Once your children hit seven or eight, they’ll probably be as bored with play-in-the-sand beach holidays as you. That’s the time to take a look at Center Parcs, an unusual short-stay vacation experience with four villages in the UK, eight villages in Holland, two in Belgium, three in France, and four in Germany.
The Center Parcs brochure for Longleat Forest in Wiltshire, England tells it how it really is: “High quality short breaks which offer a unique blend of relaxation and exhilaration with a combination of beautiful English countryside and the continental lifestyle”. Such accuracy was a major shock to people like us, skeptical of claims by travel companies.
To ‘test’ this resort, we selected a four night package (weekends or full weeks available) which is better suited to foreign visitors to England who want to combine London’s culture (about 100 miles away) with outdoor
sports and fun.
Sports and Recreation
Center Parcs was a bit of a shock to our easy-going family because this is an up-and-about, active short break, and every moment counts. One comes to do sports, if you want to get your money’s worth. With over 400 acres to cover, cycles are the primary mode of transport, and the path to fitness. The equipment has been used hard but maintained well, though gears would have been welcome on the steep hills. First thing on arrival, hire bikes for all the family, plus trailers and helmets as required, and use the locks dispensed!
Next, arrange bookings for your key chosen sports. Edward (7¾) was booked onto the three-hour sailing, windsurf, canoe session. (Other children were back for their second go-round that week.) Center Parcs decks kids out in full safety gear, and you can hear their fun for some distance. There were four other children and an instructor aboard Edwards’ Topper (a European Sunfish-style sailboat) and, although we had expected a more focused hour of instruction, the crowd only added to his fun. Edward came away windsurfing, and having enjoyed his canoeing, but sailing the Topper was one of the week’s highlights, and we’re now buying one for the family. Three hours gives you time to arrange alternative activities, so I took Matthew (5¾) canoeing. Canoes hire by the half hour, which was quite long enough. Although only having adult size paddles made it hard work for him (not everything is family-friendly) he was happy to be doing watersports like his brother.
In fact, you can participate in pretty much any sport you name. There are serious coaching opportunities, but some activities are just for fun. The big event at a British Center Parcs (and at any village during the winter season) is the swimming “paradise.” The boys loved the climate-controlled bubbledome and wave sessions in the indoor pool, but best fun was swimming outside. Using the outdoor heated pools and riding the Wild Water Rapids were the other highlights of Edwards’ holiday. This series of connected, outdoor flume rides has strong currents so I wouldn’t let Edward use them on his own, and Matthew not at all.
The pool gets pretty full on changeover days (Friday or Monday depending on your package.) Many people choose to take one last swim before leaving, or as the first activity when arriving, so be prepared to queue, or consider an alternative.
Accommodations and Meals
Housing is in two to four bedroom villas sleeping four to eight, not including tots under 2 years. The villas feel Dutch, belying the 30-year-old company’s origins, an impression enhanced by all the bicycles in the village. The fit out is generally to a very good standard, though the dishware was poor quality. Our villa had a table for six, generous living area, and a useful kitchen, in an open plan giving plenty of space and light. The three comfortable and quiet bedrooms (one double, two twins) gave our boys their own rooms for a week — big treat — and allowed us to stagger bedtimes to suit individual levels of exhaustion.
You have to look hard to find the villas amongst the trees, and that’s the beauty of the place. There is no sense of being in a holiday complex because only about 10% of the site is developed. The drawback is you don’t get a private garden, so there is no enclosed area to restrain eager toddlers or younger children. Many villas have access to a water hole or other potentially-dangerous feature and if you relax, it is difficult not to let the children out of sight. The other effect of having free space out back is that there are no defined boundaries to restrain inquisitive children from joining in with one’s fun!
The play areas are fun and free: shady, well-constructed, but like some other areas of the complex, calling for a bit of a landscape makeover. There was no litter. None. Nor dog mess either, thankfully, although dogs are allowed in certain sections. The park and the trails are all pretty structured – this is not a wilderness holiday. What you get is a great way to enjoy a family centre, with nice accommodation, and a super pool.
