Easter in the forest

center parcs

One of the many positives about returning to live in the UK is the easy access it offers to a wide range of different types of holiday.

In recent years, I have to say my Australian holiday experiences (or those that didn’t involve a trip home to the UK) had become somewhat limited by a diminishing passion for either long haul flights or, dare I say it, the beach.

By contrast, I am now well placed to visit a huge variety of dramatically different European destinations, all within an hour or two’s flight. And that’s not to mention the surprising diversity of holiday options within Britain itself.

So, partly to kick off our 2013 holiday schedule and partly to test the viability of doing so with three small boys in tow, we decided to take a family Easter break.

After copious research (ok, after my wife spending many hours on ‘Mumsnet‘, I assume looking at holiday options), we decided to try Center Parcs at Longleat Forest in deepest Wiltshire.

Now, Center Parcs is one of those many tourism brands that have emerged during my time down under and therefore I was initially a bit unsure as to what it was all about.

Asking around a few friends for clarification, I found one recurring theme emerging – “It’s like Butlins for the middle class”.

I was unclear during these conversations as to whether this particular description was intended as a compliment, an insult or just a positioning statement.

By way of background, Center Parcs is originally a Dutch concept that is widespread on the continent and also has four ‘holiday villages’ in the UK, promising “a unique natural forest environment for you and your family to spend quality time together, both relaxing and enjoying new activities”. So there.

But what was it actually like? Well, to me, one of the most striking things about the place was that once you have unloaded your gear into your cabin, then your car has to return to the car park where it must remain until changeover day.

In the interim, no cars are allowed which means people walking and cycling everywhere, contributing to a very peaceful and stress-free environment. No car fumes, no sudden acceleration, no road rage, just people pottering around under their own steam.

With the quiet, car-free roads, wooden cabins and tall trees, it reminded me somehow of a remote Scandinavian village, strange considering I haven’t even been to Scandinavia, let alone to a remote Scandinavian village.

But amidst the serenity, there was a multitude of things to do – indoor/outdoor swimming pools (heated of course – I’m not crazy!), spa, boating, kayaking, tennis, bowling, tree climbing, mini golf, badminton, rock climbing and, of course, cycling…lots of cycling.

And when mealtimes came around, there was a surprisingly good selection of restaurants and cafes available, all without a fast food outlet in sight.

Having now road tested Center Parcs with three small boys, I’d definitely give the place the thumbs up. We ended up doing loads of different things over our time the and even bumped into some people we knew.

It wasn’t the cheapest holiday I’ve ever taken, but it was pretty good value overall when I consider just how much we did in three days (and just how knackered the boys were each night).

And the million pound question – was it really like a “middle class Butlins”?

Well, since I’ve never been to Butlins I couldn’t possibly say (so I guess that’s a ‘yes’ then)


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