My recollections of Club Med were somewhat vague. I was maybe 10 or 11, besotted with my archery teacher until I blew it by telling her not to bend back the cover of a book I was reading.
I developed a serious addiction to a luminous cordial that tasted like mouthwash. I won a talent contest for impersonating Disney characters and I played endless rounds of table tennis with kids I'd just met. But what I'd make of it now I had no idea.
Back in the late '90s, Club Med garnered a reputation as something of a party company. Having expanded at an unprecedented rate since its inception in 1950, a plethora of resorts scattered across the globe left the company reeling with an identity crisis.
So it was with some apprehension that I arrived at the Club Med Sahoro resort in Hokkaido, Japan. Was I to be greeted by a mob of 20-somethings slamming back peach schnapps to a thumping Vengaboys soundtrack?
My welcome is indeed emphatic, a multicultural team of GOs (general operators) greeting my presence with an almost demented enthusiasm. But otherwise my first impressions are inherently reassuring.
Beside reception, a tastefully furnished lounge area and bar face well-stocked bookshelves and floor to ceiling windows overlooking the mountains. An airy corridor leads to an efficiently run ski fitting room while outside, groups of children head towards the slopes under the stewardship of trained ski instructors.
A lot has been done to hone Club Med's image since the Vengabus days. Firstly, all resorts were re-evaluated with any not making the cut quickly closed. Then a huge cash injection from a Chinese investor in 2015 helped the company further spruce up its act with a view to rapid, upmarket expansion. The result is a more streamlined outfit with an increasingly self-aware approach.
The first thing I notice is the apparent lack of crowds. Despite the hotel being at full occupancy, there's a laidback air with no queues at reception or outside the elevators. Thus, I expect the opposite to be true out on the mountain but when I grab my snowboard and head to the chairlift, it's the same story.
It's true Saharo is no Chamonix, it's not a super intimidating mountain but it's well set up with 25 kilometres of ski runs – including seven blacks – as well as a snow park, eight ski lifts and a gondola heading straight to the 1030-metre summit. It's a fun, cruisy peak, ideal for children and learners but with plenty of scope for those looking for more challenging terrain, too. The advantages of skiing this region has not been lost on Australian travellers. According to Club Med's vice-president of Asia Pacific marketing, Vincent Ong, the number of Australian guests has more than trebled since 2006, with this property frequently booked out throughout winter.
It's one reason Club Med is set to unveil a new resort at the start of the 2017/2018 season. Set to be more than twice the size of the Sahoro resort, Tomamu (located about 30 minutes south-west) will differentiate in several key ways.
"Sahoro has targeted the grounded, down to earth consumer for many years and will continue to do so, it provides a very consistent experience, great skiing, great slopes, ski-in, ski-out and a relaxing, comfortable stay," says Ong.
"Tomamu is targeted more at the trend setters who are looking for a vibrant, dynamic ski experience, we're trying to go beyond the traditional Hokkaido experience and provide insider access."
Utilising existing infrastructure but with Club Med's signature design and feel, the new resort was picked primarily for its prime location aside one of the best mountains in Hokkaido (Tomamu) and its proximity to some of the region's more unique attractions.
Just opposite, I visit Japan's largest indoor wave pool, Mina-Mina Beach. Housed inside a giant glass atrium with white steel girders and white tiles offsetting the gentle turbulence of the turquoise waters, it's an impressive, if vaguely surreal set up.
Continuing the offbeat theme, the nearby ice village is a sight to behold. Open between December and March each year – when temperatures are sufficiently frigid – the man-made settlement is a child's fantasy. Beside an ice skating rink, a cluster of illuminated igloos stand in close formation, each with a different purpose. There's an ice-shop peddling environmental-themed trinkets, a florist, a cafe, even an ice bar where adults can sample Japanese whisky or a cocktail from a glass carved from, you guessed it, ice.
Back at Sahoro, evenings are always an event. We kick off at Daichi, the main restaurant (alternative dining at Mina Mina is also available) where the daily buffet is rampantly eclectic, serving anything from beautifully fresh sashimi and soba noodles to no-nonsense spaghetti bolognaise and almost anything in-between.
Then it's on to the main shebang, a nightly show with a varying theme, hosted and performed by the GOs. Generally, I can be squeamish about such affairs but I'm impressed by the standard. The performers take to their roles with gusto and a prohibition orientated affair that's like The Untouchables meets Cirque de Soleil is especially good fun.
This is one area Club Med have got right. Staff are recruited more on their convivial disposition than hospitality background and it shows in their versatility.
"Typical hotels will hire hoteliers and try and make them into service providers and entertainers," says Ong. "We hire entertainers and make them hoteliers, it's a different mindset."
Nights traditionally wind down at the Wakka Bar where guests can cut loose a little.
Sometimes there's a surprise like a firework display out front, other times the show's star performers put on a little after act on the small stage at the back of the bar.
A Club Med holiday may never be for fiercely independent travellers or adventure junkies who think nothing of swinging across a ravine with a dagger in their teeth. But for families it makes perfect sense.
With the children safely looked after at Kids' Club, enjoying active, healthy days under the watchful eye of trained GOs, the parents can carve it up on the mountain free of concern. And with pre-paid packages covering lift passes, ski lessons, food, child care, drinks and more, there needn't be any nasty budgetary surprises either.
The process of reinvention isn't always easy; the potential for a backfire is always there.
But with one established resort going strong and a new, dynamic property soon to be unleashed, in Hokkaido at least, Club Med appear to have well and truly pulled it off.
Mina Mina Beach
Qantas offers regular flights to Tokyo from Melbourne and Sydney. From Tokyo take a connecting flight to Sapporo for a direct two-hour transfer to Club Med Sahoro or Tomamu.
Club Med Sahoro Hokkaido: Seven nights starting from $1910 per adult and $765 per child (between 4-11) in non-connecting Club Rooms, based on departure March 17, 2018. Club Med Tomamu Hokkaido seven nights starting from $2185 per adult and $875 per child (between 4-11) in a non-connecting Club Room, based on departure March 17, 2018. See clubmed.com.au
Club Med all-inclusive packages include meals, open bar, seven nights accommodation, lift passes, ski lessons for all levels, childcare for children aged 4-17, and apres-ski activities.
*The writer was a guest of Club Med.
FIVE MORE CLUB MED EXPERIENCES
Soak in the Kutari Hot Spring.
Try Air boarding; it's like skateboarding only, in the air.
Scramble up and see the forest from high in the canopies.
Find out how the finer art downhill snow shoeing works.
Hike to the Kasumi Waterfall and bathe in the Tomuraushi Hot Spring.