This is a take on Centre Parcs by someone who doesn’t have children. Whilst we had a toddler in tow, our energetic goddaughter who I will fondly call ‘Danger baby’, the question for me was whether we would enjoy visiting a place with so many kids? We took this trip with our dear friends who I’m going to call ‘Mr and Mrs Incredible’ to protect the innocent.
Our adventure kick started with learning the ropes. Not the high ropes, the 101 ropes as absolute newbies. Lesson number one, always strategically park near where you want to be as the car park is almost as big as Wales. Hubby and I grabbed a quick coffee at Starbucks (yep, it’s invaded everywhere) and lesson number two quickly presented itself – if you forget to bring anything you better prepare yourself for a very expensive, captive audience purchase. Unfortunately for us we had to buy a coat. We headed straight to the lodge, to get set up and stock the kitchen with our weekend goodies. This seems like a good time to talk about our executive lodge (check us out) in the maple region. The choice of title ‘executive’ and even ‘lodge’ is interesting for this environment. It was three up, one down and I would call it plush(ish). Don’t think lodge at all, don’t think tree house, don’t think little house on the prairie. Think suburban terrace meet wilderness with a sauna thrown in. Yes, a sauna thrown in. It’s been designed with families in mind with clear lines of sight to keep a wary eye on Danger Baby. There are lovely touches like the welcome chalk board message when you arrive. And in case we forgot we were in the woods there was a floor to ceiling tree feature wall.
After unloading our next job was to find the bikes. It’s pretty well understood that you need bikes to get around the Parc and the collection operation is run like a well-oiled machine. Well it was smooth until Mr Incredible tried riding a bike with Danger Baby in the child seat for the first time. Turns out it’s not as easy as it looks – parents beware. After a few wobbly moments we were ready to explore. Of course, you want to get the lay of the land by this point, it’s the reason you’ve come after all.
We checked out the plaza and the village square, trying to acclimatise to getting on and off the bikes – toddler balancing is a skill. The village square was a big hit with Danger Baby. Living up to her name, she wasn’t content with the little persons play area when instead she could be climbing the big kids wooden fort. That then lost its shine, so it had to be swinging on the death slide. You heard me right – toddler on a death slide. She’s called Danger Baby for a reason. Narrowly escaping death, we made our way back to the lodge for a spot of dinner. I had decided against the easy route and opted for a full-on pie fest courtesy of the Pieminister cook book. Check out the pork, chorizo and prawn pie on page 44 if you have the book (but I subbed pork for chicken for a lighter version). The pastry was a disssaaasssteer darling – lesson three – don’t take pastry out of the fridge too early. After just a short while lounging we called time on our day. We made our way to bed, not even stopping up for pudding, making our way towards the 5.20am wakeup call that was about to happen…
So about that 5.20am wake up call. Mr and Mrs Incredible bore the brunt of early morning Danger Baby. Non-parents need to retain some perks. Even though Danger Baby was just as happy to call out our names as Mummy and Daddy, we were able to get some more shut eye, with a more reasonable secondary wake up time of half seven. We broke our fast with a Danish pastry breakfast courtesy of the Pillsbury Dough Boy, we got our coffees on and only then were we ready to brave the torrential down pour. Somebody up in the sky knew we had a date with the ponies and felt it would be character building to do it whilst sopping wet. Deciding against wobbly two-wheel transport we set out on foot, our walk presenting gifts of wriggly worms, pine cones and perfect welly boot splashing puddles.
Danger Baby thoroughly enjoyed the donkeys (according to her), otherwise considered to be Shetland Ponies. She rode on her own like a big girl, learning how to sit properly as they zig zagged through the woods. Fifteen minutes went very quickly for Danger Baby and there was a little bit of negotiation to get her off her donkey/pony. These sorts of experiences can sometimes be free at Centre Parcs, this one wasn’t, but I would say it’s worth the money.
Thoroughly soaked by now, we bid a hasty retreat to the pancake house. I have to say, the food choice at Centre Parcs is pretty good all round. You have some chain restaurants, but also some different eating options including takeaway delivery. The pancake house serves up pretty decent, kid friendly food.
