Why the popularity of overpriced Center Parcs is truly baffling
The sins of Center Parcs range from high prices to bland food and generic woods, says Sally Peck
The first time I went to Center Parcs, I told my children we were off to spend a weekend in the forest. Being fans of Winnie the Pooh, they were excited.
The second time we visited, we had no such illusions.
We were heading for a weekend of high prices at a really rather suburban campus, set in what is, at best, a decidedly bijou wood.
Center Parcs occupies a solid position in the British middle class portfolio of what constitutes a family holiday, and is set to open its first Irish resort in summer 2019. And yet, its tendency to disappoint in areas of cost, design and food is consistent.
A weekend break at the new Waterside Lodges at Elveden Forest starts - starts! - at £1,999/€2,278 for a family of three this month. And that’s self-catering.
Sure, that’s the highest end of the group’s accommodation. But it’s also equivalent to the cost of a suite at one of the country's best hotels.
And the lower end of Center Parcs housing isn’t cheap, either. Three nights (for you must book a minimum of three nights, which is awkward during term time) at the Sherwood Forest campus in late November costs from £579/€660 for two adults and a child. And that’s before you have booked anything else.
The add-ons add up at Center Parcs.
For example, bicycles are virtually essential when navigating the spread out car-free campus, particularly if you are with young children who do not stroll. But hiring them adds significantly to your mini-break costs: at £30/€34 for an adult bike and £22/€25 for a child’s cycle, you’re adding more than £100/€144 to your bill for a family of four before you’ve even arrived.
If you want to visit the gym, unlike at a hotel, it’s another £13/€25.
As the costs add up, it begins to feel a bit like Joni Mitchell’s tree museum, and you long for a free-of-charge, unstructured moment in an unlandscaped wood.
That is the second sin of Center Parcs: marketed as luxury lodges set in 400 acres of “natural landscapes” (there are locations in Cumbria, Nottinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Suffolk and Wiltshire, with the group’s first Irish park coming next year), the reality is more like a suburban estate. Long walks from identikit lodge take you to shopping and activity hubs which feel like shopping malls.
The well-maintained lodges are spacious and functional, upholstered in various woods, plastics and synthetic fabrics that can withstand the hard wear of young children. But there is nothing here to interest the aesthete.
And there’s little to lure the outdoorsman, either. You and your family are not embarking on a Thoreauvian deliberate, woodland life; for all of its marketing as time away in the woods, this is not a place for kids to wildly pursue their independent adventures; it’s a place to book slots far in advance: organised leisure.
In the same way that you know what you’re getting with a mid-level chain restaurant - Cafe Rouge, say (there is, in fact, one on your woodland campus) - Center Parcs delivers a consistent but predictable product.
And chains are what the group banks on: the on-site restaurants - a key detail for such a captive audience - is a disappointing lineup of the blandest of the high street (along with Cafe Rouge, you’ll find Las Iguanas).
But while you may feel as if you’re dining in your local high street, you will note inflated prices at Center Parcs - as much as 60 per cent more than what the same dish would cost in a city center outlet of the chain.
Parenting chat groups are full of advice to head to the Continent over British versions (the Center Parcs concept originated in Holland in 1967, with the first UK outlet opening in 1987. Center Parcs is now a separate entity in the UK).
Prices in the Netherlands and Germany in particular (there are also parks in France and Belgium) can cost half as much as the same amount of time in a UK park. You can also save money by booking far in advance which, indeed, most people do in order to get the lodge location and activities that they want.
Is it worth visiting Center Parcs?
Center Parcs’ popularity endures; occupancy levels are high, and 2.2million visitors flock to the parks each year in Britain. And I find this as baffling as I find devotion to other mid-range brands marketed at families - Boden, say - which have a recognisable name but not a superior product.
Perhaps most peculiar is Center Parcs’ popularity with hen and stag parties.
The Woburn campus, which is closest to London and has the group’s largest spa, is particularly a draw for the former. If a spa is what you’re after, stay in London, where you have half a chance of a nice meal after a day in the sauna (try York Hall, in Bethnal Green, for a keenly priced option).
If a weekend in the woods is what you crave, again, I’d head elsewhere. For the money, I'd hire a truly well-designed cottage in a pretty part of the countryside and book a morning at Go Ape instead (see our gallery below for some inspiration - or this guide to the best UK cottages).
Where Center Parcs shines is in its activities staff: these young, bright and engaging people have a Disney-like zeal for entertaining children, particularly aged around four to eight.
So if what you want is to outsource the childcare for a weekend, book far in advance. And bring a friend, because there is very little for adults to do here, while they're busy avoiding their own kids.