Last week Mellow Mummy & Daddy took Mellow Lara for a midweek break at Center Parcs, Longleat. We had never been on a holiday quite like it before, and having been in the resort no more than 10 minutes, Mr. B. pointed out to me that we “really have entered the world of FAMILY holidays now”. So long relaxing beer by the pool, farewell wine-fuelled lazy evenings watching Mediterranean sunsets... Hello hoards of screaming children, crowds of pushchairs and enforced family “FUN”.
The 4-night trip to Center Parcs cost us just as much as a week self-catering in the sun (including flights)! We resisted the temptation to book loads of activities knowing that it would probably bankrupt us, and decided to take all the food we needed for the week, making the most of the self-catering facilities.
When we arrived, the place was heaving. Although the brass band playing carols, and the twinkly penguins were very atmospheric, I was beginning to wonder whether we had made a big mistake. We timed it so that we were in the swimming pool when everyone else was queuing in the car park, waiting to go to their chalets – this turned out to be a genius idea, the indoor 'subtropical swimming paradise' was quiet, perfect for Lara to show off her swimming skills to her Daddy!
When we finally did leave the pool and head to our 'executive villa' it was dark and the true enchantment of the forest was revealed. A wintry mist descended over the valley, great plumes of steam rose from the floodlit outdoor swimming pool and rapids, and holly wreathed lamps lit up paths to guide us. As we made the short, half-mile walk back to our villa from the car-park, I felt a pang of guilt for having brought Lara along at 6 months, before she was old enough to appreciate the magical Christmas wonderland we had brought her to.
The villa, although a little dated, was certainly spacious, perfectly comfortable and wonderfully placed at the top of a hill next to a small pond that was home to plenty of wildlife. Ducks and squirrels regularly came right up to the window (much to Lara's delight) and as we ate our breakfast we saw birds and deer making their way through the forest. The villa had all the kit we needed, but as with most self-catering accommodation, the kitchen gear left a lot to be desired – maybe they expect people to eat out in the on-site restaurants every night?
Center Parcs is wholly geared towards families. Each villa is equipped with a cot and a high chair (and more are available if needed). Footpaths are all buggy-friendly and buggy parks are provided everywhere that pushchairs can't reasonably be taken (such as the side of the pool!). There are plenty of baby-changing areas throughout the resort and the swimming pool has a large number of family changing cubicles designed to accommodate the whole clan! At peak swimming times though, we found these to be VERY much in demand. The best thing about the park is that you never have to worry about whether it is “done” to take your little one with you; one evening we went ten-pin bowling and while we waited for our lane, we sat in the bar – there was never any question that a baby wouldn't be welcome in either the bar or the bowling alley.
On the one day when we did fancy doing something where Lara wouldn't be welcome, we booked her into the 'Time Out Club' for the afternoon. Lara settled immediately and I (being the mellow soul that I am) had no worries leaving her with the enthusiastic staff. The hubbie and I spent the afternoon at the 'Aqua Sana Spa' having pampering treatments and generally chilling out. When we went to pick up Lara, she'd had the time of her life and had even made me her first piece of art work which now graces the kitchen wall!
All of our travelling around the resort was on foot, despite the bitter cold. The paths and boardwalks went everywhere we needed and nothing was more than a 20 minute walk from our villa. The steep hills meant that we got plenty of exercise and that Lara got plenty of fresh air. Before we went, I had images of us being the only guests who weren't riding bicycles (based upon the sheer volume of emails that Center Parcs sent me reminding me to hire a bike) – but we were pleasantly surprised to find out that the cyclist/pedestrian mix was about 50/50.
The booking mechanism that Center Parcs uses for most of the activities doesn't breed spontaneity. You are encouraged to book your activities online or over the phone before you arrive, meaning that many of the things get booked up quickly, offering less choice once you get there. We fancied using the spa facilities one afternoon but when we went to one of the booking points, we found it was fully-booked for the week. Additionally, if you want to go to one of the many restaurants you need to decide well in advance; we saw people being turned away so decided to book a slot for later in the week, only to find out that there was nothing available. Luckily we were able to stock up at the supermarket which was surprisingly reasonably priced and had an enormous range of products, including any baby bits you may have forgotten to take with you.
I know that Center Parcs has been criticised for being too expensive and I agree – it is blimin' pricey and if I want to take my toddler(s) or teenager(s) there in the future, I think I am going to need to start saving now for all the activities they will want to do. I don't feel like it was poor value for money, but likewise, it wasn't good value for money – it was the just the same price as if you chose to do all of the activities at your local leisure/activity centre/spa (which, to be honest, you probably wouldn't attempt to do in the space of just 5 days). The difference is that on holiday, you expect at least something thrown in for free – if you were on a package tour to sunny Europe, you'd get some of the activities included in the price of the accommodation. I think that's why I feel a little cheated; the accommodation wasn't anything special, but it was expensive.
All in all, I would DEFINITELY recommend Center Parcs as a great break for parents of young children; its quiet, clean, enclosed and full of things to do. I think it would be perfect for parents with one toddler and one baby – giving you a chance to spend some quality time with your older child. As for a trip for older kids or teenagers? Well, you'll have to stay tuned and ask me that in another 10-15 years time!