As a single girl, when my brother invited me to join him, his wife and two kids (aged 10 and 6) for a holiday in Center Parcs, I can’t say I jumped for joy.
My holidays had consisted of going to Italy, Dubai and Cayman Islands so a detour to Center Parcs wasn’t exactly on the travel wish list. He must have noticed my confused expression as he began his sales pitch: archery, fencing, swimming, spa (my ears perked) and then came the killer line of, ‘plus your nephew and niece really want you to come’. Whether that was true or not, he knows I’d do anything for those little munchkins so pulling at my heart strings got me to say ‘fine, I’m in’.
We went to Center Parcs Woburn Forest in rural Bedfordshire for a weekend in July.
Here is what I took away as a first-timer travelling with kids.
Pack everything plus the kitchen sink if you can fit it in
First thing I noticed when travelling with kids is you have to pack for all type of scenarios. My small suitcase was insignificant compared to their mountain of stuff. And whilst the self-catering accommodation provides you with the basics of plates, cups, cutlery and pans, as a family you will run out of things quickly. You therefore have to take a lot of extra items with you such as toilet paper, washing up liquid, bin bags, Tupperware, foil paper and of course, all your food and drinks.
There is a supermarket on-site if you run out of anything although things are a bit more expensive. When travelling single or as a couple versus with kids, you tend to indulge in hotels which removes the hassle of carrying all these extra items. This meant the count so far was: Singles holiday 1, Family holiday 0.
Luckily, sleeping in the woods doesn’t mean you have to rough it out
We stayed in a 4-bedroom, 2-bathroom lodge with a fireplace and outdoor seating area. Woburn Forest is one of the newer Center Parcs that opened only six years ago so everything still looked very new. The lodges are peaceful and set in the middle of the forest. They are also homely and more spacious than a cramped hotel room so it was nice to all be together in one space that didn’t feel like we were on top of each other: Singles holiday 1, Family holiday 1.
More activities to choose from than a pick and mix bag
The list of activities are endless. It’s best to book in advance to avoid disappointment. For the kids, my adrenaline fuelled nephew opted for a high ropes challenge and my more demure niece did pottery.
For the adults, my sister in law did a Bollywood dance class, my brother went kayaking and I opted for a spa session at their Aqua Sana. It soon became apparent why it’s award-winning: From the jacuzzi pool, herbal and fire lounge, sensory experience, multiple steam rooms and saunas to the 5 shower walk room – that’s right – a room dedicated to giving you 5 different showers! You have to book the spa for a minimum of 3 hours and it’s no wonder as there’s so much to pamper yourself with.
In terms of free activities, they are nature walks, cycling and outdoor playgrounds for kids. But perhaps the best free activity is the sub-tropical pool. We went everyday. It has different features such as slides, tube rides and a few thrilling drops that my nephew twisted my arm to go on. I probably wouldn’t have gone on most of them had it not been for him so for that: Singles holiday 1, Family holiday 2.
For those lazy nights, eat your way through the village park
There is a wide choice of eateries such as Café Rouge, Hucks American grill, Pancake house, Strada and a few others. We did self-catering throughout except on our last night when we ate out. The restaurant had a soft play which was great for the kids and they even made a few friends. You can also order a take-away in your lodge if you prefer. The choice of restaurants were good although quite noisy as you had large family groups celebrating birthdays, anniversaries or something or other. I was perhaps particularly sensitive to the noise levels that night as I had just emerged, rested and relaxed from my magical spa experience. For that: Singles holiday 2, Family holiday 2.
In the end, you create memories of a lifetime
One of the best parts of the Center Parcs experience is being in a car free zone. Everyone cycles or walks as you’re not allowed to use your car. This added to a serene feel and was safer for kids as well. The wristbands you get are also genius. They act as your accommodation keys and you can use them to make contactless payments around the village. It’s probably best to plan in advance what activities you’ll be doing and what nights you’ll eat out otherwise costs can mount up.
The annoying part was the check-in and check-out process. Everyone checks in at 3pm so you all have to queue at the same time. You then drive to your lodge, unpack, and have to drive back to leave your car in the car park. Walking back to your lodge then takes about 15 mins. To check-out, it’s the same. You have to walk 15 mins to the car park, pick up your car, pack, then drive out by 10am stuck in the long queues of everyone leaving at the same time. Either offering valet parking, a shuttle service or having different check-in and check-out times for the different lodges to reduce the queues would be helpful.
Ultimately, you go on holiday to create memories and this was a great family experience. In the years to come, when my nephew and niece are older and I’m no longer considered to be the cool aunt to have around, I’ll be able to look back and say, we’ll always have Center Parcs!
Final score: Singles holiday 2, Family holiday 3.