My three-year-old daughter Charlie is having a full scale, clear-the-area tantrum. “No. I don’t want to go home,” she screams sitting on the floor of the packed main restaurant with the full attention of everyone. “I want to stay here with my friends…”
It is a forgettable moment in an unforgettable stay, but the truth is we all feel the same way as little Charlie. It is heart breaking to walk away from paradise.
Moments later my wife Katie’s face is covered in tears as she packs her bag in an inconsolable state. She cannot put into words just how good this holiday has been. Let me try. It is hard to capture the undeniable je ne sais quoi of a place called Club Med Bintan Island.
We took two planes, two taxis, one ferry and a bus ride to get to Bintan Island which is about 45 minutes south by ferry from Singapore to stay at Club Med Bintan and play the world-renowned Ria Bintan Golf Club. We arrived with high expectations and they were comfortably met.
“It is unique,” said Jonathan Hegarty, the Chef du Village of Club Med Bintan. “Club Med is centred on the human aspect of hospitality and the GOs [Gentle Organisers, staff of the Resort] are the centrepiece of that vision.
“These people not only take care of your kids, serve you at the bar, are at reception when you arrive and when you leave, but they live a relationship-lifestyle. Their focus is on taking care of the guests from the moment they walk in the door until the time they leave the village. Part of that concept is eating lunch and dinner with the guests, taking part in the activities and the entertainment and genuinely building relationships. It is like welcoming your friends into your house, you want to make sure they are comfortable and have fun.”
To say that the omnipresent South African GM leads by example at Bintan is an understatement. When the GOs are delivering a lip-sync show, he is front and centre as Freddie Mercury, bare chest and in his tighty-whities, belting out “We Will Rock You”. When the White Party kicks on to the Beach, he is the ringleader of the dance madness, and the main act in an entertaining rendition of The Greatest Showman in the Theatre. And his GOs, with some incredibly talented members of the Circus team the hero of the performance, follow suit in giving their all.
Hegarty has worked at Club Med for seven years. He has been in and out of Bintan on four different occasions, he worked there for three and a half years in the golf team and has returned as the GM.
He was happy to come back because he knows how good it is. It is all of the little moments that make Club Med magic. The ability of all of the GOs to remember yours and all of your family’s names, and take a genuine interest to what you are doing that day. Your fellow guests entertaining your kids on the bus so you can juggle your many bags of luggage, stroller and your baby to help you get there.
The Golf GOs getting a wake-up call at 6am on their day off and coming down to ensure you have the right hire clubs, complete with a pack of 10 golf balls, and you are ready for your game. The certificate of excellence from Mini Club to Charlie – which is her prized possession now – as she was leaving the resort. The Kids Club staff taking Charlie through every moment of making a tie-dye t-shirt or the relenting adoration for our one-year-old Georgia, complete with hugs, selfies and games.
None of it went unnoticed. All of it was appreciated and made the world of difference.
Club Med has a storied history since it was first crated by Belgian entrepreneur Gérard Blitz in 1950. The French have given us so much in food, wine, culture, football, Thierry Henry, and you may as well add Club Med to the list where they had un trait de genie (a stroke of genius).
Club Med Bintan, which was opened in 1997, and over the past 30 years it has forged a reputation in Asia as the ideal location for a family vacation.
“The village is set around a private beach,” said Hegarty. “It is a safe and secure environment which for families is very important. Not only that it the all-inclusive environment with the food and beach, and all of the activities we have to offer. It is all enveloped into one environment. You arrive here and you put your wallet away and really enjoy the moment.”
Food is a huge part of the experience, especially in South East Asia where the clientele like to have options in Asian cuisine.
“The food on offer is a great snapshot of the diversities of culture who come together at Club Med,” said Hegarty. “If you come for a seven day holiday, every day at the restaurant will be different. You will never get bored with the food on offer.”
It is an even better spot for any lovers of golf. A five minute drive from Club Med is the Ria Bintan Golf Club. The Gary Player designed layout is world-class in every sense. The nine-time major champion, who has designed more than 400 courses around the world, nailed the brief for Ria Bintan on a spectacular site. The layout is as challenging as it is charming.
“Ria Bintan is a course where you will take more shots with your camera than you will with your golf clubs,” said Hegarty, who plays off a five handicap. “It is absolutely beautiful, without doubt one of the most stunning golf courses in the world.”
Club Med is well set-up to get golfers ready to play – the Golf GO team on site assist you with your reservations, club hire and there are certified pros on site to give advice and lessons – and the course will test every part of your game.
