Wednesday 21 August 2019

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.

The Subtropical Swimming Paradise at Center Parcs Longford Forest
The Subtropical Swimming Paradise at Center Parcs Longford Forest
Inside 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
Pól Ó Conghaile at Center Parcs Ireland. Photo: Leon Farrell / Photocall.
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
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

Pól O Conghaile

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.

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

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.

Inside the Subtropical Swimming Paradise at Center Parcs Longford Forest.
Inside the Subtropical Swimming Paradise at Center Parcs Longford Forest.

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."

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

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.

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

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.

Read more:

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

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