Thursday 22 August 2019

Center Parcs Ireland Review: What's it really like to stay at Longford Forest?

What's it like to stay at Center Parcs in Ireland? We answer readers' questions in our Longford Forest review

Pól Ó Conghaile & Fiona Ness

Ireland has never seen anything like it.

Costing the guts of a quarter-of-a-billion euro, a 395-acre resort, complete with 'Subtropical Swimming Paradise', has landed in Longford.

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Center Parcs is a magically clean, car-free campus where staff bring a Disney-like oomph to activities. Lodges are high-spec, but homework is required to control costs, and there's more than a hint of The Truman Show to the gated community.

Here's our review.

How does it work?

Center Parcs sells short breaks - either three nights (Friday to Monday) or four (Monday to Friday). The 466 lodges at Longford Forest range from slick and comfy two-beds to 'Executive' pads with saunas, hot tubs and prices to match.

Cars are only permitted on changeover days, when you check in and out - a major plus. Not having to worry about traffic is brilliant: kids and adults glide about on bikes, and very few guests leave during their stay.

Inside the Subtropical Swimming Paradise at Center Parcs Longford Forest.
Inside the Subtropical Swimming Paradise at Center Parcs Longford Forest.
Pól Ó Conghaile at Center Parcs Ireland. Photo: Leon Farrell / Photocall.
The Subtropical Swimming Paradise at Center Parcs Longford Forest
Baz Ashmawy and his daughter Mahy, 6, make a splash at the official launch of Center Parcs Longford Forest. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Irelnd
One of the lodges at Center Parcs Longford Forest
Stofra Ní Ghallchobhair (7) takes part in the activities at Center Parcs Longford Forest! Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland
The Murphy family from Drogheda, Ciara (12); and Andy; at the official launch of Center Parcs Longford Forest. Pic: Naoise Culhane
Guests enjoy Center Parcs Longford Forest on its opening weekend. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland
The Aqua Sana Spa at Center Parcs Longford Forest
The 'Village Square' at Center Parcs
Amie Finnegan (9) from Dublin at the official launch of Center Parcs Longford Forest. Pic:Naoise Culhane
Inside the Subtropical Swimming Paradise at Longford Forest
Rory Best enjoying the Mini Captains’ Adventure with his son Richie (4). Photo: Naoise Culhane
The outdoor pool at Aqua Sana Spa
Baz Ashmawy and his children make a splash in Ireland’s newest and largest waterpark, the Subtropical Swimming Paradise. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland
The McGonigle family from Bansha, Co Tipperary; Jack (11); Shane; Katie Mai, (7); Kay; and Charlie, (9) at the official launch of Center Parcs Longford Forest. Pic: Naoise Culhane
Dining at Center Parcs in Ireland
The Subtropical Swimming Paradise at Center Parcs Longford Forest. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland
The Aqua Sana Spa
Brian Finnegan and his son Brian (11) from Dublin at the official launch of Center Parcs Longford Forest. Picture: Naoise Culhane
The lake and Pancake House at Center Parcs Longford Forest
The Murphy family from Drogheda, Aoife (15) ; Andy; and Monica and at the official launch of Center Parcs Longford Forest. Pic:Naoise Culhane
Center Parcs Longford Forest
A lodge at Center Parcs Longford Forest
Lucy Murray (10 months) enjoys the pool with her mum Denise. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland
Guests enjoying the launch spectacular of Center Parcs Longford Forest. Photo: Naoise Culhane Photography
Two dishes from Center Parcs: hake at Cara's, and a burger at the Sports Bar. Photos: Pól Ó Conghaile
Gluten-free pancakes at Center Parcs Ireland
TV personality Karen Koster with her daughter Eve (1) and sons Finn (4) and JJ (3) at the official launch of Center Parcs Longford Forest

On site, 100-plus activities range from den building to Bollywood dancing, but they cost extra (aerial adventures start from €32pp, for example; while bike hire costs from €35/€25.50pp for the duration of your stay), and it's hard to see exactly what they will cost unless you have an active accommodation booking.

A tip: You can find prices in a 'What's On' guide here.

Popular slots fill up in advance, so you need to be organised to nab those zip-lines and 8pm dinner slots. Don't book too much, however - the pool absorbs hours of time, and flagging families will need downtime.

What should I pack?

Bring beach towels (they cost €2 a pop to rent), a backpack for carrying togs and towels on your bike, and sunscreen... UV rays can penetrate the pool's transparent roof.

One of the lodges at Center Parcs Longford Forest
One of the lodges at Center Parcs Longford Forest

Your own bikes and helmets (€5 to rent) will save money, and pack tracksuits, trainers and racquets for activities.

There's a reasonably priced mini-market on site, and lodges are well stocked with utensils, but bring cupboard essentials like tea, coffee, milk, sugar and drinks, and more (oil, salt and pepper, tin foil, etc.) if you plan to cook in.

The free Wi-Fi is great, but lodges lack bluetooth speakers. If you like a feather pillow, bring your own.