Fast forward an hour and we tried out the swimming pool. Whilst I had hoped for a swim up bar, it’s not that sort of place. It’s probably a good thing as Danger Baby was in full jeopardy mode, energised after a short nap back at the lodge. She was able to water slide to her hearts content…again and again and again. There’s only so long your heart can take watching a wobbly two-year-old dart up and down wet steps and so Hubby and I went to find the adult slides and swimming area, starting with the rapids. This is a long funnel of water that swooshes you along. Hubby got stuck, the rapids lost their shine, so we moved on to the demurer outside hot spa. This is probably where we spent most of our time, there’s nothing like having a hot bath outside, whilst the rain splashes on your face. The only shame is having to share the experience with so many other people.
Once we had finished at the pool we decided to get on our bikes and discover more of the Parc. We came across treble trouble, in the form of three aged Border Terriers. I hadn’t realised you could take dogs, it made us miss our four-legged friend. This is also what I like most about this place. How you can move around a big expanse and find different areas with different things to do and interesting people to meet on the way.
Back at the lodge that evening, we turned back the clock with a Fondue evening. We even had a vintage 70’s fondue set and used a recipe from the same decade. It couldn’t have gone any better with our accommodation, our surroundings and the autumnal feel. The night was perfectly topped off with the joy of Strictly Come Dancing. That’s also what I like about Centre Parcs. You can really make it a home from home, keeping rituals, like watching Strictly, but equally you can make it a different experience. It’s truly what you make of it.
Alas our adventure drew to a close. Whilst we were supposed to leave on Monday, our work schedule prohibited this.
Our wake-up time was again a reasonable 8am even though Danger Baby had been up with the larks (and her parents) again. By the time we sauntered downstairs the grumpy toddler had manifested. We had a rather lengthy debate over whether it’s acceptable to play on the stairs, huffs and puffs, followed by a head bump when the advice was ignored. Despite the injury there was a brief turf war over further toddler access to the stair area. When she didn’t get her way, there really was no other option left for Danger Baby but to leave home in protest. I helped her pack a shopping bag with mouse, nut brown hare, her hair brush and hair bobbles (basically all life’s necessities) and we set off like the littlest hobo. After a jaunt down the lane forgiveness was found, all was forgotten, and we agreed we would go home and give the parents one more chance. Fortunately, we also forgot about the alluring nature of the stairs!
It was now bike time and we cycled down to the beach together. Oh, the beach (a lake with sand) was glorious – I think it was the presence of the sun. Sunshine favoured us today and Danger Baby was quite taken with the idea of a swan boat, so most of our group set sail. I remained on dry land, taking photos and hanging with the ducks. It was lovely at the lake and I enjoyed my quiet time playing with the camera, trying to get the best shot of the plethora of ducks waddling about. The rest of my party did infrequent aquatic drive-bys before accidentally mooring the boat on the bank. There is always one family!
By this point it was nap time with Danger Baby already having had a full-on day. In fact, she couldn’t even wait for a soft place, her snoozing starting uncomfortably on the back of the bike for her Dad. This is the point at which it dawned on the us that you can’t just leave Center Parcs whenever you want – remember we are new at this. Official check out days are Monday or Friday and if you want to go early they make it quite the ordeal. But it’s fair enough to keep the place a tranquil car free zone. Even though there are a fair few idiots who still try to avoid leaving their cars in the official car park. So, we did a quick pack to be ready for the short-allotted exit time.
We said farewell to our friends feeling like we had seen and experienced maybe only 50% of what is on offer but feeling 100% refreshed. The answer to my initial question is, yes, we did enjoy Centre Parcs, even with the amount of people (by people you know I mean Kids) on site. The place is so vast that people do spread out and most families are very friendly and respectful of one another. I know it’s pretty expensive and only suits a certain budget, which really is a shame. Because I think it’s really the perfect place for kids to go back to being kids with a freedom to roam that somehow sadly got lost after the 90s. On that basis I will end with this Chinese proverb that feels apt: “one generation plants the trees; another gets the shade.”