There are people who dream of Walt Disney World Vacations and there are people who cringe at the thought of spending a holiday at the mouse house. I imagine that Center Parcs is an equally polarizing experience. You either love it or loathe it.
Dan and I took the kids for a five day trip to Center Parc Longleat Forest last September. As newbies, there is a learning curve to the Center Parcs experience, but consider us converts. We drank the Center Parc Kool-Aid and we've just booked a seven day trip to the Elveden location for this coming August.
Before I dive into the Center Parc experience, I need to briefly mention a little cafe that we stopped into for lunch on our drive from Newbury to Longleat. We were starving and in unfamiliar territory, so we stopped at the easiest thing off of the highway. The Hillside Cafe ended up being a great find. It is a no-frills, greasy spoon that makes a delicious roast dinner. It may have even been the best roast dinner that I ate on the entire holiday. This is saying a lot, because we ate a lot of roast dinners.
The Disney/Center Parc comparison is apt, because both are fine tuned family holiday machines. Center Parcs specializes in both short-breaks and extended holidays, but the catch is they only allow departures and arrivals on either a Monday or a Friday. These days are a bit chaotic with people coming and going, however the chaos is managed.
We arrived on a Monday and waited in a long car queue that slowly moved towards the front entrance. We arrived right during the rush and in the future, we would either get there early or just plan on arriving a little late. Timing is everything.
All of the cars finally reach a welcome hut, where you are check-in and given the keys to your accommodations. Cars are allowed to drive through the property during certain times on Monday and Friday only, just to load and unload your stuff. After we unloaded our car, we had to park it in a huge lot at the front entrance until we left on Friday morning.
As we watched other visitors unload their cars, we realized that we were woefully unprepared for the Center Parcs. We had our clothes and a few bags of groceries. A car next to us had their own appliances! We saw slow cookers and microwaves coming out of SUVS. Our Tesco bags looked pitiful next to the enormous beach coolers that were hoisted out of our neighbors trunks. Excuse me, I mean boots.
We booked a two bedroom executive suite. It was bigger than our house. Really. There was plenty of room for two adults and two kids. Not only was it big, but it was really nice.
The chalkboard in the kitchen was ready for us with a welcome greeting. The kids loved drawing pictures with chalk and we had new pictures everyday.
Our master bedroom had an attached bathroom with a giant jacuzzi tub.
The kids had their own room with twin beds and attached bathroom.
Although we enjoyed a few of the many restaurants at Longleat, we primarily ate in our cabin. The kitchen came fully equipped with all of the utensils and cookware needed to make practically any meal. We had a microwave, no clue what people brought their own. They even gave us a starter kit with a sponge, a dishtowel and dish soap. The dishwasher tabs were not quite enough for the duration of our trip and we had to buy more at the Center Parc grocery store, but it was still a good start.
The living room was cheery with a mural of the forest. We spent evenings watching movies and even used the fireplace to make smores. It was the kids first time having smores and they were a big hit!
We got friendly with the wild neighbors.Several times each day, ducks invaded our patio. They pecked at the glass to get our attention in hopes of food. They ate more of our bread than we did. Who can resist ducks? We watched as they made their rounds to all of the neighboring cabins, presumably doing the same thing in hopes of food.
Our cabin included a daily cleaning service, which was fantastic. Who wants to clean on a holiday?
So. without a car, how do you get around the 400 acre property? Easy.
If the distance is too far to walk, you can take the free shuttle that makes a giant loop around Center Parc. Excuse the blurry picture, but I had to include a snap of the "Heaven's Gate" bus stop.
You can also rent bicycles. I have to admit, that I'm not a fan of cycling. I'd rather do just about any other form of exercise and transportation. We rented bikes for the whole family and mine mostly sat, locked up in the bike rack outside of our cabin.
Dan and the kids really enjoyed the bikes though. We quickly realized that four year old, Felix, tires out too easily, so we went back and traded in his and Dan's bikes, for an adult bike with a child seat. This was great, until six year old Zoe, decided that she would rather ride with daddy too. Luckily the staff at Center Parcs was really understanding and they let us trade a third time, for a bike with a kiddy trailer. The kids loved it and Dan got a really solid workout!
Center Parc has a seemingly endless array of activities for all ages. For our upcoming 2014 trip, we have already booked several activities for the kids and activities that we can do as a family. They offer all types of craft and cooking classes. If sports are more your thing, they have a ropes course, ATV's and Ziplining. I'm most excited for the owl show and family nature walk.
On our last trip, we didn't book any of these activities. We stuck to things that were included in our stay or that we could book on the spot. We were never bored.
The best thing at Center Parc was the subtropical pool complex. It was both indoors and outdoors, containing a wave pool, a kiddie area and multiple watersides. The kids were too young, but when they're older, there is a rapids course that you body surf. It looked more intense than a lazy river, but it's a similar idea, except with small slides.
The huge building that houses the subtropical pool zone, also has a shopping area and several restaurants. A lot of the reviews that I read mentioned that the grocery store was overpriced, but we found it to be relatively reasonable. They also had a decent selection. It was good enough that we might not bother with making a grocery run on our way to Center Parc on our next trip.
I have one big tip, make sure to buy a roll of paper towels and spray cleaner to have on hand in your accommodations. It's something that you'll miss if you don't have it, especially if you're staying with little kids!
We spent an afternoon at the Jardin De Sports playing indoor miniature golf. The sports complex also has activities like roller skating, tennis and billiards. We went on a rainy afternoon and rented lockers to store our wet coats.
My favorite thing was a Pac-Man themed air hockey table that was for four players. At one point tons of pucks came shooting out and it was a free-for-all.
Mini-golf works up an appetite, so we had some cozy comfort food for dinner at the restaurant in the sports complex. It bulked us up for the long walk back to our cabin in the rain.
We tried several of the restaurants and they were pretty decent. We all liked Hucks, which is the "American" restaurant. It had the feel of a TGI Friday's, but with better food. They had a cute pint-sized buffet just for the kids. Dan took the kids to the Pancake House, which oddly is not open for breakfast. They had to kill time at a nearby playground until it opened for lunch. We also learned the hard way that the pizza delivery has limited hours. We couldn't order it for lunch and Dan ended up riding his bike to the grocery store in the pouring rain to pick up food. This is where we would have benefitted from a little planning. If you've never been on a Center Parc holiday, do your research.
Here are some pictures that I took as we walked through the property.
We had so much fun and we are all looking forward to our stay at Center Parc Elvenden this summer! Check back here for the Elvenden review in late summer/early fall.