GAZETTE editor Damien Lucas discovers an ideal location to holiday at home with family breaks at Center Parcs.
When a holiday to Portugal fell through earlier this year we were left consoling a devastated three-year-old who had packed her armbands and swimming costumes ready for a week of fun in the sun.
In a bid to retrieve the situation I looked into places we could go closer to home, but I had never been the biggest fan of the idea, despite enjoying numerous caravan and holiday park breaks with my family in the UK as a child.
I wanted an activity-packed break where we could cram loads in and indulge ourselves for a few days, all not too far from home. Center Parcs was a place that had always caught my eye but it was somewhere I had never seriously considered for an actual holiday.
Searching on the net I discovered plans are in full swing for a brand new Center Parcs at Woburn, how perfect that would be I thought, just down the road and from what I saw it looked a remarkable project, but it will not be finished until 2013.
Seeing the pictures and reading some brief reviews, I plumped for Center Parcs at Shewood Forest.
Before I would have probably laughed at the suggestion I would go away somewhere where I needed to ride a bike to get around but I am holding up my hands and proudly saying: “I love Center Parcs.”
And that’s just it. I loved it. We loved it. For a start the accomodation was the best I have ever expereinced, better than a Florida villa I had the good fortune to stay in some years ago and better than my house.
We went during the school term time expecting it to be half empty but far from it.
There was a buzz in the village centre and everything we did, from playing on the beach as we were blessed with a week of unexpected sunshine, to enjoying wonderful food in the restaurants (Hucks was our clear favourite) and riding around as free as birds on our bikes were nine and 10 out of 10 experiences.
So take the word of a convert, for a family with young children wanting a short break away, but still wanting all the comforts of home, you cannot beat it - everywhere we went it was geared to children.
Every restaurant we ate in, every break we took from cycling, there was a play area nearby.
If I was to select one word to encapsulate our stay at Sherwood, it would be choice.
We were spoilt with the fantastic American-style bar and grill, Hucks, offering a children’s buffet and an amazing soft-play area complete with slides and ball pools and a bank of Apple Mac computers for the older children to play on. Even the Italian Strada on site had a small play area, and the Jardin de Sports had a dedicated indoor and outdoor play area too.
Because that’s all children want to do, play and eat. And we as parents get to watch and eat, which suited me and the rest of my family down to the ground.
But apart from eating and playing, there is stacks of stuff on offer for adults and children to do, either separately or as a family.
The Center Parcs website allows you to book activities from squash and badminton to face-painting, horse-riding and wall-climbing in advance, and then makes up a full itinerary for your stay. You could be doing something from dawn to dusk.
And you can book things in on one of the many touchscreen booking points dotted around. It takes only a matter of minutes and means no queuing to book things at a central area or waiting on the phone.
But there’s certainly no pressure to do stuff, if like I suspect many families, you are simply happy to spend a couple of hours in the Subtropical Swimming Paradise, an amazing venue with children’s pools, water rides, chutes and spa pools, and a huge swimming pool with a wave machine and shallower areas for those who just want to paddle, or those who want to simply chill out in the accomodation or relax with the paper in a cafe. That’s what my parents did most of the time when they joined us and they too loved every minute.
How much our stay and our view of it has been made more favourable by the unseasonally hot weather we were lucky to get I cannot say. But, conversely I cannot imagine five days of rain would really have affected us in anyway.
There is as much fun to be had indoors as there is out and with the swimming paradise mostly indoor, you don’t live in fear of a rainy day spoiling your best-laid plans, something which is an issue on any holiday in the sun abroad where everything is geared to outside.
There are miles and miles of cycle tracks to discover. Me and my brother-in-law suddenly became teenagers for a few days as we went off exploring every nook and cranny of the place. Having the little one giggling away as she relaxed in the trailer attached to my wife’s bike was a joy to behold and made her whole holiday.
There are no cars allowed apart from arrival and departure days, which means most people bring their own or hire a bike, or walk, to get around the site and it makes the experience all the more enjoyable especially for families.
The bike hire was easy and staff everywhere were top notch. I lost count of the number of times someone in our party said “The people up here seem so much happier than down south.”
And considering the thousands of people on site at any one time, Sherwood Forest never felt cramped unless you were in the changing rooms at the pool complex.
And you could never describe the accommodation as cramped either. We loved our four-bedroom executive lodge, all en suite, with an open-plan living, kitchen and dining area.
All the mod cons were available, from the spa bath to the dishwasher. And there was even a games room. But the biggest surprise was outside: a sauna attached to the lodge which can be switched on at the touch of a button and just 20 minutes later is ready to use.
Center Parcs is not cheap but you most certainly get what you pay for — which is quality, brilliant service and choice. But it also encourages you to switch off from everyday life, turn off the TVs and computers, put down the mobile phones and just get out in the open air, to share stress-free activities and meals with your family and enjoy quality time with your children like it used to be in the good old days.
Summer breaks are far from the only thing on offer at Center Parcs. There is even the Winter Wonderland Short Breaks which start from £299.
A spokesman for the resort said: “With the evenings drawing in and the days getting shorter, you might be fooled into thinking that the holiday season is over. At this time of year, Center Parcs comes into it’s own with beautiful accommodation nestled within the forest, over 200 activities and lots for the family to enjoy no matter what the weather has in store.”
From November, each Center Parcs village is transformed into a magical Winter Wonderland with Christmas lights, festive activities and events for families to enjoy. This is an opportunity to experience Center Parcs during the most enchanting time of year.
For Center Parcs Sherwood Forest call 08448 266 266, or visit Center Parcs