My family has been taking short breaks at Center Parcs in Elveden Forest for around 20 years. Marketed as ‘the British holiday the weather can’t spoil’, it’s a secluded resort to cater for all your entertainment desires.
It’s a place where you can guarantee to pick up a villa key and lock away the everyday worries until check-out time. You can take one spin around the rapids and forget that there’s such a thing as a world outside the forest. Swim until nightfall, try as many sports as your muscles will handle, eat and drink until you’re immobile and when it’s all too hectic, put yourself in the hands of a masseur.
It’s heaven… albeit with a hefty price-tag.
Anyway, it was my Mum’s birthday and one of those hostage situations where the only gift she wants is to get the entire family under one roof. So, six adults, two children – under the age of five – three nights and four days in the forest.
The important part of that sentence is, of course, children. Young children.
I hadn’t really noticed in the past but there has been an explosion of little people at Center Parcs. Turning the air shrill at all hours of day and night – they are in the pool in giant nappies, howling from high-chairs in the restaurants, crashing their bikes – and ringing their bells after impact – and leaving doll heads and small cars over every available floor space. If family-friendly tops your holiday wish-list, you’re in luck! If you were hoping for a peaceful, relaxing resort you should probably look elsewhere.
The facilities are incredible, the service is impeccable and you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to keeping yourself entertained. You can windsurf, shoot clay pigeon, play golf, take up yoga, photography and quite probably astrophysics. You can join the gym, a squash tournament or a line-dancing group. They would likely rustle up a roller-skating donkey show if you enquired…BUT you’ll have to open your wallet every time you want to do something other than use the swimming pool.
The real downside is that you won’t find a price list anywhere in the sports complex or by the activity lake. I couldn’t even find one in an extensive search of their website. Every time you want to book an activity you have no idea how much it’s likely to cost you. You have to hand it to them, it’s a clever money-making idea as it’s very hard for the customer to try to make a booking, find out the cost and then change their mind – especially when accompanied by several expectant children.
The lack of transparency gave a really me negative impression and it’s not something I remember having experienced in previous visits. Not only do you have to book ‘blind’ but most of the sport bookings also come with an equipment hire charge. So, maybe you pay around £7 to hire a badminton court for 44 minutes, you will also get stung for hire of each racket and you’re expected to buy the shuttlecock – that’s somewhere around £9. It may not seem like much but when you have four days to fill, it soon adds up. With our accommodation cost in excess of £1000 for three nights and countless extras you could easily go abroad for less cash.
We hired bikes to get around the village at a cost of £25 per person and enjoyed the forest cycle routes where we spotted a couple of deer and lots of wildlife. At the time of writing there is currently no charge for walking around or sitting down.
On the bright side, it’s safe, spotlessly clean around the complex and there is a good selection of restaurants and a very reasonably priced mini supermarket. We had a four-bedroom Executive Lodge with large rooms, a well equipped kitchen, a whirlpool bath and a private sauna. I have previously stayed in the regular villas but found the older ones to be on the grubby side and less clean than hotel standard. I’m pretty sure it was a slice of pepperoni I found under the bed one year…
If you want to enjoy the facilities and keep the cost down, take your own bike, squash racket, tennis balls, segway and golf clubs and do all of your cooking in the villa. The kitchens have everything you need; we have, in the past, cooked a full Christmas dinner for six people without any dramas.
If you’re looking to escape the noise you can head over to the Aqua Sana spa for around £60 per couple, for three hours. Try the range of sauna, steam and relaxation rooms and swim under the stars in the outside spa pool. There are plenty of treatments to choose from at an extra cost. What cost? I have no idea, we didn’t ask.
Best time to visit?
If you want to get the most from a stay try the Winter Wonderland period (from Nov 10) where the complex is decorated for Christmas complete with Santa’s grotto, reindeer, a Christmas market in the village square and an incredible firework display over the lake twice a week.