~~~~Watch out there are Elves about~~~~
Our first Centre Park holiday was last year at Elveden forest when we decided to combine a visit to our relatives in the area.
The first thing to note is that we foolishly left most of the paperwork behind, and relied on the postcode printed in the brochure to get us there - big mistake!
We ended up on a village highstreet, literally on a level crossing facing the Norfolk Border - as the Park is definitely in Suffolk we knew something was amiss.
When my wife rang up to try and find out what had gone wrong the weary answer she got was "For some reason our normal post code doesn't get you there" and I quote verbatim.
She then proceeded to give us an entirely new postcode which was at least 3 digits and over 5.8 miles away. So not really a spectacular start, but as we explained to our little boy "must have been those trixxy elves up to mischief" which seemed to satisfy him.
~~~~Here for the duration!~~~~
We arrived around 10am on a non school holiday Monday and there were plenty of cars already queuing up.
Instantly we were struck by the sheer scale of the operations and. At least the check-in process was straight forward, 3 bays each side, just need to give them booking reference number and confirm surname and you get the keys.
Now you can't actually go to the lodge till after 2pm but you soon realise that's not an issue. Not just because there's so much to see and do on site while you are waiting , but frankly because its such a palaver getting parked up and hiking into the complex.
Our plans to "just use it as a base " to travel out and have a look at the attractions of Suffolk went straight out of the window.
We're here for the duration - So twenty minutes and a flagging toddler later we've learned the 2nd rule of Center Parks - the bicycle is king. For some unearthly reason they've not marked up separate cycle paths which means a loose toddler is two wheel fodder.
Immediately just outside the Village square, we discovered Treasure island. Over the bridge through the clearing and onto the good ship Hispanola preserved in all its wooden glory with rope ladder and slide. Little man charged aboard, headed straight for the steering wheel and took control.
Just then another Mum and tot arrived on the scene and she tried to drum up a modicum of enthusiasm in her little one "Ahoy " she ventured timidly. Quick as a flash our captain piped back gleefully "Ahoy MEE HEARTIES!" We had officially arrived in the holiday zone
After a bit of deliberation, we headed to the boat house to hire our clubs for Mini Golf on the Island. Now as expected the prices were a little on the excessive side at £4.50 for an adult and £3.50 a child but we figured we had an hour or two to kill so may as well turn it into a 27 hole epic.
Little man ploughed on in his own style , hockey sliding his way up and down the stone set green bazed and wooden lined course. Snake pass and Dead mans chest proved the undoing of my wretched attempt to prove my worth as a golfer as wifeski stormed to an unassailable 7 hole lead.
You are only allowed to drive to the houses either on day one or the last day. It's 10 miles an hour all the way and by the time we'd unpacked it was a right old drive round a never ending one way system
Now on arrival day and departure day only, you are allowed to drive your car round to your lodgings. There are a range of options available ranging from the most basic Comfort and Comfort plus lodges (basically a couple of bedrooms, lounge /kitchen / bathroom, with the comfort plus having a DVD player and dishwasher thrown in extra) , through to the Villas and Executive Lodges which in my view are only vaguely affordable if there's a big enough group of you.
We paid around £450 for a 4 night, Monday to Friday off-season comfort plus lodge. It was comfortable enough, with a big corner sofa
An extra nice touch was the barbecue and patio area out the back.
I have to say in places it was looking a little worn, spotted a few holes in the curtains and bed sheets, we were "missing" a few light bulbs
The central cooking area felt a bit like being in a Little chef but with Grannie doing the honours.
Yet again I reckon those Elves had been up to their tricks as on the sliding patio window out the back a tiny circular sticker mysteriously declared "There is open water close to your villa." Just how close exactly was clearly requiring further investigation if we were going to even contemplate letting our little one have a wander out the back even under our eagle eyed supervision.
So I manfully took a few strides out the back , passing a load of utterly domesticated ducks who were making the first of many house calls of the day (big clue on the water front), even to the point of tapping on the window. Didn't take long to discover that yes indeed there was some kind of canal like off shoot from the main lake within 50 yards or so.
~~~~Food and Drink~~~~
On arrival my hunter gatherer instincts quickly led me past an empty looking American grill, yet another Starbucks, and into the Plaza.
Here we had a straight two -way choice between Café-rouge in the red corner and Bella Italia in the blue corner. The prospect of pasta for little chapster won the day (and the lure of the crayons and balloons - we are so easily bought) To be honest it wasn't quite up to the usual high standards we'd expect, the service was a little lethargic and the food wasn't quite as well cooked through as it should have been.
As well as these familiar high street restaurant chains on site, our particular favourite was the Pancake house (which I believe is also a chain but not one I'd come across before), not least because it had an extra soft play area , which is so handy when you are waiting for food to be prepared.
It was great to see the kids firing up there imaginations - one minute it's a pile of soft padded cushions, next minute there's three of the little mites all going "nee naw nee naw, fireengines to the rescue" by the end of the week it was virtually a stage show in the making!
The food was just right for a light lunch, with a choice of savoury and sweet fillings.