Prepare for muck and insects in the forest, and pack a basic medical kit to help treat insect stings (there are lots of wasps) or splinters from wood. There are fully trained first-aiders on site, but no nurse or medical centre.

The Murphy family from Drogheda, Ciara (12); and Andy; at the official launch of Center Parcs Longford Forest. Pic: Naoise Culhane
The Murphy family from Drogheda, Ciara (12); and Andy; at the official launch of Center Parcs Longford Forest. Pic: Naoise Culhane

Deep breath... how much will it cost?

Right now, the lead-in price for a two-bed lodge midweek in November is €399 on centerparcs.ie. Both activity and lodge prices fluctuate depending on demand, however - the same lodge costs €1,199 during the October mid-term, for example.

We found prices at restaurants, bars (expect to pay €5.60 for an IPA) and the on-site Parc Market priced similarly to any Irish city, but you can expect the incidentals to add up... so budget accordingly.

Read our tips on how to save money at Center Parcs here.

How does the pool work?

The spaceship-like 'Subtropical Swimming Paradise' is the main event - a 3,500-square-metre water park heated to 29.5 degrees year round. It's the answer to all of your 'rainy day' questions, and kids will absolutely love it.

The best ride, hands down, is 'Tropical Cyclone', where up to four people can sit in a raft and roar their way down a sloshing tube culminating in a 45-degree drop. The rough-and-tumble 'Wild Water Rapids' are fun, but not for nervous swimmers or small kids, as you'll get washing-machined in strong currents. The lazy river is fine for arm bands.

Baz Ashmawy and his daughter Mahy, 6, make a splash at the official launch of Center Parcs Longford Forest. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Irelnd
Baz Ashmawy and his daughter Mahy, 6, make a splash at the official launch of Center Parcs Longford Forest. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Irelnd

We found crowds lightest around dinner and during changeover times (rides open from 11am-7pm). Bring water bottles... chasing up and down those flights of stairs to the slides is thirsty work.

What are the lodges like?

Really lovely. Fresh-from-the-box, a mix of brick and timber builds, the specs are better than many of the British Center Parcs, and you'll be happy to spend downtime around the open-plan spaces, barbecuing or cooking in (good knives, cafetieres and hard plastic glasses are smart touches). There are USB charging points beside beds, and you can order takeaway food (an Indian meal deal costs €18.95pp, as an example). As well as families, we see an opportunity for grouops of friends here, and a cosy vibe when the resort is in 'Winter Wonderland' mode (Nov 8-Dec 31).

What about the food?

You'll find lots of variety in Center Parcs restaurants, from the Italian, Indian and TV screen-strewn Sports Bar at the 'Village Square' to the beachside Pancake House. We had some good eats - a pan-fried hake at Cara's, or gluten-free pancakes (coeliac disease and allergies are excellently catered for), for example.

Two dishes from Center Parcs: hake at Cara's, and a burger at the Sports Bar. Photos: Pól Ó Conghaile
Two dishes from Center Parcs: hake at Cara's, and a burger at the Sports Bar. Photos: Pól Ó Conghaile

But we also had mediocre ones. A burger in the Sports Bar was a forgettable, pre-made patty described as "Irish beef", and two separate takeaway pizza orders delivered one thumbs up (the kids thought they were delicious), and one doughy set with burned cheese that was largely left uneaten.

Irish suppliers are used (Keelings, for example, or eggs from O'Halleran's Family Farm) but we saw no mention of provenance or producers on menus, which is disappointing - Irish food is on a real roll, and it would be nice to see a resort of this scale better tell that story. These are early days however, and kitchens often need time to settle in and adapt to feedback.

Is Center Parcs suitable for toddlers?

Yes. In our view, you'll get the best value with kids aged 4/5 and over, but there are lots of feeding stations, buggy-friendly paths, toddler trailers for bikes, and nice touches like fairy trails, low sinks and steps in the loos, and play spaces in restaurants. There's a crèche (€28 for three hours, aged 3-36 months), lodges have stairgates, and activities range from Soccer Play (€8pp) to Wizard Academy (€33pp). Parents take note, you can also book smart 2/3-hour combinations of spa sessions and toddler activities.

Gluten-free pancakes at Center Parcs Ireland
Gluten-free pancakes at Center Parcs Ireland

Any glitches, or things you didn't like?

Irish touches like Voya spa products, Keogh's crisps in the Parc Market and Franciscan Well beers on tap are welcome but, faux Telefón booths aside, you really could be anywhere in Britain or Ireland. The Center Parcs template works for a reason, but it would be nice to see another injection of local colour and culture.

Elsewhere, we'd prefer more transparent activity pricing (which you need an active accommodation booking to see). Can we also agree that 10am is a grouchy check-out time? Late risers won't enjoy packing up and re-parking the car - though you can stay on-resort for the day.

What's the Aqua Sana Spa like?

This is Ireland's largest spa, and it delivers on quality too.

