Monday 8 May 2017

Our ultimate family guide to Center Parcs: which location to choose, what to do and top 10 tips and things to know before you go

We're going away to Center Parcs in May for five days and I can't wait to head back into the forest. We have been to stay at all of the locations, except Elveden; first Longleat, then Whinfell twice, Sherwood once and Woburn before Christmas last year. This time, we are going back to Sherwood as it's the closest to us and we have a full agenda planned. But of course, you can choose to do as little as you like too - that's the beauty of this kind of break.

We love how you can escape the outside world, become a part of a village and choose to do as much as you like or simply relax. The surroundings are beautiful to wake up to every morning and the accommodation and facilities are excellent.

The questions I often get asked about a break to Center Parcs is which location do we like the best, what's on offer and what are our top tips - so I thought I'd share with you some thoughts following our experiences over the past four years.


Which Center Parcs location is best?

This is a difficult one and in all honesty, each location is just as good as the other. They are all considerately laid out with well-planned lodges surrounding the parc centre where the swimming centre and entertainment facilities and restaurants can be found. They're all really well maintained and create a lovely environment, nestled in the woods, where the only wheels to be seen can be found on bikes, not cars.

Aside from Elveden, which we have no personal experience of, here's what we think of the other parcs:

* Longleat: We stayed in a comfort lodge for our first ever CP experience and it was nice, but not a patch on the lodges which we have returned to each time since. Longleat is quite spread out and I'd say bikes will make it easier to get around easier but also to explore the different tracks. It's hilly though but they have a land train that goes around regularly to help you get from A to B. The outdoor lazy river is a lot of fun and we also spotted deer when we were staying.

* Whinfell: overall, this is probably our favourite parc, and we've been to stay here two times, including at Christmas. All of the locations have lakes but this one is particularly nice and makes for a lovely stroll to go all the way around.


* Sherwood: we've been here once and will be going again a couple of weeks' so can't wait for that and will no doubt share this on the blog soon after our visit (be sure to follow me on Instagram - @tobecomemum - for photos while we are away). The different thing about Sherwood is the fact that the swimming, restaurants and shops aren't all under one big dome in the centre like at most of the other parcs - they are outdoors, in an open village type feel. This is lovely to walk around, but perhaps in the colder months, the indoor grouping offered at the other CP villages is more practical...

Aside from this, the lake and beach areas are lovely and there's a good size to the site to go exploring on bikes. And the Aqua Sana Spa is to die for - read all about my visit to the day spa plus the new Elemis treatment I got to try out, and also check out all the new and exciting things unveiled in the new refurbished spa, including the Treetop Sauna, which opened just a couple of weeks' ago.

To find out what we got up to over a midweek break to Sherwood Forest for my 30th birthday read my full post here and watch my vlog for all the highlights:

* Woburn: we visited this village before Christmas last year and were keen to see what the newest parc was like, having only opened in Summer 2015. We really liked it and it still had a very new feel to it, with some of the trees and greenery still new or filling in where everything had been built.

Overall, it feels smaller than the others we have been to but the activity areas are spread out, with the den and sports activities one side along with the ParcMarket, sports bar and Starbucks, near the lake, the Pancake House and beach the other end of the lake (plus Santa at Christmas time), then everything else at the centre, alongside the Subtropical Swimming Paradise area, in a retail / leisure complex style layout.


We covered a lot of ground during our visit to Woburn, without bikes, and the swimming paradise has more to offer than all the other villages, including an outdoor lazy river and indoor rides for one or more people. The children's swimming area is great too, with some mini flumes and a pirate ship to explore. Whilst I would go back again (and would love to visit the spa there as it looks incredible), some of the other villages do offer more in the way of surroundings and feeling of seclusion, if you ask me.


Top tips before you go

1. Take a look at activities - and perhaps sketch out a rough plan, to see what you'd like to do and when it could all fit in - but don't feel like you have to pre-book. There's no discount in doing so and sometimes, you want to get a feel for things when you're there or go with the flow, and the mood, of your family. It's true that certain activities can get booked up but in my experience, there's always plenty of time slots and not everything has to be booked in advance.

2. Book restaurants in advance - ok, this contradicts the first point, and I'm not saying this because they tend to get really busy because again, we've never had a problem. BUT, if there's somewhere you'd like to go, book in advance and make the £5 deposit per person - because when the bill comes, the deposit comes off and you feel like you've spent less while you're away.