Eating was fun and very child friendly: Center Parcs caters for all food tastes, from the rather humble burgers and filled rolls at the poolside (they run out; maybe better to take your own picnic) to the charming and civilized (i.e. no children) surroundings of La Sapinierre (The Pines). La Sap is a Center Parcs secret and we have no idea why. The ambience is cultured, the food is fine, the staff is French, and the prices totally reasonable for a very respectable three course Ã la carte menu or excellent table d’hÃ´te.
We also ate a simple pasta meal at home (quality ingredients available from the Parcmarket), we ate a fondue at the Pancake house (great cheese fondue, average pancake, plus expensive drinks, and do book early to seat at the early session), and we barbecued on our patio (everything you need is at the shop.)
To really finish off an evening in, buy a couple of logs from the shop and make use of the open fire. It’s a cozy end to the day, especially with the British summer weather!
Center Parcs’ organized activities really kick in for children 7 or 8 years plus, though many younger visitors will appreciate the time to play quietly or enjoy the pool. The supervised kindergarten caters for ages 3-7, and there are specific activities for 3-5s in two-hour blocks. Matthew enjoyed a well-organized session of ‘Parachute Play’ (movement and music) in the sports complex. Like many scheduled activities for smaller children lasting only an hour, it doesn’t give you much chance to nip off and do something yourself. In this case, I had to set Edward up for an activity session, then return to pick up Matthew, then back for Edward, all on bikes. This really is an active holiday for parents, too!
Being an active partner in your children’s’ leisure development can be tough, demanding work. You owe it to them to be in the best physical shape possible to meet the challenges.
This is where the Aqua Sana health club comes to the fore. Here is a deeply soothing, caring environment, where thick towels, ethnic music and skilled hands combine to detox and de-stress weary parents. Victoria opted for the seaweed wrap — a combination of skin cleansing, moisturizing, massage and bondage that served as the perfect preamble to an evening out. For more serious health issues, Center Parcs has a Medical Centre.
We think it doesn’t occur to many European parents to step outside the family-fun-together genre for an evening alone. Do it. Center Parcs will source vetted baby-sitters from the local communities, armed with their own family experience and walkie-talkies (you can run, but you can’t hide.) Jenny, our sitter, was working for four Center Parcs families that week. You pay the sitters direct, and at about the going London rate.
This didn’t become a holiday where we extended our circle of friends, despite there being a collection of like-minded families present.
The reason? With so much to do, the chances of bumping into the same people twice were pretty low. However, this was a great time for our family unit. The boys would go back tomorrow if they could and in fact, some 60% of Center Parcs clients are repeat guests. Many groups we met consisted of extended families; amusing several generations is easy and housing works well in three or four bedroom villas.
For us outdoorsy, adventurous, sailing and camping-prone adults, Center Parcs did not represent value for money. The total of what we spent on our three-bedroom chalet (maximum six people) for four nights at the end of July, plus leisure activities, equipment hire, food bill (excluding what we brought) and fripperies might last us a month yachting along the Turkish coast. However, without a doubt, for European and North American tourists who would like an effective short break minus the hassle and expense of traveling far with children, this would suit them down to the ground!
For more information, call 08700/673 030, or visit www.centerparcs.com.
Tips for Making the Most of a Center Parcs Holiday
- Strategy: Pay to book a villa close to the plaza. We could walk to it and slip into the shop for late buys. You wouldn’t know it was there, but the location saves a lot of cycling.
- Plan Ahead: Draw up a schedule to ensure you all know what happens and when, then leave room for unplanned activities. On the way home, we recommend a visit to Longleat House itself. Set in magnificent parkland, this is one of Britain’s premier stately homes, with gardens hosting the world’s longest hedge maze and a safari park with tigers, monkeys, and giraffes. Big fun.
- Strike Fast: Collect your cycles when you arrive; they are your freedom to roam, and they will run out. Secure the activities and mealtimes you want, but try for a last minute cancellation if they’re full.
- Snap: We used a Fuji disposable waterproof camera (400 ASA) and had very good results – a boon!
- Beware of Chores! Maid service (and why not, you are on holiday) doesn’t clean up until the afternoon, so you may find yourself washing up supper things if you lunch at home.
- Relax: Give yourself afternoon time to swim or use the health club or get ready for the evenings.
- Be Prepared: Take a bag with swimsuits for changeover day, to allow you to make the most of it and choose when you move in or depart.
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