A bit further out, its well worth a visit to the Foresters Inn country pub venue , offering fresh cooked food, always nicely presented - once again there's an indoor and outdoor play zone to keep the little ones entertained while you wait.
For our day one evening meal we decided that dining out wasn't option and naturally we did consider the takeaway route. Cleverly they offer free delivery on Mondays and Fridays. We settled instead on getting provisions from the Parc Market
Surprisingly given its local monopoly, the pricing at the Parc Market didn't seem all that unreasonable. Including beers , stuff for breakfast and a couple of days worth of tea, came in at under £35. We later discovered that if we had spent £40 we could have had it delivered for free.
~~~~Sub Tropicana Drinks aren't free!~~~~
Without doubt one of the biggest reasons people choose to holiday at Centre Parcs are the spectacular indoor swimming facilities (specially as its free to enter!) Again, it's very well organised, with a buggy park outside, row upon row of family changing rooms and lockers. Once you are through the shower area, you are faced with an enormous glass greenhouse, and the vast expanse of ocean blue water lapping around an elaborate rock face. You don't even have to worry about bringing along floats / armbands etc for the little ones - there are plenty of free life jacket style floats for anyone under 5 to use.
Every half an hour the wave machine powers into action, which is always good for a giggle. Off to the left side of the main pool there are a couple of tunnels. Cleverly they've set up a streaming current which carries you along effortlessly down the left hand side, then through various extra current boosting jets you get propelled out of the other side - little munch couldn't get enough of it. In this area there's also a steep 20 foot water slide if you are feeling in the mood to allow gallons of water up your nose.
On our first visit these 3 places were about all we spotted, and I have to admit I was a little disappointed with the lack of additional sliding action. The next day though, we spied some steps up to the right hand side and bingo we found not one but three extra big slides, plus even an outdoor salt water pool to explore.
So being the big brave (big kid) daddy I naturally road-tested everything on the family's behalf. Word to the wise, when riding the rapids , I strongly advise not to avoid getting turned around - hurtling backwards towards unseen rocks - not the best!
The salty pool outside was a big hit and our little boy's floating on his back came on a treat, after he'd been struggling for ages in his lessons.
The one thing we were still missing was the separate kids pools you normally get in these places. But that was just because we hadn't looked around properly
A walk around the outskirts of the dome revealed the pirates cove. Here we discovered a toddler play pool featuring water jets, a sandpit by the water, and all sorts of other little bits, plus a 3-8 year old zone with its own special pair of training water slides. Here in the Cave there's also additional vending machines, toilet facilities and even first aid assistance on hand.
Hats off to them, the swimming pool complex was everything we'd hoped for and more!
Given that inside the complex there is a lagoon bar serving snacks and drinks all day, as well as plenty of seating areas, it's really a place you can easily spend a few hours, so its worth planning your day carefully.
No question, whatever the age group there is definitely something that will appeal to you. The centre piece is the main lake, so naturally there are any number of water sports activities available from the high octane rush of the Waterskiing to the more gentle pedalo options.
If you fancy more of an adrenalin rush, you can sign up to the high ropes stuff, or if you want to slow things down - there's even a 9 hole golf course on site.
Back on the freebies front, one great feature is the artificial beach front, and never fear if you haven't packed any buckets and spades, to save you the expense of forking out, simply recycle any old Starbucks cups of coffee and stirrer sticks and voila, instant sand castles - those unwanted coffee dregs ensure you get just the right ratio of sand to water!
There are a couple of good playgrounds to cater for the different ages - one larger one outside the sports cafe, with a large tubular slide and a variety of wooden obstacles to try them out with, and then a 3 to 10 year old playground including a fully laid out wooden choo choo train complete with adjoining ticket office or ice cream shop for the purposes of little fellas stubborn imagination.
~~~~Indoor sports and activities~~~~
Inside the huge sports plaza there are at least a dozen or more badminton courts which can also be adapted to play soft tennis, there's the rock climbing area, golf simulators, and basically activities running all day long.
Overall we had a great time of it. We decided next time around rather than risk Elvish trickery we'd go to the Sherwood Forest Park just 20 miles up the road. Might seem a bit strange, but as you don't really need to leave site for a few days , I say why not - It takes away all the travel hassles, you can do a big shop and bring that with you and hey if you do forget something major - it's never far to go.
If you have older than toddler age kids, be warned, you will have to fork out here for the activities. But all, in all, there's plenty of choice and variety so I would definitely recommend at least a 3 day taster visit if not necessarily a full week.
In January 2009 my family and I spent a long weekend at Center Parcs, Elveden Forest in Suffolk. We enjoyed it so much that we returned just 10 months later in November for another long weekend. There are 3 other Center Parc villages across the country - Longleat Forest, Sherwood Forest and Whinfell Forest.
Center Parcs is set in a 400 acre forest. The woodland area is so large and tranquil that even when the village is fully booked it is still peaceful and quiet. It has a really serene atmosphere and feels completley different from what the majority of this country has to offer. It's a great place to relax and chill out, however you can have an action packed stay if you wish. The wildlife is great too.
