How to do Center Parcs with a toddler
A stay at Center Parcs is on many a parent’s bucket list. But how can you get the most out of your stay and the best value for money? We went along to find out…
Having been raised on Eurocamp breaks in France, the sound of flip-flops ambling about a peaceful campsite is almost spiritual to me - although now that my holidays involve a three-year-old, the thought of a sustained amount of time under canvas is a helluva lot less Zen. However, I’d been told that Center Parcs (the UK holiday village set in acres of woodland) is ‘kind of like camping’ if you imagine your ‘tent’ being a spacious lodge with four deluxe en suite bedrooms, wall-mounted plasma televisions and a games room with a pool table. Some ‘tents’ even have their own saunas and hot tubs plus there’s a huge range of activities for all ‘campers’ including a subtropical swimming experience - all wrapped up in a lush oak tree forest complete with that ethereal flip-flop sound. So (strictly in the name of research) my husband and I packed the car, strapped in the toddler and drove to Woburn Forest with our friends and their 7-month-old to see whether the parent’s hallowed Center Parcs Mecca is the glamping experience it’s cracked up to be (spoiler: it is.)
HOME FROM HOME
We stayed in a split-level Executive Lodge which sleeps six-eight people and had its own private sauna (prices start at £699 for a weekend break). It also had a separate games room with a pool table and games console allowing the whoops and cheers of adults winding down to be kept well away from sleeping babies. The en suites had spa baths and there was even a separate wine fridge in the kitchen, which got no use whatsoever. Cough.
SAVE: The lodges come in a range of sizes and prices. Splitting a lodge with friends or staying further out from the site’s centre (still only a 10 minute stroll to the hubbub) can knock off over £100. Looking out for deals and avoiding school holidays should lower costs further.
SPLURGE: If you want to travel light you can order a Family Grocery Pack to be waiting in your lodge on arrival. For £55 you’ll be left essentials like tea, coffee, bread, milk and non-essentials like chocolate biscuits, balsamic vinegar and a variety pack of cereal that was a toddler’s breakfast dream.
The whole site is car free, which can cause minor grumbles if you want to leave outside of official check in and out times and have to stroll the few minutes with luggage to the car park, but it means that it’s super safe as people are either on foot or wheels. Hiring a bike costs £31 for an adult and £23 for a child and there’s a huge range for all ages and abilities plus trailers and seats for babies and toddlers (we got one of each so they could swap) which got the ice-cream covered thumbs up from our two.
SAVE: Take your own – personal bikes are allowed on site. Or don’t shell out for wheels at all. Everything you’ll want is in easy walking distance.
SPLURGE: Hire a Segway! For £35 you can have a Segway lesson and zip around the site in futuristic style.
We were lucky with the weather so we barbequed in our private garden the first night and then had a meal out at Huck’s American Diner – which went overboard to accommodate kids – the next. There’s restaurants like Strada, Las Iguanas and Rajinda Pradesh as well as Starbucks, Café Rouge or a takeaway to choose from, but it’s best to book ahead especially as everyone is likely to want to feed their kids at a similar time.
SAVE: Take food with you and stick to self-catering. There’s a price-checked supermarket on site but a trip to somewhere like Aldi before you even hit the road will keep costs lower.
SPLURGE: Lots of the eateries like Hucks and the Sports Bar have soft play areas but if you want time alone, book kids into The Den for an activity (prices start at about £18 for 1.5 hours) and take yourself out for lunch.
To say the choice of outdoor activities is vast is an understatement. We purposefully didn’t book too much as we just wanted to enjoy the grounds… and the wine fridge. But if being outdoorsy is your thing, there’s a huge range of activities you can choose including laser combat (paintballing without the mess), archery, canoeing, zip wiring and horse riding.
SAVE: If you want an animal experience, simply look out of your window. You’re guaranteed to see birds of prey, squirrels and wild rabbits doing their thing. Or buy a pot of seed and feed the ducks who happily eat from your hand.
SPLURGE: An Outing With Owls is amazing. For £8.50 pp, children as young as three can hold and fly a range of owls but I’m told only those REALLY lucky will get owl poop in their sandals (me).
The Eden Project style glass dome you might have seen in Center Parc adverts is the Subtropical Swimming Paradise, heated to 29.5C, at the Woburn site. It houses various pools, a gentle lazy river, slides and rapids as well as orchids, palms and bamboos, rescued by botanists from Laos and Burma, where they were endangered by deforestation. It’s free for everyone to use so we spent hours under this roof. Take an extra does of patience for ‘slide duty’ with toddlers as by the twenty-fifth time smiles were starting to slip.
SAVE: Don’t hire towels - take your own. Take snacks too. There’s a café inside the pool area but coming prepared with provisions is a cheaper option.
SPLURGE: There’s lots of ‘extras’ you can buy like fun inflatables, photos of you in the pool and a cool machine that will fully dry you from top to toe for £1.
Aqua Sana is the huge luxury spa where you can book in for a range of treatments or just relax in the different themed rooms. A flat fee of £38 allows you to use the facilities for three hours which include a herbal inhalation bath, rain walk, lava-volcano sauna, lemongrass sauna, salt room and a whole load of 'wordly' experiences designed to help parents relax. Note that children under 14 aren't allowed.
SAVE: The Elemis Speed Spa is good value. £45pp gets an energising massage and treatment for tired skin.
SPLURGE: A Top to Toe Relax Day gives you spa access, lunch and treatments. Then order prosecco!
Review by Samantha Wood