Thursday 21 June 2018

Center Parcs: Top 10 tips for Ireland's most talked-about new holiday resort

The UK’s most talked-about resort is coming to Ireland. Pól Ó Conghaile checks in for a preview visit...

It’s a grand country, if only we could roof it. So goes the Irish refrain. Well, soon we’ll do just that — in large parts of a 395-acre holiday resort near Ballymahon, Co Longford, at least.

Center Parcs is a bona fide holiday cult in the UK, where five woodland resorts jam-packed with activities, lodges and Subtropical Swimming Paradises regularly turn cynics into piles of cooing mush.

 Now the holiday cash-magnet is coming to Ireland — in the shape of a €233 million ‘Longford Forest’ campus due to open in summer 2019.

Bookings for its 466 lodges open this year, so we took our two kids to Center Parcs at Woburn Forest near London to find out how it all works.

1. Before you go

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Aerial Adventure at Center Parcs

“There’s a system for everything, isn’t there?” I say to the security guard at Woburn’s Arrivals Lodge. “There should be,” he replies cheerily. “We’ve been at it for 31 years.”

Dreamt up by Dutchman Piet Derksen, the Center Parcs concept first landed in Britain in 1987 but has since mushroomed into a middle-class institution. Weeks before we arrive, emails and postal packs start prepping us for the trip. We’re urged to  book everything from bikes to spa treatments, activities and evening meals in advance.

I’ve had to bite my lip at the cruise-ship-style corralling, part of which is clearly designed to get you spending (you pay as you book activities, with a £5/€5.70pp deposit on restaurants), but there’s a method to the madness. Popular activities fill up in advance, so you need to be organised to avoid envying other families flying by on zip lines or  breezing into 8pm dinner slots.

Insider tip: Book  months ahead for the best prices and choice, and arrive early or late to avoid queues.

One of the four-bed xecutive lodges at Center Parcs
One of the four-bed xecutive lodges at Center Parcs
The Subtropical Swimming Paradise at Woburn Forest, Bedfordshire
Pól at Center Parcs Woburn Forest
Aerial adventure
Den building at Center Parcs
An artist's impression of the new Center Parcs complex in Longford
Aerial Adventure at Center Parcs
A family on the edge of the 45-degree drop in Tropical Cyclone in Center Parcs Elveden Forest in the UK
Center Parcs - Lounge inside Woodland Lodge at Woburn Forest
Center Parcs - Family bike riding along path through forest
Indoor climbing at Center Parcs
Junior Quads at Center Parcs
Cafe Rouge at Center Parcs
Aqua Sana Spa at Woburn Forest
Center Parcs - Inside one of the Exclusive Lodges
Center Parcs operates sites across Europe and the UK
Indoor climbing adventure

2. Arrival day

Hearts sink when we see the queue of cars, but check-in proves swift, and we soon have our lodge directions and cashless wristbands (serving both as lodge keys and, once you register at a kiosk, for lockers and payments in the pool and spa areas).

“It’s like a mini town, but it’s easy to find your way around,” notes Rosa (12) as we get our bearings. There’s no litter; ducks, squirrels and frogs pop over the paths, and staff are confident and chipper. The bike guy hooks us up in a jiffy, the soccer coach remembers eight-year-old Sam’s name the next day, and instructors patiently talk us through the treetop obstacle course.

Center Parcs has thought of everything — down to the soft play area in the Sports Bar — but I like that we’re not ambushed by Disney-style characters or annoying resort photographers.

Insider tip: Download the Center Parcs app. It carries your itinerary, and maps, and allows you to book activities on the spot.

3. Where to stay

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Pól at Center Parcs Woburn Forest

Once changeover-day traffic subsides, the arboreal oasis comes into its own. Lodges range from basic ‘Woodland’ options to ‘Executive’ (with extra space, housekeeping and ensuites), ‘Exclusive’ (add a hot tub and games room) and beyond. Smart touches in our open-plan Executive Lodge include stairgates, proper cooking knives, a coffee machine and free Wi-Fi (available throughout the resort), though the fridges were small for a lodge sleeping eight.

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Center Parcs - Lounge inside Woodland Lodge at Woburn Forest

We flew to the UK, limiting luggage, but anyone arriving by car could pitch up with half the contents of their home. Pulling open the curtains on Saturday, I’m greeted by a model-village view of early morning joggers, kids on bikes and zombie buggy-pushers cradling Starbucks cups. It’s like some kind of gated Utopia in the forest.

Insider tip: Cut costs by bringing the basics — breakfasts, booze, pre-prepped meals, etc. There’s a fairly priced ParcMarket on site (e.g. 350g of mince for €3.95, or a four-pack of Heineken for €7.85) but it’s not ideal for your ‘big shop’.

4. Hit the pool

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An artist's impression of the new Center Parcs complex in Longford

When is a pool not a pool? When it’s a Subtropical Swimming Paradise. This spaceship of an aquacentre sits at the heart of Center Parcs, with lazy rivers, wave pools, water slides and outdoor Wild Water Rapids all snaking in and around a leafy, weatherproof dome kept at 29.5 degrees.

