The look on my nine-year-old’s face changes about 35 seconds after the light goes green. Not that I can tell. My eyes are squeezed firmly shut, my hands are gripping the plastic handles so tight my knuckles are bright white, and the scream which seems to be coming from the depth of my soul is so loud, it’s scaring poor Poppy.
We’re on opposite ends of an inflatable square hurtling down the Tropical Cyclone water ride at Center Parcs and – as the warning sign at the top clearly states – it contains a scream-inducing drop. It is brilliant fun, but as scary as a Florida roller-coaster, especially if you haven’t been on one for a while.
There are currently five Center Parcs locations across the UK (with another on the way) and the set up is a winning combination for many families – self catering accommodation, masses to do, and everything you need on your doorstep. But for others, the ‘organised fun’ element is a real turn off. And while there is absolutely no pressure – or need – to do any of the activities here, if you’re not going to sign up for anything, there’s not a lot of point in coming.
Of all the times to try it, though, now is a bit of a no-brainer. It is expensive, but so is pretty much every other holiday you can book at the moment. The price of UK breaks has sky-rocketed, and availability is slim. And although lots of us prefer to book meals and activities as and when we feel like it, that’s just not how life is working right now. Post lockdown, if you want to eat out, have a family day somewhere special, or even just go for a nice National Trust walk, you have to book. So, organised fun is just part of life in 2021.
The accommodation here is varied. So you can pick a fairly basic lodge for you and yours, or hire a huge space with friends or family – a great way to catch up with anyone you might not have seen much of over lockdown. And it is worth spending a bit more on a fancier set-up. When you have a games room or hot tub, you’re likely to spend less on activities while you’re here, and it is lovely staying somewhere just a little bit decadent.
Swimming is probably what Center Parcs is most known for. The Subtropical Paradise is home to a pool, wave machine, ferocious flumes, baby pools, playful rapids and a lovely lazy river – and it’s probably the best water park you can visit without hopping on a plane. It’s also the only free activity here – apart from riding your own bike – so it’s worth booking up the slots as soon as you can.
Boredom just isn’t possible. The additional activities do cost more, but they’re great, and cater for every type of family and age range. Outdoor adventurers can swing through the trees, while tiny tots paint pots or learn to balance bike.
We opt for weather-safe options of ten-pin bowling (£34.50) and table tennis (£18.50, both for an hour). And while Poppy and I pretend to be Bake Off contestants, decorating cupcakes with flavoursome fondant designs and piping pretty patterns in buttercream (£27pp), my other daughter Rosie, 12, and her dad, head off for a more physically-demanding mission – bobbing and weaving at Laser Combat (£36pp, or £30 for under 12s) as they shoot at the opposition.
Ambling towards the spa for my morning treatment, the lake is already buzzing. Peace seekers are fishing from the edges, a group of wetsuited adventurers are learning how to paddleboard – one by one sploshing into the water as their balance goes – and families are gently pumping the pedals on the pedalo boats.
Covid-related downsides abound, much as they do anywhere. You can currently only book two swimming slots within your stay, though they do then release extras closer to your break, so you can bump this up. They’ve also removed all toiletries (apart from soap) from the accommodation, arcades are now card only, so you exchange £10 for 10 games coins (which can get very pricey) and you now order food and drink via a QR code, which isn’t as slick and easy as it could be.
The main difference is that you really need to book everything in advance. Four weeks before your visit, you can book all your free and paid-for activities, and reserve any tables for dinner. And if you don’t, you might be left with very little choice once you’re here. You’ll always find the odd slot, but if you have hopes set on fancier activities or spa treatments, or just want some choice on what you do when, you really need to get organised.
The plus side to all this is that nowhere ever feels too busy, which is reassuring when only around 30% of people are wearing masks. The swimming pool is probably the busiest place, depending on what time of day you go (aim for early morning or evening for the quietest spots).
Aqua Sana spa offers some much needed respite from all the activity. Robes and towels are now dispensed in labelled bags, which you can move about with less chance of pinching someone else’s, and they’re also super handy for shopping and swimming here.
Following a £6million refurb, the spa at Longleat continues to be one of the best in the country, with 24 ‘experiences’ (look out for the new Moonlight Steam Room which heats up beautifully before unexpectedly showering you with water), Deep Relax (everyone needs a snooze on a waterbed about half-way through, right?), a heated outdoor pool and the Hot Springs hot tubs, which are a perfect way to end your three-hour session (£49) as the outside air and hot bubbling water invigorates the senses, waking you slowly and leaving you ready to return to reality.
On another day (I find it helpful to spread any zen moments out across the week), I book in for the new Mind Body, and Sole Experience (£90 for 55 minutes). Brisk body brushing, exfoliation and a slathering of lotion are all going on before I’m cocooned in towels for a neck and scalp massage, left to dreamily drift as my pressure points are mercilessly manipulated. Elemis Frangipane Body Oil (also great for hair apparently) is massaged through my locks, which I’m sure isn’t the greatest look for a spot of ping pong, but I’m so relaxed, I really don’t care.
For those who don’t want to cook, there are nine different eateries at Longleat Forest, but Las Iguanas is easily the best. The play area is currently out of bounds, but little ones can watch giant goldfish, sturgeon and koi carp swim the width of the restaurant, or dance to the upbeat tunes being pumped out until 10.30pm. Family sharers of nachos (£8.25), Brazilian beach cheese (£5.75) and chicken and mango empanadas (£5.95) go down a storm before we tuck into our mains (£9-20). Burritos, enchiladas, curry and kids meals are soon gobbled up, washed down with boozy cocktails (prices start from £6.95) and Corona on tap (£5.95).
Thankfully, after all that overindulgence, the undulating forest the park is built on makes for a pretty decent workout, whether you’re attempting to cycle up one of the many hills, or even just walking. Depending on where your lodge is, it’s likely you’ll be making your daily step count pretty easily.
So, whether you love the ease of any family holiday park, or are yet to see what the fuss is about, with fewer options in the mix, it’s a great time to try Center Parcs – if only to hear yourself scream like a teenager again.
How to plan your trip
Short breaks at Center Parcs Longleat Forest currently start from £399 for a midweek (Monday to Friday) break in a three-bedroom Woodland Lodge (sleeping six).
Visit centerparcs.co.uk for more information.