Center Parcs: A sneak peek inside Ireland's enchanted forest
Center Parcs Longford Forest opens this summer. Mark Evans got a preview of a game-changer for Irish family holidays
The countdown is on to the opening of Ireland's biggest ever tourism project - Center Parcs Longford Forest.
With the enormous project costing not far off a quarter of a billion euro (€230m to be precise), expect to be dazzled. But with grumbles about high-season prices for a product that's well established (and massively popular) in the UK, though relatively unknown here, what should families and holidaymakers expect from a trip to the Midlands?
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I got a sneak preview of what will be on offer from this August, and the first thing you notice is the scale of it - it's gigantic. A woodland oasis set over almost 400 acres, or more than a third bigger than Dublin's St Anne's Park.
What St Anne's Park doesn't offer though is more than 100 activities, and the list is seemingly endless in Longford. Pride of place goes to the 'Subtropical Swimming Paradise', which will be Ireland's largest water park, heated to a balmy 29.5°C all year round.
What makes it different from the National Aquatic Centre in Dublin is that it's designed to look like a foreign destination, with tropical plants, and will feature a wave pool, water rapids, whirlpools and flumes. The biggest thrill ride is the Typhoon, a two-seater ride with drops, swings and speeds of up to 45km per hour; plus the Twister family slide. There's also the option of renting out private family cabanas (€35), complete with a TV, drinks and loungers.
Under wraps - for now - is the beach area at the edge of the man-made lake. Water-based activities include kayaking, or if you're a bit lazier, six-person electric boats. You'll find the bulk of the activities in the entertainment zone, which features Ireland's longest zipline, Segway rides, aerial treetop adventures, archery and laser combat. But while the resort is targeted at families, there's also plenty of me-time for parents, with spa treatments available in the Aqua Sana Spa complex.
The big news, though, is the completion of the resort's accommodation this week, with bookings open from August 16 onwards. At full capacity, the Longford Forest resort can hold 2,500 holidaymakers, with the majority taking three or four-night breaks (but a full week is also available).
I got to visit the lodges, and yes, they're impressive, looking like a high-end historic village in the likes of New England or Australia. In a country where providing houses seems to take forever, the Irish builders have constructed homes you'd want to live in all year round.
Built from wood, there's an eco feel, with the trees of the forest itself in touching distance of your back garden. The cheapest option is to stay in a Woodland Lodge, which are available with either two or four bedrooms. As with the more expensive models, they all feature open-plan living spaces, with the modern kitchens, dining areas and sitting room, all in one American-style space. The idea - a constant theme with Center Parcs - is to get the whole family hanging out together, and not having mum or dad hidden away cooking.
Each lodge features a TV, log-burning fireplaces and barbecue stands, designed to fit the disposable trays you can pick up in most stores.
A step up is the Executive Lodge, with flatscreen TVs in all rooms, but the big difference here is that some also feature a private sauna and games room. If you've got older kids, or teens, in tow, it's worth looking at, as the pool table could keep them occupied in the evenings. The advantage for parents is en-suite bath and shower rooms in all the bedrooms, so no queues in the morning to get washed up and ready.
If you've got the budget, there's a small number (11) of what are billed as Exclusive Lodges. These feature their own outdoor space with private hot tub, sauna and steam room. Whatever your budget, I found them all to be of a high standard, with boutique hotel-style bedding, large kitchen areas and a nice touch: private balconies with seating if you want a breakfast with a view. I didn't get to see the Lakeside Apartments (39 in all, compared to 460 houses), which are aimed at couples who don't need the space of the self-catering homes.
So what about price? It's been a big talking point, with Center Parcs CEO Martin Dalby saying that while the product is definitely upmarket, deals are available.
Prices for a family of four start from €299 for a four-night stay in a Woodland Lodge. But there is a catch: it's for midweek in the low (read, winter) season. If you want the full luxury of a four-bedroom home with your own private sauna and hot tub, a four-night stay this August in an Exclusive Lodge will be around €3,499 (€2,499 for a mid-market Lodge, or €1,699 for a Woodland Lodge).
Dalby points out that this is for up to eight people, so it's a good deal if you're travelling as an all-paying adult group, but pricier if you've got kids to fork out for. And while activities cost extra - ranging from adventure golf (€6.75) and pedalo hire (€15 for up to four passengers) to three-hour creche care (€28) - the CEO says that activities aren't compulsory (many families do just one a day), and the idea of the resort is "a getaway from the grind". But, in a nod to the fact that kids can be demanding, there's free Wi-Fi all around the forest, including in each home.
If you can get the kids off their phones, what is guaranteed is a peaceful stay - check-in is drive-thru, with cars left behind for the duration of your stay. You get around on foot or by bicycle, so it's a safe environment for kids running around.
This being Ireland, there are a few differences to its UK operation. The pub, called Cara's, will be a key feature, open until midnight daily and serving breakfast, lunches and dinners, with nightly music too.
Some families might be more inclined to cook in the homes, but there is a wide range of restaurants on-site too. The Pancake House, next to the beach, is a handy spot for sweet or savoury snacks like waffles and omleettes; there's The Coffee House, with its own bakery; Huck's American Bar & Grill for food from around the US; The Sports Café featuring televised events; Bella Italia for pizzas or pastas; and the Vitalié Café in the forest resort's spa for healthier dining.
The Canopy Café & Bar, in the pool area, will be a go-to spot for hot dogs and burgers, while the spicier Rajinda Pradesh features cuisines from India and around Asia.
There's a world of choice in a place unlike anything we've ever seen in this country.
WHAT DOES IT COST?
From €299 for a four-night stay - but that's outside of school holiday time. A good deal if you've got very young children.
HOW TO GET THERE:
Situated in County Longford, it's a handy spin from Dublin, do-able in under an hour-and-a-half. The site is huge, employing 1,000 people year-round. See centerparcs.ie.
WHO'S IT FOR?
Perfect for families. There's a massive range of things to do, from football coaching to den-building to squash, teddy bear-making, ten-pin bowling and gym classes. It's a good budget option if you're travelling as an adult group, with many activities such as dance classes and tennis aimed at grown ups. All activities can be booked online in advance, so queuing is not an issue.
Read more:Why the popularity of overpriced Center Parcs is truly baffling