Friday, 13 March 2015

Child Friendly Holiday Review: Center Parcs

And now the first of an occasional series of guides to "child friendly" holidays.

When you have kids, going on holiday has a very different set of priorities. It's no longer "Will it be hot? Will there be wine? Is there a world-class art gallery?" but "Is there a farm? Is there a beach? Is there a train? Is there soft play within 10 miles?" You need to keep the kids happy. Because if they're happy, you're happy. People who say "Oh, well, the kids will just have to join in with whatever we want to do" as they jet off to Thailand don't have children. Or if they do, they will find themselves looking for a farm or a steam train shortly after they arrive.

Center Parcs have built themselves entirely around keeping kids, and therefore grown-ups, happy. If anyone ever asks on an internet parenting forum, "Where should I take my family on holiday?", Center Parcs is usually top of, or at least very high up on, the list.

Sunshine over Sherwood Forest
But until last week, we had never been. Center Parcs only opened in the UK when I was approaching my GCSEs and by the time the news of its arrival had filtered through to our family, we would have all been too old to want to go away somewhere together. Plus I was somehow under the illusion that EVERYTHING at Center Parcs was under a giant dome, like some sort of Eden Project Truman Show hybrid, and this wasn't very appealing. You may think me daft, but my husband confessed while we were away that the adverts he had seen led him to believe exactly the same.

Nonetheless once we had our own family, despite all the Internet recommendations, we resisted. Partly because we saw a whole run of our friends return from trips to Center Parcs with norovirus. Partly because my husband is not a keen swimmer. Partly because a lot of the photos of the buildings made Center Parcs look like a glorified service station.

But suddenly, with our daughter now four and starting school in September, we realised this was our last chance. The difference in prices between Center Parcs in term-time and Center Parcs in school holidays is disgusting. We paid £249 for four nights at Sherwood Forest at the beginning of March. If we had picked February half-term instead, we would have paid £999. And this before you add on the location fee to be more central (there is still an extra fee to be far away), the cost of food, and any activities other than swimming and play areas.

Yet people obviously do pay Center Parcs' school holiday prices or they wouldn't continue charging them. I can understand why. There is no greater sense of panic as a school holiday approaches, knowing that all your usual activities are going to stop and you suddenly have to occupy your child for 13 hours a day without a break. Center Parcs will keep them busy and amused for days. So if you have got the money, throw it at them and you will have an easy life.

People also seem to have the money to pay for Center Parcs' exclusive accommodation. Whereas Forest Holidays offer everyone a hot tub in all but the cheapest lodges, Center Parcs charge a whopping premium (well into four figures) for any such luxuries. Their high-end lodges contain saunas, games rooms or are built on stilts to resemble tree houses, but I am not sure if they are worth paying the extra. The three more basic levels of accommodation are very nice, well laid out and more than adequate, even if they do look like breeze block cubes from the outside. We went for the Woodland Lodge, as for that week it was the same price as the normally cheapest Comfort Lodge. We also got three bedrooms for the price of two, in order to give us suitcase storage and allow us to play musical beds in the night with our never guaranteed to sleep daughter. The Woodlands also have a log burner, dishwasher and a DVD player, which all help make a holiday more restful. There were a couple of cleanliness issues - a few ants in the kitchen, small smears in the toilet and questionable stains on the sofa, but nothing too outrageous. There was a decent outside area leading down to a large pond. The garden space was not overlooked by other lodges, thanks to a clever layout of the buildings, and we were visited by a host of ducks, geese, moorhens and squirrels. A swan also came to tap on our door each morning to demand food. It was too cold to sit outside, but there were chairs and tables and a barbecue for warmer times.

Breeze block cube

Demanding swan

Comfortable evenings

We mostly relied on swimming in the Subtropical Paradise to keep us occupied. Our daughter loved it. She is a cautious child so was scared of the slides, but she loved the wave sessions and the warm outside pool. We stayed in for ages each time, and sometimes went twice a day. It was a mighty hassle getting changed - the changing rooms are busy, and each cubicle has two doors, one to the dry side and one to the wet, so that shoes don't muddy up the area leading to the pools. But they were a bit poky for two with all of our winter coats and hats and shoes and bags. I ended up losing several items during cubicle to locker transfer. All this would be much easier in warmer weather. We were grateful that we can now manage without a pushchair (even though buggy parks are plentiful), and our lodge wasn't too much of a walk from the central area. It was far enough away for some peace and quiet, but just about before moaning distance. We did take our daughter's scooter, but forgot we would need some sort of lock to tie it up outside the swimming pool, so it didn't get used.