3. Get on your bike - it's a brilliant way to explore the village. If you need to hire, they're around £29 each (trailers are £29 too) for the duration of your stay. But don't worry if you're not keen, as the villages are easy enough to walk around.

4. Cook for yourself - it's nice to eat out but if you do so all day, every day, it can add up to an expensive stay. The kitchens are well equipped and it's nice to enjoy the lodges this way. Bring food with you to save some pennies, but use the ParcMarket for essentials; they have good quality produce and a great range too, but you will pay a little more (especially on alcohol!). Good to know you have this as a back up if you need or forget anything.

5. Win and swim - the facilities in the swimming areas are great, with large family sized changing cubicles and some villages offering wristband activated lockers - plus these can be charged with money so you don't have to have cash to buy a drink in the poolside cafe. There are also free to use swimming aids, such as jackets, available for little ones to use.

6. Bring your own logs / BBQ coals - they sell them in the market but be prepared to pay quite a bit more than your local supermarket. Definitely light a fire and enjoy a BBQ too if the weather calls for it!

7. Location, location, location - take a good look at the map of your chosen village and consider if you want to pay more to pick your lodge. If you're happy to do so (around £29-£55 extra), look at the different area classifications; sometimes a lodge that is just across from another is in a lower price band when really, there's only a 30 second longer walk in it.

8. Do a lot, do nothing - this is your holiday and once you're there, you can be as busy as you like or as lazy as you want to be. If you bring bikes, food and entertainment with you, you don't have to spend another penny while you are there, as the swimming is free and you can explore as much as you like. But if you want to try new things or have little ones to keep busy, particularly on rainy days, there is so much to try.

9. Arrive early, leave late - make the most of your time at the village by arriving early and leaving later. Personally, paying more for early check-in isn't worth the cost for just an extra hour so park up, then go and explore the village before returning to unload your stuff into your lodge later. And on leaving day, you can stay on site as late as 12 midnight, to make the most of every moment to really get your money's worth.

10. Come back soon offer - this is worth using if you know you want to come back in the future. It needs to be claimed within 28 days of your last visit but gives you a guaranteed price and you get sent £25 worth of vouchers to spend at any restaurant when you do return.


Why we love Center Parcs

Accommodation: I love the lodges, inside and out. Spacious and with a stylish d├ęcor, the lodges let you enjoy creature comforts whilst also being close to nature.

Village: The village areas are great and there's a lot to explore, from the lake and beach to the playgrounds and sports centre. By foot or by bike, I can never get bored of enjoying the village.

Restaurants: There's lots of variety at all the Center Parcs villages so every taste is catered for. We like Hucks, an American diner that serves the best buffalo chicken wings, the Pancake House which offers well, pancakes, the size of your plate and Strada for a nice evening meal. You don't need to eat out if you don't want to as you can be self-sufficient at your lodge or you can even order a takeaway if it's just too much effort after an action packed day.

Shops: We always make a stop at Just Kids and I love The Store Room, which sells lots of lovely home nic naks. The on-site supermarket is really good too, with lots on offer and reasonable prices for the most part.

Activities: There are too many to list! Whether you want to make the most of the great outdoors, learn a new skill or pass the time on a rainy day, there's something to suit sporty and creative types alike. 

Spa: I have been to quite a few spa hotels but nothing comes close to the Aqua Sana Spa. I've been to the Sherwood one a couple of times and it is just the most amazing place, where you feel a workld away from everything else instantly. It's also just been refurbished - just take a look at it! The Woburn spa looks amazing too and Elveden offers luxury spa and stay packages.

All-round holiday destination: Brilliant. Just a fantastic break that I really don't think you can get anywhere else in the UK. If you're looking for a break in beautiful surroundings and with something on offer to keep every member of the family happy, I couldn't recommend Center Parcs enough.


Also, take a look at my top 5 things to do at Center Parcs Sherwood Forest video too:

I was a Center Parcs Family Blogger a couple of years ago, but I am a genuine big fan of CP holidays and have put together this bumper guide based on all the holidays we have had there, to help other families like ours. 

I know that it can come up as an expensive option, and with Ethan about to start school soon too, the costs for us to go will increase a fair bit. We tend to go for five days four nights Mon-Fri) and with choosing our own lodge, it comes to around £400-450 for the three of us, outside of school holidays. Just as you can make it as busy a holiday or as quiet a break as you like, you can make it an expensive, all bells and whistles holiday or you can be savvy. For us, it's a very special place and a wonderful family break that is worth the pennies.

Have you been to Center Parcs before? Do you have a favourite village? What would you recommend to other families?


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