Ria Bintan has two layouts – the world famous Ocean Course and a nine hole Forest Course – the former begins like a slap in the face with No 1, the stroke 1 and a tough opening par five.
“Going through the first four holes many of the team here call it the Valley of Death. It is a tough starting section with hole number one rated as the hardest hole on the golf course,” said Hegarty.
“It is a par five dog leg to the right with lakes on both sides of the fairway. From the elevated tee it is a great site and a challenging way to start your round.”
After that stretch, you go through a challenging section with long and straight par fours at five and six. The constant throughout are the elevated tees that present awesome vistas and the perfect condition of the course.
Before you know it, you arrive at the signature stretch of the course and it takes your breath away.
“Holes 7, 8, 9 and 10 are some of the most beautiful holes on the golf course with unbelievable views of the ocean.”
FOUR OF THE BEST – THE SIGNATURE STRETCH OF RIA BINTAN GOLF CLUB
The best thing about the Amen Corner of Ria Bintan is that each hole asks different questions, and demands different shot-making.
“It is an unbelievable stretch of golf,” says Jonathan Hegarty, the Chef du Village of Club Med Bintan. “You have a dog-leg right (7) and then a dog-leg left (8) and then you hit over the ocean (9) and then a really great par four at the 10th with the beach right alongside the fairway all the way to the green. It is right up there with the best four hole stretch I have ever played.”
Hole 7, Par 5
Standing on the elevated tee the hole is a site to behold. The tee shot of the dog-leg right par five is framed by forest. As you meander down the fairway, the view of the ocean unveils itself like a curtain being drawn on a Broadway theatre show. There is water right of the green and the backdrop is stunning. To borrow a quote from Rory McIlroy of the 13th at Augusta, “I could hit a six iron into that green every day for the rest of my life and be a happy man.”
Hole 8, Par 4
The tee shot is all about position. It is 200m to the corner of the dog-leg left to the hole which drops dramatically to a green that is completely surrounded by the South China Sea. With little more than a wedge into a two-tiered green, it is a straightforward shot but you can get easily distracted by the best view on the course.
Hole 9, par 3
The best hole on the golf course, and probably most photographed par three in Asia, with good reason. A 138m par three, from the blue tees, which is all carry over the beach and ocean below to a narrow but long green. It is the quintessential signature hole and an iconic hole in Asian, if not, world golf.
Hole 10, par 4
The last of the coastal stretch before you head home through the forest. The white sand beach flanks the left of the hole from the tee to the green. It demands a left-to-right tee shot and standing on the green there is a bittersweet feeling as you’ll want to play the stretch again.
The local wildlife is alive at Ria Bintan. The first time I played it, when I was putting on the par 5 seventh, my golf cart was surrounded by monkeys who made quick work of my lunch.
This time around, we saw plenty of monkeys, but on the back nine a weighty Black Cobra lay in our way on the cart path and raised his head when we approached.
“Stay still,” my caddie said in a terrified tone. “Is it dangerous?” I asked. “Yes, very dangerous.”
Right, time to move on. There are plenty of magic holes on the way home. The approach into the 11th, the two par fives on the back nine (13 and 16) are brutes but a real pleasure to master. Golfers normally return to the resort a little beaten up and with some unfinished business.
“The first thing golfers say when they come off the course is when can I get out there again for a second round? They all talk about those four holes in the middle and the coastal views. We get told every day just how good the course is and how much they enjoyed the variety of the layout.”
Hegarty said golfers need to experience Ria Bintan for themselves.
“I absolutely love this course. It is a fair test. If you play well you can go out there and shoot your handicap, or you can shoot 10 shots more than your handicap, and people enjoy that challenge.”
He had some simple advice for people arriving on Bintan Island.
“Bring your runners, bring your swimmers and bring your camera,” he said. “When you come to Club Med come with an open mind. It is a very multicultural environment, which is one of our values, so when you come you will meet people from all over the world. Embrace it and enjoy the moment.
“Also don’t be afraid to use the Mini Club. It is your vacation after all so use the Mini Club and enjoy your time as a family but also as a couple.”
We are driving on the dirt roads now with the Club Med GO team waving goodbye furiously as they fade into the distance. Charlie’s tantrum in the restaurant and my wife’s tears are a distant memory, but our time here will stay with us forever.
“Daddy,” Charlie says. “When can we go back? I love it there.” “Me too,” I say. “Me too”.