We also spent a lot of time on the lakeside beach, digging channels and making sandcastles. There was also much fun to be had with flowing water and an Archimedes screw. Unfortunately, there aren't as many nature trails or walks as you might expect. You are usually expected to pay money to be taken on an official one rather than finding much to explore by yourselves.


Elsa on the beach

As for the extra activities, they are overpriced but all fairly enjoyable. Well, apart from the pony riding, as far as our daughter was concerned. It didn't help that she was immediately made to lurch uphill on her first ever time on horseback, and there were then only a few minutes left for the tears to subside before she had to lurch back down the hill again. It's not like the Sherwood site is THAT hilly - I am sure, for 15 minutes' walk, they could locate an entirely flat area for our 18 pounds of money. But she did enjoy a half-hour tennis session, and a 45 minute Fairy Funtime crafts session, which mostly involved glitter and face paint.

The spa was well worth a visit, mummies (and daddies). I have never been to a spa which had so much to "do" - there were 15 different sensory rooms to explore. Most of these were some version of a sauna or steam room, just with varying temperatures, levels of humidity and smells. But there were also swing chairs, little gardens, and amazing water beds where I could gladly have slept for a week. The outside pool at the spa is unfortunately not nearly as warm as the one at the Subtropical Paradise. You might actually have to swim in it to keep warm. But three hours there just flew by, and were definitely worth the money (£37 - a birthday present to myself).

The changeover days are a little crazy. You can't get into your accommodation until three on your first day, but you are allowed on site from 10am onwards. Similarly on your last day, you have to check out of your accommodation by 10am, but as long as you move your car back to the car park, you can then stay on all day. You can view this as getting extra value out of your break, or Center Parcs getting extra money out of you. Either way, it means that the site gets packed out. It was a little overwhelming to be faced with a sea of germy wailing toddlers and fraught parents when we arrived. But fortuitously the only restaurant we had been able to book online in advance for lunch was located over the other side of the lake near the nature reserve, and while this meant an annoying walk in howling winds and occasional blizzards, it did get us away from the crowds and give us some much needed peace and quiet. And it had a great play area, which our daughter had all to herself.

All the restaurants have some sort of play area. The most original one was the Lego room in the Pancake House, although its stock seemed to have been a little depleted (nicked). The food in most of the eateries isn't spectacular, and quite burger and chip themed, but there is a Strada, a Cafe Rouge and an Indian. We mostly cooked for ourselves, with one evening meal in Cafe Rouge after my spa session. They had a set menu which was quite reasonable, and the service was speedy, which is what you need when your daughter is chomping at the bit to get to the kids disco but really needs an early night from all that swimming. A trip to the Pancake House is a must, if only to see Center Parcs' Dutch origins.

There is a supermarket on site. It charges above the odds, but is useful if you have forgotten anything, and serves large family-pack ready meals if you go en masse. We took our food with us - it was cold enough to keep everything fresh in the car all day before we could access our lodge. The supermarket sells the only logs you are allowed to burn in your fire, the only barbecues you can use for your barbecue, and the matches to light them with that you will have forgotten. They also have children's trolleys, which are always a winner. Be warned: there is a sweet shop and a toy shop either side of the supermarket - they ain't stupid. "Eyes down - nothing to see here."

So is there a farm? No, but there are sessions with baby owls and ponies and lots of waterfowl to entertain you. And the squirrels are the fattest I have ever seen. Is there a beach? Yes, by the lake. Is there a train? Not at Sherwood, but you could always travel by train to Newark, the nearest station. Is there a soft play within 10 miles? There's possibly a soft play within 10 metres, but it will be small and situated inside a cafe wanting your money.

Would we go again, the online survey asked after we returned home. I said yes, but not at their current school holiday rates. Maybe a weekend if the price was right.


  1. You mean I'm not the only one who thought it was all in a big dome?!
    Sounds as though you packed a huge amount in to your stay, with a balance of adult vs child fun. We still haven't attempted a holiday yet but I suppose we're going to have to start thinking about this kind of stuff soon.

    1. How funny that you thought that too! Well, yes, you must consider a holiday soon indeed if you don't want to be trapped to school holiday prices... I don't think Center Parcs is for everyone, but our girl certainly loved it.