Three of the best Christine Iyer investigates what's on offer at kids' clubs in the capital this summer.
Camp is cool
"Summer camp? Bah!" said Calvin and wrinkled his nose in distaste. "I'd rather hang around the house and do nothing." Twenty minutes later we were at the Beach Rotana, Calvin dragging his backpack and his feet as I marched him to the hotel's health club and signed him up for the day.
Here, we met five girls aged four to eight, all kitted out in swimming gear in various shades of pink. Calvin stared at them. "I'm off to change," he said, disappearing round a corner and reappearing almost instantly, clad in goggles and swimsuit. The attendants led them to the pool, made sure that every single one of them had sunblock on, and then told them to jump in. "Last one in is a baby!" Calvin yelled and cannon-balled into the far end. Everyone else followed suit. After a little while, the attendants guided them into little boats and took them for a sail around the pool, carefully skirting a group of women practising aqua aerobics and coming to a halt at the shallow end. Then someone suddenly threw in at least a hundred coloured plastic balls. This drove the kids absolutely wild, so that for an entire minute the waters churned crazily, like the feeding grounds of sharks.
After about an hour of this, it was deemed too hot to continue in the pool and the children trooped indoors for a shower and a snack (milk, juice, fresh fruit and cookies). The attendants watched over them attentively, asking if anyone wanted second helpings, and wiping dirty faces and hands afterwards. Then off to the exercise room for aerobics and mat exercises where, to the tune of an annoyingly repetitive pop song, the children jumped up and down. After this they were handed large balls which they used to participate in a bouncy race. Calvin lost spectacularly to an angelic, determined five-year-old who kept elbowing him out of the way.
Later, over a lunch of chicken nuggets, fries, spaghetti bolognaise, milk and juice, the children talked about everything under the sun, from the beauty of Hannah Montana (the girls) to the benefits of Tai Chi (Calvin). This was followed by dessert (chocolate mousse, fruit, ice cream), which was consumed in rapt silence. Then came "quiet time", which involved watching a Disney movie - the girls were very interested but Calvin politely declined ("I'd rather go back into the pool") - until it was time to go home. "Bye, girls," shouted Calvin as we made our way out. "I'll be back tomorrow to teach you Tai Chi."
Verdict: 8 out of 10 The camp maintains an excellent attendant-to-child ratio (1:3) and, combined with the easy schedule and laid-back vibe, it's one of the most popular in the city. The lunch menu could have been healthier and more imaginative. For children aged five to 12. 9am to 2pm, weekdays only. Each week has a special theme. Dh650 per week for non-members, Dh500 for members. Until August 7. Call 02 697 9302.
Calvin tried out the Hilton's Summer Camp on a Thursday, which turned out to be Excursion Day. After registration, he was handed a cap, T-shirt and a sticker with his name on it, and then put on a bus to Sparky's, the games arcade at Khalidiyah Mall. I wasn't too excited about this, honestly - it felt like a bit of a cop out. Calvin wasn't ecstatic either. "I hate game arcades," he told me as he waved goodbye. "But this time it's OK because I get to spend the entire afternoon in the pool."
I was concerned about this last bit - the pool at the health club is fabulous, but it isn't covered and the sun can get unbearable. The camp leader assured me that the children would only remain in the water for about an hour (1pm to 2pm), and would only be allowed in if they used sunblock. So, trying hard to not be an overprotective mother, I relented. The trip to Sparky's turned out to be fun, mostly because the children got to enjoy unlimited rides and were allowed to buy themselves a snack if their parents had remembered to give them pocket money (Calvin spent Dh2 on juice).
Lunch, disappointingly, was a meal at Hardee's. Calvin happily wolfed it down while informing the girl beside him that his favourite food is steamed broccoli. Then, after another hour of rides and ear-shattering noise, it was time to head back. Calvin was one of the first to queue up to get on the bus, probably in the hope that he'd be the first one in the pool. Which he was. My surmise that the afternoon was too hot for swimming in an uncovered pool proved correct - although Calvin was covered in sunblock, he went home with peeling skin. And because he was loathe to leave the pool even for a drink of water, he was slightly dehydrated. But he was too happy to care.
Verdict: 7 out of 10 The camp is well organised - no mean feat when you have more than 30 children wandering off in different directions. Lunch on Excursion Day could have been something other than paper-wrapped burgers, although nutritious food is on the menu on most of the other days. The club seems to have more all-day water sports (water polo, slinger rides, snorkelling) than the other camps, so don't forget to carry a big bottle of sunblock (SPF 50). The attendant-to-child ratio is quite high, at about 1:4. For children ages four to 12. 9am to 3.20pm, weekdays only. Dh775 per child per week. An additional week is priced at Dh650 per child. Special family discounts apply. Until September 2. Call 02 692 4205.
At the hotel, registration took a while because of the sheer number of children. Once done, they were escorted single file to the camphouse at the health club, where they got to know each other's names, and personalities.
After a quick snack of sweetened bread and pastries and a couple of halfheartedly played board games (everyone was looking longingly out of the window, including the attendants), the children slapped on sunblock and then got into the water after taking in the strict instructions that the camp leader shouted out at least four times: "No jumping, no running, no pushing, no fighting." The children nodded earnestly and then proceeded to do all of the above.
Toy spades, pails and watering cans were brought out for the younger children splashing around in the shaded baby pool, while the others either took swimming lessons or invented their own games. One of these was "spa treatment", which involved pouring water on others' heads. Calvin, who was nominated to do this, participated with gusto. After a good hour-and-a-half of water games, they went indoors for lunch. The menu was full of creatively named dishes. I wanted Calvin to try Tadpole (penne with tomato sauce), but he chose Clown Fish, which turned out to be a mini beef burger and fries.
For dessert, everyone had a big helping of Sea Lion (yoghurt with mango or strawberry). There was no broccoli in sight, but Calvin wasn't in the least disappointed. After a short rest and a few indoor games during which everyone wanted to know how soon they could go back into the pool, the attendants gave in. More splashing and fun activities followed in the shaded pool, and it was a tired but very satisfied lot that went home that afternoon.
When asked what he liked about this club, Calvin didn't stop to think. "The long ride in the golf cart from the hotel to the camp," he said. "Oh, and the pool." Verdict: 6 out of 10 There's a lot to look forward to at this camp, from swimming to water sports to boxing and martial arts classes. The camphouse felt a bit crowded with 30-odd children stamping around, and there was only one changing room between them. With four adults on duty, the attendant-to-child ratio is low, although more staff will be hired as the number grows. The only vegetables I could see on the lunch menu were potatoes and peas.
For children aged four to 10. 8.30am to 3pm,weekdays only. Dh775 per child per week. Until July 29. Call 02 509 8910. email@example.com