The village is set around a big lake. The main part is called Village Square which is where most of the activities and restaurants are situated.
We stayed in a 3 bedroom lodge during our visit. You can also get 1, 2 and 4 bedroom lodges. Lodge types include Comfort, Comfort Plus, Woodland Lodge, Original Style Executive Villa, New Style Executive Lodge and Executive Lodge. We stayed in a Comfort Plus lodge.
Each lodge is situated amongst the trees and doesn't look much from the outside. Luckily they are a lot nicer on the inside. Our lodge was clean, tidy and well maintained.
The first bedroom had a double bed, hairdryer and television. The other 2 bedrooms had 2 twin beds. All bedrooms had a mirror, wardrobe, bedside tables, radiators and large window. The whole lodge was carpeted and there was a thermostat on the wall to choose your own temperature. Initially the lodge felt quite cold but after we turned the heating up a few notches it felt very warm and snug. The lodge was decorated in warm colours and felt very homely.
The lounge area had 2 sofas, a coffee table, a television with DVD player and a large dining table with 6 chairs. There was a fire area with a guard. You could even purchase logs for £5 and make your very own indoor fire!
The kitchen area had a sink, dish washer, cooker, microwave, kettle and toaster. All plates, bowls, cooking equipment and utensils were provided.
The lodge had 1 main bathroom with a bath (plus overhead shower), sink and toilet. It also had a seperate small toilet room with a toilet and sink in.
There was a small patio area at the back of our lodge with a plastic table and 4 chairs. There was also a brick barbecue area which we didn't use, obviously.
The kids (all under 5) really enjoyed watching the wildlife through the large patio doors. They threw some bread out which attracted all different birds, rabbits, squirrels and even a baby deer!
You can pre-book activities on the website before you leave. Otherwise you can book them whilst you're there. The best way to get around is by hiring out bicycles. There is a lot of walking involved. If you have children that are too young to ride bikes you can hire out a bike with a little trailer attached to it to cart the kids around!
Activities include archery, badminton, clay pigeon shooting, paintball, bowls, tennis, quad biking, golf, canoeing, fishing, sailing, windsurfing, horse riding, nature walks, bowling, abseiling, squash, table tennis, fencing, roller blading, painting, scuba diving, snorkeling, aqua fit, line dancing, pilates and yoga. There are also lots of children's clubs and activities. Spa treatments include reflexology, facials, Swedish body massages, shiatsu massages, body wraps, ice fountain, steam bath, herbal bath, salt steam bath and plenty more. There really is something for everybody.
Sounds great, doesn't it? However the downside is that you have to pay for every single activity and none of them are cheap. Infact the only thing that is free at Center Parcs is the swimming pool also known as the Subtropical Swimming Paradise. I have to admit we didn't take part in any paid activities (except for Santa's Workshop) mainly due to the fact we found it awkward finding activities to suit everybody in the family, plus none of us were brave enough to take part in outdoor activities in the cold weather! (we watched plenty of people enjoying the indoor and activities though)
We were all really impressed with the Subtropical Swimming Paradise. Everybody from 6 months old to 60 years old enjoyed it! There was a wave machine, lazy river, pirate themed children's pool (complete with slides and sand pit), selection of different slides, outdoor rapids (which was a lot of fun!) and spa pools. To top it off the water was lovely and warm. We literally spent about 4 hours every day here. The kids also spent a lot of time playing on the outdoor playground, which was quite good (and free to use).
There were plenty of places to eat which included Bella Italia, Made, Foresters Inn, Cafe Rouge, The Conservatory, Hucks, The Lagoon Bar, The Pancake House, Sports Cafe, Starbucks and Rajinda Pradesh. Most of the restaurants had indoor play areas which is great for the kids and really handy for the adults. We ate at Bella Italia, Hucks, The Pancake House and the Sports Cafe. I would recommend them all but Hucks in particular. A favourite of everybodys was a jazz breakfast buffet at Hucks. It cost around £10 per person and had everything you could possibly want for breakfast - eggs, sausages, beans, mushrooms, tomatoes, toast, jam, waffles, syrup, ice cream, chocolate fountain, fruit, marshmallows, muffins, doughnuts, cakes, tea, coffee, fruit juice - Heaven on earth! They also had a live jazz band playing.
There is also a small supermarket that is reasonably priced in the Village Square. You'll find pretty much anything you need here. There are also a couple of clothes shop, toy shops, sweet shops and souvener shops.
When we visited in November 2009 the place was lit up with Christmas lights and Christmas trees - it looked rather beautiful. There were singing reindeer and we even caught a firework display over the river - afterwards Santa jetted past us on a boat! The kids met Santa in his very own workshop, complete with real reindeer. They had their photo taken with him and he spent time talking with them, before handing out a present to each of them.
It is not cheap to stay at Center Parcs - prices depend on what time of year you visit and on what type of lodge you want. We booked a 3 bedroom and 2 bedroom lodge for around a thousand pound!
I would recommend this place to anybody who is looking for a quiet trip, adventurous trip, for families and anyone who can afford it!