The Aqua Sana Spa at Center Parcs Longford Forest
The Aqua Sana Spa at Center Parcs Longford Forest

Expect friendly greetings, indulgent scents and an offer of an orange juice shot as you arrive. Continue inside, and you'll find four themed areas (e.g. 'Fire & Ice' or 'Nordic Forest'), with cosy, restful spaces interspersed with 21 hot, cold and meditative experiences... ranging from outdoor hot tubs to rainforest showers and reflexology foot spas. You won't want for pampering.

Though similar in feel to other Center Parcs spas (Woburn Forest, for example), we prefer the layout here. Having everything on one floor, for instance, is much easier to navigate, creating a better flow. It connects well to the spa café too.

Prices? Expect to pay from €37 for a three-hour session (aquasana.ie), with a 25-minute massage from €57 and longer treatments heading north from there. You can also book in as a day visitor - spa days cost from €95pp, Tuesday to Thursday (or €119 on weekends), including lunch and entry from 9am to 6pm. Note that booking a treatment won't include access to the rest of the spa (they are priced separately).

All told, Aqua Sana is a huge selling point, and one firm answer to the 'What is there to do for adults?' question. We loved the variation in its steam and sauna rooms, forest views from within the sauna, and get ready to have a tough job removing yourself from the heated contour beds and super-comfy water relaxation beds.

Using Voya products is a nice nod to its Irish location, too.

What's there to do for adults?

Center Parcs is first-and-foremost a family-friendly park, but it's big enough to leave ample room for grown-ups too. Active adults will love activities like aerial tree trekking, geocaching and zip lines, groups can play Laser Combat or go bowling, everyone will have fun whooshing around the pool slides and whirlpools, bars serve up to 11.30pm or so, and guests are welcome to bring food and drink to their lodges.

Amie Finnegan (9) from Dublin at the official launch of Center Parcs Longford Forest. Pic:Naoise Culhane
Amie Finnegan (9) from Dublin at the official launch of Center Parcs Longford Forest. Pic:Naoise Culhane

Outside of school-term is where the value really lies in Center Parcs - so we see groups of friends (hen parties or school reunions, for example) teaming up to stay in lodges, and ambling between cook-ins, strolls, meals out and spa treatments.

Pick up a what's on guide to activities when you arrive to check prices.

Is it pet-friendly?

Yes. Up to two dogs can stay in select lodges (€65 each).

Will it work in winter, or on rainy days?

We think so. While the resort looked spanking in the sunlight on its opening weekend, you don't have to be Irish to foresee the difference early darkness, rain and a bone-chilling wind sweeping across that lake will make.

On a morose midlands day, walking or cycling from lodge to the Village Square won't be an Instagram highlight.

However, Center Parcs has thought of this. Occupancy in its UK resorts is 98pc year-round, and it is aiming for 90pc in Ireland. It's open 365 days, a 'Winter Wonderland' set-up will run from November 8 to December 31, and cosy lodges with stoves could see strong business from groups and budget-driven customers during school term at duller times of year.

Then there are the activities. You may not be frolicking on the fairy trails, but the pool is weather-proof (a huge bonus), the sports complex is full of activities - from badminton and bowling to climbing and tennis, classes range from Bollywood Dancing to Pilates, and the Village Square is easy to navigate without getting too wet.

Plus, don't forget that enormous spa (above).

Pól Ó Conghaile at Center Parcs Ireland. Photo: Leon Farrell / Photocall.
Pól Ó Conghaile at Center Parcs Ireland. Photo: Leon Farrell / Photocall.

Does it offer an accessible holiday?

There are 12 accessible lodges; the resort is fully paved, largely on the flat, and there are lots of ramps and accessible bathrooms (including a 'Changing Places' room in the pool, which you can see in our video above). Mobility scooters can be rented. If visitors would like to share more, please email travel@independent.ie.

Is Center Parcs value for money?

That's the question! Center Parcs points to a 98pc, year-round occupancy rate in Britain as proof of its value. Homework and prep are required to get best rates and stretch budgets, but you won't complain about the quality of lodges, activities, the cleanliness, safety or the staff - who feel relaxed, happy and well-trained even at this early stage. Those who can afford it are likely to find they get what they pay for.

How can I save money at Center Parcs?

Cook in, bring your own bikes and split the cost of lodges with friends or grandparents. Book a return visit within 31 days (promo code CBSOON) for a €50 voucher and two free guest day passes. Tesco Club Card boosts can also earn up to €160 off accommodation.

Can you do day visits?

Center Parcs is a gated campus; no walk-ins are allowed.

However, friends of guests can visit on day passes (€48/36, 10am-10pm). Aqua Sana Spa also takes day visitors (see above).

Any other tips?

Manage kids' expectations before you arrive. Explain the number of activities you will be doing and be strict about it - otherwise you'll be open to amazing pester power. Plan for downtime and pottering, an under-sold part of the Center Parcs experience. The pool will gobble up lots of time and you may be loath to leave for an activity.

NB: Prices subject to availabilty/change. Pól and Fiona were guests of Center Parcs.

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