We have just got back from our first Center Parcs break with the toddler. It’s the first time we’ve taken her away since our summer holiday in Italy. For me, the weeks after we returned home from that particular ‘holiday’ necessitated several stints in a darkened room with a cold Finding Dory flannel on my forehead.
So it was with a sense of trepidation that we packed literally our entire house into the car and made the four-hour journey up to Sherwood Forest.
We went to Center Parcs every year when I was growing up, but this was my first time experiencing it as a parent. What I noticed first and foremost is that the chalet accommodation is totally designed for the comfort, safety and enjoyment of young families. Every chalet has a cot and a high chair, there’s no pointy or sticky-out sharp edges on any of the furniture, and there’s enough kids’ channels on the TV to keep even the pickiest of toddlers entertained on a rainy morning.
The bedroom doors are also sturdy and kept out the living room noise so we could enjoy a catch up with the rest of the family whilst the toddler was in bed. I also realised for the first time that the large cupboard by the front door wasn’t only useful for storing crates and crates of booze. It was actually large enough to store pushchairs, trikes, baby carriers, boxes of nappies and all our suitcases combined.
We hired a bike and trailer and it was a God-send all weekend. The toddler would happily go in it if we plied her with snacks as we belted her up, and I was pleasantly surprised with how light-weight it was to peddle around. I thought I’d feel like a rickshaw driver lugging around overweight tourists in Bangkok, but even with a base fitness level of -5, I managed to get all around the park without even breaking a sweat. Plus I only had one near-collision and I still maintain that the squirrel was entirely at-fault there.
Swimming is about the only ‘free’ thing you can do with the kids. This means braving the chlorine-y chaos that is the ‘swimming dome’.
If Spielberg is interested in re-making the Normandy beach landing scene in Saving Private Ryan, I’m sure he could hire the Center Parcs swimming dome on a Saturday afternoon when the wave machine’s on, with much the same effect.
Although the main pool was a bit too frantic for Emily, she loved the toddler splash-pools. These are essentially large communal toddler pottys filled with a few inches of diluted urine and equipped with novelty plastic slides. But my OCD aside, they kept the toddler entertained for way longer than any of our other swimming sessions to-date.
It’s incredibly warm in the dome, so even very little babies don’t get too cold. The changing rooms are a bit fraught, but there are tons of family changing cubicles with decent enough baby-changing facilities.
Other than swimming, there are a number of play parks dotted around the site, but they were a little too ‘old’ for our toddler who had to be repeatedly rescued from half way up a climbing net, or at the top of a large slide. We did find a few OK soft play areas in the restaurants and these we useful to entertain the toddler before the food arrived and when crayons and paper just weren’t cutting it.
Most other activities are paid for, and by-God do you have to pay some serious cash for them. They’re also geared more towards slightly older children. Even the crèche is aimed at children two to three years-plus, so your options with a toddler are somewhat limited if the weather is shockingly bad or you don’t like swimming.
The bit that Emily enjoyed most of all was the wildlife cabaret show that she could watch from the windows and the patio doors of our chalet. She went crazy when they’d tap on the glass looking for some food.
On our first morning there, I stood on the patio with Emily and we fed the various animals that turned up for breakfast. At one point, I had a circle of obedient animals around me that included rabbits, ducks, geese, squirrels and pigeons. It was magical. I felt like fucking Cinderella! A few more rounds of 50/50 bread and those critters might have whipped me up a princess ball-gown.
My personal highlight of the trip however, was a morning at the Aqua Sana spa. I nearly had to sell my wedding ring to afford it, but it’s honestly one of the best spas I’ve ever been to. It’s huge, with lots of different saunas, steam rooms, relaxation rooms, hot tubs, foot spas and a large heated outdoor pool. They also restrict numbers so it never feels too overcrowded with hen-dos or loved-up couples. I don’t think I saw one novelty penis headband or ‘L plate’ the whole time we were there. A few hours of relaxation was the perfect way to recoup and round-off the trip.
In a year or two, I think Emily will enjoy the Center Parcs experience even more. But for now, it was a perfectly enjoyable break, and I didn’t even need to fling the Finding Dory flannel over my eyes when we got home.
Oh, and if you’re wondering why this article isn’t accompanied by an ‘insta-friendly’ family picture in the forest, that’s because the toddler refused to stand still for even a second for the whole weekend. Instead, here’s one of her tethered down in the bike trailer, unable to move.