apartment.
Our first meal was at PB Catch, a seafood restaurant that was literally next door to our condo building. The three-course dinner menu (warning: PDF link) was just $45 per person — and both my swordfish and my wife’s hanger steak were utterly perfect. The outdoor table with an ocean breeze and sunset glow in the background didn’t hurt.
The second night we ventured on a four-minute walk to Meat Market. While not part of Flavor Palm Beach, it does offer daily happy hour specials from 4–8 p.m. plus half-off steaks on Sundays during the summer. The full restaurant wasn’t exactly a COVID-safe environment, but we scored a quiet table in the bar area — spaced well away from other diners — and enjoyed another spectacular meal.
Finally, on our way out of town, we stopped at Lucky Shuck in Jupiter, Florida, for a $25, three-course lunch. Our outside table on the Jupiter Inlet was a perfect setting for our last meal of the weekend — one that initially appeared doomed but ultimately turned out terrifically.
So, what are some of the lessons we learned from this experience?
First, there’s nothing wrong with jumping ship if your travel plans turn out to be much different than you expected. Whether it’s a hotel that isn’t offering sufficient COVID-19 precautions or a vacation rental that’s totally at odds with the pictures and description from the listing, don’t feel like you need to tough it out.
Vacations are precious, and if the reality doesn’t match what you were led to believe you were getting, find an alternate plan. Don’t force yourself to endure conditions that make you uncomfortable or would otherwise impact the enjoyment of your trip. Pull the ripcord as soon as you’ve identified those concerns.
In my case, a terrific Airbnb (coupled with the lucky fact that we were visiting during Flavor Palm Beach) made for an outstanding change of circumstances.
In addition, this experience shows that travel providers need to be very careful about how they communicate with prospective customers. Clearly there was a disconnect between the published policies on Club Med’s website and what was actually happening at the Sandpiper location. And that’s very frustrating.
Sure, I could’ve taken the time to inquire specifically about the resort’s protocols ahead of our stay — and I will likely do that in the future. However, what’s the point of having a customer-facing website with details of an apparently stringent health policy only to not implement many of those measures?
All that does is increase the likelihood of having unsatisfied guests — or ones who depart early.
All’s well that ends well, and we wound up having quite an enjoyable time on our reimagined Labor Day getaway. It’s frustrating that we found Club Med’s “Safe Together” initiative to be less-than-satisfactory (at the Florida location, at least), but we were thrilled to salvage the long weekend in such an enjoyable fashion.
If you find yourself venturing out this fall, especially in an area being hit hard by the delta variant, don’t resist the urge to adjust your plans on the fly. Nothing is more important than your safety and comfort on vacation — and if those aren’t in place, make alternate arrangements.
And who knows? You may wind up with even better memories from Plan B.
Featured photo by Darrell Davis/EyeEm/Getty Images
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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.