Long before our girls came along, I had always wondered about the enigma that was CenterParcs. What was it about these concealed villages in the woods that drew thousands of people there in their bike-racked cars donning the latest sportswear? Every time I’d pass one of these mysterious villages on a journey somewhere far less intriguing, I’d squint through the gaps in the trees hoping to catch a glimpse of what lay beyond. What were they all doing in there? I imagined families wearing wide grins and trainers, frolicking through the trees on strawberry-scented unicorns and jovial crowds gathered around bonfires at night rubbing shoulders with Robin Hood and his Merry Men.
Fast forward ten years and two children later, there I was about to become one of the CenterParcs gang. In a haze of heady excitement, we crammed the kids’ bikes, along with half of our house contents into the boot of our car and set off for Sherwood Forest.
With two kids in tow, their four eyes in the back of the car peering over the mountain of pillows, coats and teddies we had squished around them in the back seat, we set off.
The first thing that struck me when we arrived was a newly developed condition called Lodge Envy. Turning into the signposted entrance, CenterParcs gulped and we were swallowed up into the sky-scraping forest, then the road forked into two lanes, one lane designated for those booked into luxury lodges and the one we were in. Our queue moved slowly, allowing me enough time to cast envious glances at a few smug faces in the luxury queue speeding past us.
We didn’t pre-book our lodge and because we booked last minute, we were allocated a lodge in the 800s, one of the farthest from the hub of the village. This was good. It meant we had to get stuck into the outdoors and immerse ourselves in the true spirit of the CenterParcs vibe and it wasn’t long before the crisp, pine-flecked air awakened the Grizzly Adams in me and I was off.
On our way to grab some lunch, I soon realised that flip flops were not the order of the day or a wise choice for a serious forest trek. After ten minutes of getting bits of twig stuck in my feet, I decided that the bike-racked trainer-wearing, CenterParcs goers knew a thing or two.
Before booking, we were told there was no need to pre-book bikes as there were more than enough to cater for everyone. Having not ridden a bike since I was ten, I overcame my weird adult bike fear. Like a toddler unleashed without stabilisers for the first time, I wobbled my way around the village until eventually I picked up enough speed to feel the wind in my hair. The girls thoroughly enjoyed being dragged behind Mark in the little pod contraption which avoided monumental melt downs about tired feet. I’d highly recommend hiring bikes and the pod attachment as it’s a great way to see the village in a calm and whinge-free state of mind.
We ate out every night, mainly because I don’t like to cook when I’m on holiday. Don’t get me wrong, at home I love to watch the food channel and concoct recipes that I can present on oversized plates with elaborate swirls of pureed veg, but holidays are a no-cook zone. That is, until we settle down for our first meal and I digest the prices on the menu with my mouth gaping open. Perhaps on our next CenterParcs visit I won’t be so quick to ditch my pinny and oven gloves.
The only cure for my indigestion when I saw the food bill, was the fact that all the restaurants have a soft play area, so the little ones can whack each other around the head with over-sized, soft bricks while you savour the last of your well-deserved glass of wine. Of all the restaurants, we liked Strada the best.
After three days, we had eaten and cycled our way around the village. Proudly donning my saddle-battered bum cheeks, I was now well versed in all things foresty and had the sores to prove it. So, I jotted down my top tips and here they are:
- Be prepared to be active – it’s a large village and very hilly in places. Wear trainers and pack waterproofs
- Buy your essentials locally before you check in. We found the onsite market expensive
- If you have a weakness for Emma Bridgewater pottery, stay away from the giftshop
- Hire bikes and get stuck in
- Consider cooking your evening meals. Or, if the weather is good, stock up on BBQ food. All lodges have BBQs
- Not really a tip, but something worth noting – phone signal can be nil. I liked that, but if you’re a workaholic, you will be forced to step away from the phone. Then again, if your phone is glued to your ear when you’re away with the family, you may as well have stayed at work
- Get stuck in and try the activities. Our girls loved the tennis, even at ages three and four, but overall they enjoyed the science activity most.
So, did I get a whiff of strawberry or hear the clanking of goblets around an open camp fire at night while I was there? No. Obvs. But my curiosity about what lay beyond the trees was thoroughly satisfied and on my next trip, I might even buy a bike rack.