Sinead Ryan: 'Center Parcs can leave you pining for imagined past'
I spent last weekend - along with 400 or so other journalists - at the new Center Parcs in Longford.
While it was heartening to see there are actually that many working journalists still in the country, it wouldn't be somewhere I'd normally book given I have no small children and a dislike of homogeneous holidaying. So I was interested to see what the new €233m venture, in this economically forgotten county, was like.
What I was expecting was a carefully constructed, well-run (they've been doing it for 32 years) resort with an emphasis on fun for children. Given the high price point, it should be bordering on perfect and do exactly what it says on the tin. It is all of this.
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What I wasn't expecting was it acting as a perfect explainer for Brexit; a real-life experiment which says more about why the English jumped off the EU cliff in 2016 than any economist could elucidate.
The place is impressive, if you like that sort of thing; thousands do, especially in the UK where there are five sites and a third of visitors return every year. They do so to enjoy pretty much exactly the same holiday, with the comfort of similar activities, food options, accommodation and no requirement at all to explore the locality outside the park environs.
In any event, you are not encouraged to; there's no mention in the '100 activities' blurb of visiting Lough Ree, just 20km away, the Royal Canal Way which ends in nearby Abbeyshrule, or any of the nearby towns. Not even local model Maura from 'Love Island' gets a mention. An array of shops (none rip-off it has to be said) keeps you fully stocked for your stay.
The main pool complex looks like Dublin Airport's Terminal 2, so already it feels like you're going away. They've even managed to create a "beach" - no mean feat given it's a landlocked county - and you can take a variety of watercraft out for a spin. It is really, really pretty and really, really clean and really, really safe.
In Center Parcs (and yes, my computer is railing at the spelling), you enter a kind of utopian chocolate box vista, a middle-Englander lifestyle. Leaving your car at the gate, you pick up a bike and enter a world of ordered calmness. Everyone is having fun, there's no crime and few accidents.
Your home for the weekend is an eco-sustainable log cabin without any notions of hardship attached to rural living. It's probably better equipped than your own gaff, and it encompasses a sense of how one could live, if everyone just obeyed the rules and was middle-class. Ironically, the best bits of European living have been usurped and plonked into the Home Counties.
The Italian restaurant and Swedish spa treatments sit nicely alongside the HP Sauce and Walker's Crisps. Children laugh and play but aren't allowed to get hurt or stray off-track. Neighbours greet each other at picket fences, everyone is relaxed and in bed by 11pm.
This is the mis-remembered nostalgia the Brexiteers sought. And, for a weekend, without the intervention of real life, it's almost possible to believe it could be so.
Ikea bags up favourites and puts them on a plate
Another popular destination is Ikea - that epitome of ordered living that Center Parcs can only aspire to.
In its 10 years in Ireland, more than 75pc of the entire country has visited it - more than the Guinness Storehouse, St Patrick's Cathedral or probably even the Dublin Zoo.
Eighty-six per cent of Dubliners have at least one item from the store but it is slightly disheartening to discover the top three items purchased were carrier bags, plates and scented candles; mainly because I'm a culprit too.