Planning a summer holiday takes military precision once children come along. Gone are the days of last minute lucky dip flits to remote Greek islands, now you find yourself writing lists of things to take, things to do before you go, things to be done while you’re away, and things that just must be set up for in case you are delayed on the way back. Add to that the packing, which starts weeks in advance, preparing for everything from hailstorms to heatwaves, and you need a holiday without the kids before you’ve even embarked on one with them just to keep your sanity. Fat chance.
So it’s no wonder more and more families with young children are looking towards staycations nowadays. Especially with toddlers who – let’s face it – have less appreciation of foreign fare than a UKIP MP in a curry house. With no baggage limit (save that of what won’t squeeze into the family Ford) and the knowledge that all the unthought-of extras (nappy cream, calpol, and a TV within walking distance that has CBeebies) are readily available, holidaying in the UK makes sense if you want a stress-free getaway with a toddler. And the good thing about going away with your pre-schooler is that you don’t have to fit into term-time schedules, which can cut the cost of your holiday by more than half.
Center Parc holiday villages have long been known for their family appeal, but now more so than ever. And there are so many activities specifically targeted towards toddlers, your little ones will be in their element. My husband and I booked a four night stay at the Elveden Forest village in Suffolk. Nestled in over 400 acres of stunning pine woodland and centred around a huge freshwater lake which hosts a range of watersports, Elveden boasts 879 self-catering lodges. Ours was a two bedroom executive lodge, and despite being set in such rural surroundings, it was anything but basic. With en suites and a TV in each room, as well as a stylishly decorated living and dining area, and a kitchen with all mod cons, you could easily live in one of these lodges. A secluded patio reaches out the back of the building from which you can spot local wildlife, from ducks and geese to rabbits and ferrets (a rabbit eating a ferret in our case – not the easiest concept to explain to our 20 month old son!) and even the odd muntjac deer. The accommodation offers so much, including a humungous takeaway delivery service, you could easily never leave the comfort of your lodgings. But that’s never going to be an option with the plethora of activities on offer around the park. From windsurfing to bowling, kiddies face painting to teddy bear’s picnics, there is an activity on offer for absolutely everyone, whatever your age or ability.
All activities can be booked before you even arrive, taking the stress out of queuing only to find that something is fully booked. We booked Baby Boy into the Parent and Toddler sessions, the Funzone and a visit to the onsite petting farm. He loved all of them. We also enjoyed a family bowling afternoon, and the treasure trail through the woods on our bikes. All bikes can have either a trailer or rear seat for children attached, so family cycling tours become par for the course – and make everything a lot easier to reach.
But the highlight for our little one was definitely the Subtropical Swimming Paradise. Heated to a blissfull 29.5°C the main wave pool is the heart of the tropical arena. There are also four wonderfully warm whirlpools as well as a more serene Lagoon Pool with a calm atmosphere and warm waters for the whole family to relax together. There is plenty of fun to be had on the flumes and the big kids will love the Tropical Cyclone water ride. Not for the faint hearted – this world first water experience takes you up to 30 miles per hour and zero gravity. There’s a dedicated kiddy pool with paddling and rivers for the toddlers, or you can even dare to brave the cold water Plunge Pool (no thanks!). No trip to the Swimming Paradise would be complete without a trip down the Wild Water Rapids. For strong swimmers only, but a firm favourite for me and the husband.
There’s so much to do at Center Parcs, even the restaurants all house some sort of soft play, that after a day or two you could easily be frazzled beyond belief while your child demands yet more fun fun fun in the outdoor playgrounds or indoor arcades. However, there is the opportunity for some light relief, which is why we’d recommend taking grandparents! Then, while they’re spending time with your little bundles of joy, you (and Daddy too) can sneak off to Aqua Sana – a spa worthy of booking into in its own right. With more than 20 treatment rooms you can opt for a relaxing massage or pedicure if you manage to wangle an hour to yourself, but why not let Granny hold the baby for the day and enjoy everything the spa has to offer. There are fifteen different spa experiences, from wet to dry, to herbal or meditative, where you can enjoy uplifting aromas, soothing steam and calming music. The tranquil atmosphere allows any exhausted parent to relax their body and clear their mind in a matter of minutes. There’s a wonderfully warm outdoor pool with jets and Jacuzzi bubbles, and a laid back café for lunch or dinner, and maybe even a glass of champagne before heading back to the mayhem of the family holiday!
It’s a phrase much overused in holiday talk – but Center Parcs really does have everything you could want, and more. Kids will never get bored, parents can take time out (there’s even a babysitting or crèche service if you’re not part of a larger group) and you can plan as much or as little as time, energy and budget dictate. The nice balance between paid for and free activities means nobody feels like they’re missing out.
There are about a dozen eateries on site, but all lodges have cooking facilities and the resident supermarket sells very reasonably priced food as well as all the other self-catering essentials such as toilet paper, medicines and lots of beer! We’d recommend booking a welcome hamper prior to arrival so all the essentials are ready and waiting when you get to your lodge, and paying for early check in can help avoid the madness of mega queues trying to access accommodation all at once. Make sure you get a map as soon as you arrive, and pre-book bikes. Booking at restaurants for evening meals is advisable as they get very busy, especially nearer the end of the week.
So – planning is key to making the most of your Center Parcs break, but in general everything is run very smoothly so you’re not left with that niggle of having spent half your holiday queueing or searching for what you want to do.
Having enjoyed a fine balance of fun and relaxation,, we were reluctant to leave and are already planning our next stay. The decision now is which venue? To return to Elveden which we grew very quickly to love, or explore Longleat with the adjacent safari park, or maybe try out the next village at Woburn which only opened this spring? That’s a decision still to be made, but with offers on all the time for forward planning and future booking, it’s going to be one that’s made very quickly!