First Look: Inside Center Parcs as €233m resort opens at Longford Forest
Ireland's first ever Center Parcs has opened with a splash in Co Longford. Here's a sneak peek inside.
When the idea was mooted, it seemed like madness.
A €233 million holiday resort?
A forest campus including Ireland's largest spa, hundreds of lodges, sky-high prices and something called a 'Subtropical Swimming Paradise'?
And you want to build it in Longford?
Back then, this was Ireland's least-visited county. It was a place people passed through, not went to. But look who's laughing now.
Four years, 466 lodges, 10,000 job applications and one extravagant fireworks show later, Center Parcs Ireland (see galleries) is open for business.
The sprawling Ballymahon resort, one of the biggest investments ever made in Irish tourism, officially opens to the public on Monday, July 29.
This weekend, however, the latest in a string of 'soft' opening sessions saw some 2,000 invitees gather around a manmade lake - and a waterpark complex heated year-round to 29.5 degrees - for a weekend of freebies and fireworks.
Baz Ashmawy was posing for PR shots in the pool. Irish rugby captain Rory Best gamely stopped for selfies. Jennifer Zamparelli, Derval O'Rourke, Anna Daly and Karen Koster were just a handful of the celebs hanging out in Ireland's Hidden Heartlands.
TV architect Dermot Bannon was among the crowd cheering on teen sensation Allie Sherlock as she belted out covers at a beach-side launch party.
Around them, a spectacular holiday resort had taken shape. Punters zip-lined over kayakers and SUP'ers on the lake. Whoops spilled from the 'Wild Water Rapids'. Activities booked ranged from Bollywood dancing to indoor bowling.
Lodges smelled new. Hundreds of little orange wasp-catching devices dangled from trees, and the accents of experienced UK staff could be heard all over - from the water slides to restaurants - helping their Irish colleagues settle in.
"This is probably the quickest we’ve built a park. Ever," Center Parcs Ireland CEO Martin Dalby told the Irish Independent.
"The planning consent was very smooth. We really have been welcomed."
But what about those prices?
Special offers at the car-free campus start from €399 for three or four nights in a two-bedroom lodge... off-peak. Dalby freely admitted, however, that they could soar to as much as €1,600 when demand exceeds supply.
That's just the start of it.
While access to the 3,500m2 Subtropical Swimming Paradise is included in the price, most of the 100+ on-site activities are extra.
Aerial tree trekking costs "from" €28 per person, for example, while bike hire is €35/€25.50pp, and a 25-minute massage will set you back a cool €57.
Irish guests are not being shaken down, Dalby insisted.
"The pricing structure we have here is no different to that in the UK," he said. "It’s no cheaper; it’s no more expensive... People say: 'Yes, it’s a little bit expensive, but I’m getting fantastic facilities, and they're highly-maintained'."
Time will tell whether this idiosyncratic market follows suit.
Seven in ten guests at Center Parcs Longford Forest are expected to be domestic, the CEO added, with 20pc from Northern Ireland and 10pc from the UK.
And while the resort boasts fewer lodges than its UK counterparts - 466 versus around 850 - market research prompted a few "Irish twists" on the template... an Irish pub, nostalgic telephone boxes, and no Starbucks, for example.
"Irish people are not that fond of chains," Dalby revealed.
Longford Forest will open 365 days a year, it was confirmed. Come the short days and endless greys of Ireland's winter, Center Parcs will transform into a "winter wonderland", he promised - "even the big man and his elves will be here".
The Friday night launch party ended with a specially-commissioned fairytale written and read from an armchair by author Erika McGann - a choreographed show that culminated in a display of fireworks lighting up the night-sky over the lake.
A Longford fairytale-within-a-fairytale, then.
"We will be here for many, many years," Dalby said. "This is an iconic Center Parcs resort putting Longford quite clearly on the map."
Pól was a guest of Center Parcs.
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