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A family on the edge of the 45-degree drop in Tropical Cyclone in Center Parcs Elveden Forest in the UK

The killer ride is Tropical Cyclone (above), where we sit together in a yellow, shamrock-shaped raft, and spray whoops and roars through a sloshing tube culminating in a 45-degree drop. The Wild Water Rapids are fun, but surprisingly loosey-goosey. Adults and kids pile down in quick succession — the only warning being to travel feet-first — so think twice if you don’t like rough ’n’ tumble. The crowds are lightest around dinner, and during changeover times, on our trip.

Insider tip: Entry is free but towels cost £2 to rent, so bring your own if you’re in and out of the pool over a week.

5. Get active

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Indoor climbing at Center Parcs

Basically, Center Parcs is selling togetherness. Some 100 activities are available “year round, whatever the weather” — and we choose mini tennis (€15.50), chase through the woods in Laser Combat (€35pp), hold owls at the Falconry Centre (€11.50pp) and shoot over the lake on a 150m zip line (from €38pp, as part of Aerial Adventure).

Prices add up, but the activities are all well-run and staff are enthusiastic. As well as families, I see loads of multi-generational groups, with grandparents and kids doing everything from pottery painting to boating on the lake.

Insider tip: 1.22m is a height restriction for bigger rides and slides — check before you book to avoid disappointment. Age eight is a cut-off for kids attending activities without adult supervision.

6. On yer bikes

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Center Parcs - Family bike riding along path through forest

Cycling is the best way to cover ground, and great fun for kids, given the lack of traffic. Rentals cost up to €35pp and helmets €5.70, and can be collected from the Cycle Centre as you arrive (or save money by bringing your own). You can also pick up carriers for toddlers, and everything works fine for us — the only quibble is a lack of cycle baskets for swim or sports gear (or shopping).

Insider tip: The Cycle Centre closes at 8pm on arrival day, but at 5pm otherwise. Return bikes early to avoid the rush.

7. Hit the spa

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Aqua Sana Spa at Woburn Forest

Split into six themed areas (e.g. ‘Fire & Ice Spa’, or ‘Herbal Spa’), each with its own steam room, sauna and relaxation area among other spaces, Aqua Sana is a big space, and a big deal among its fans. Though busy, its size means it absorbs crowds well, and we find it really clean and staff well-trained — interaction, room temperatures and feedback from therapists is very good over two reflexology and Decléor treatments.

We’d prefer more pool areas, and the ‘Sensory Experience Room’ is not the “truly fascinating journey” promised (more like projector/screens and a sound-track), but the Mineral Room is fab — with super-relaxing smells, steam, lighting and loungers.

Together, the spaces work well for groups or couples, who can chat as they go between areas, with three-hour sessions from €43pp and treatments from €34.

Insider tip: Tight on time? Express beauty treatments like manicures and mini facials start from €11.50.

8. Shop till you drop

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Junior Quads at Center Parcs

Center Parcs has a captive audience but, to its credit, resists blasting you with merch. Retail outlets are small and, though obviously calculated to extract cash, do it subtly. At ‘Sportique’, for example, we browse Superdry, Adidas and Vero Moda; while ‘Treats’ is stuffed with pick ’n’ mix, branded chocolate and other goodies. ‘Just Kids’ is billed as “the perfect place to spend pocket money”, and retail psychology touches are on show from disposable barbecues and giant marshmallows at ParcMarket to gentle pitches on the bathroom handwashes (“Love me? Buy me at Aqua Sana Boutique”).

Insider tip: Accommodation rates are cheapest midweek during school term.

9. Food and drink

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Cafe Rouge at Center Parcs

Center Parcs has a mix of own-brand and high-street chains (Strada, Starbucks, Café Rouge, et al), so you can vary dining nicely. We eat French, Italian and Indian over three nights; service is friendly, and gluten-free options are solid (including takeaway pizzas).

On the downside, none of it blows us away. A tandoori prawn skillet (€22) at Rajinda Pradesh, for example, is small with no real depth of flavour and too many undercooked onions in the vegetable layer; while a saltimbocca at Strada (€18) is too big, thick and tough for our taste.

Our best meal was at Café Rouge, with a special shout-out for desserts — ice-cream with popping candy for the kids, and a gluten-free tarte au citron for mum. I really hope Irish food and producers get a good show at Longford Forest.

Insider tip: Order in! Takeaway menus have everything from Chinese to Indian and pizza meal deals from €27.50.

10. Check out

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Den building at Center Parcs

Short breaks at Center Parcs Woburn Forest start from £399/€456 for a four-day, midweek stay at a three-bed Woodland Lodge sleeping six. Similar breaks in an Executive Lodge start from £459/€525, or £1,499/€1,668 for an Exclusive lodge, based on a May 7 check-in. Rates and activity prices for Longford Forest are not yet confirmed.

NB: Prices subject to change. Euro prices converted from Sterling at current rates going to press. Pól was a guest of Center Parcs (center-parcs.co.uk; centerparcs.ie).

What to Pack

Center Parcs works best if you arrive by car, loading up the boot with sports gear and footwear for activities, basics like tea, coffee, milk, bread and other essentials for the fridge, and your own bikes to save costs. Oh, and don’t forget the raingear... they can't roof everything, you know.

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