A while back I gave Florence the option of a big birthday party or a trip away somewhere instead as I figured the two actually do end up costing about the same! She jumped at the chance to go away choosing (only second to Disney Land which I pointed out would be the same cost as about a hundred birthday parties) Center Parcs as her vay-cay of choice and once the decision was made some friends also jumped in on the action and booked to go at the same time – yay, more the merrier!
We’d not been before but had heard very good things and I was happy to note that for a Monday to Friday break at the Elveden Forest park in January, it would cost us £379 for a three bed basic lodge (much less expensive than at any other times of the year when I’ve looked). We added on some extras like the breakfast package (breakfast per day worked out at £7 per adult and £3.50 per child), the Aerial Adventure for Florence and Jonny (£33 each), a game of bowling (£24 for 6 people) and a session in the spa for me and my friend (about £75). All in, including two evening meals out (one at the on site Indian restaurant, Rajinder Pradesh, and another in the American Diner Hucks) and all the food I bought to take with us and this holiday cost us around £600 – Ok, so slightly more than a birthday party truth be told but that’s five days of fun in the forest for 3 adults (my Mum came too) and three kiddos so not bad I don’t think and clearly you don’t have to eat out OR do any activities meaning it could be on a real shoe string IF you wanted it to be. Term time breaks aren’t for everyone and in fact not all schools are as obliging as ours in that sense but we were lucky that we were able to do it when we did because the same holiday over this coming half term, we checked, would have been nearly two thousand pounds!
Now… I’m not sure I’d pay that for this holiday but I feel we had very good value for what we did pay and we plan on going back!
So… Here’s my low down on our stay at Elveden Forest last week!
When I arrived, heavily stressed because actually packing for 4 people is quite stressful (my husband packed his own case which was good of him… Note the sarcasm) especially when one of you is a fairly newborn and you need to take the world and its gadgets as well as bikes, clothing for every eventuality and enough food to sink a ship, I was greeted by a really easy queue system. It moved fast, we were given wristbands which would work on our lodges and on lockers at the pool, and directed to our lodge. Unfortunately my navigational inclination is useless and I followed the other cars like a sheep. The other cars were NOT going to my cabin of course and the whole getting there once we’d got there was abysmal but mainly my fault. And slightly of the lady who worked there that I stopped to ask if she knew where Maple lodge 616 was. Her answer ‘Everything is on a sign. They all look the same but they do all say something different’! Erm… Yes love, that IS the beauty of signs generally…
Anyway, we made it, we parked, we found our lodge and all of a sudden I felt deflated because… it wasn’t very nice. We’d booked a cheaper, non updated lodge because I kind of thought everything at Center Parcs would be a bit swish as that’s all I’d ever heard from other people but on closer inspection it wasn’t the case. We could have paid about £50 more to have a lodge of the same standard which had been refurbished and my friends had done this but I had assumed although it may be tired, it would be fine and really… How tired can holiday cottages at Center Parcs be?! On reflection and now knowing what I know, I see that very tired is the answer BUT, I would still book an older one again because although not as swish as my mind’s eye had foretold, it would have been perfectly acceptable IF it wasn’t damp smelling. I know people who have stayed in this level and not experienced the same so I am inclined to believe it’s an occasional mishap and not the norm. Would I pay extra for a refurbished one? A lick of paint… Hmm. Yes I think I might as £50 is only £50 but I wouldn’t NOT book an older style on this one experience! And besides… Sue, the reception manager there, apologised and moved us without question. Still a basic lodge but actually because of the damp and by way of apology she moved us to a lodge which had been painted more recently and had some wooden cladding on the outside. The aesthetics were much more pleasurable and more ‘forestish lodgish’ and less ‘concentration campish’ which… Hate to say it… the rendered and non woodified lodges did bear a resemblance to. The razor wire all around the perimeter of the park added to this but in all honestly everything else was delightful. Wowing in fact! From the activity centres both in and outside to the boating lake, play grounds, restaurants and bars, everything DID look as swish as I had wanted it to. And the pool… Oh the pool is something else!
When it comes to the pool I can’t imagine wanting anything more and it wasn’t tired in the slightest. A ship wrecked splash area for tiny ones with warm water and lots of places to sit on the edge and then the main event is a large expanse of poolage filled with wave machines, flumes and slides and a darkened warm pool area which was calming for Raffie and I to go and just have a little splash. The big kids LOVED the rapids (when I say kids I’m including us adults in that) and swimming outside. We could have stayed in the pool area ALL day and in fact I would have if we’d not booked other activities or struggled bringing our bikes which meant we HAD to use them! There was lots of seating everywhere and play pens for younger children and my Mum, who had come with us to mind Raffie while I played with Florence and Jimmy, enjoyed sitting on the side with a coffee and the baby. There are eateries and a star bucks within the pool area but we just made a packed lunch and would go out to eat it. It was the least expensive choice and made us get up and go because otherwise it would have been easy to stay and not move for the week! You can also book cabanas which are like little huts on the side with seats and a television. I mean it’s nice but I wouldn’t personally want to spend my money on that – ask my Mum who spent a good deal of time on the side and she may disagree! The flumes and slides range in levels of scary but there’s something, more than something actually, for everyone. Cyclone was super fun and even the oldest two children had a go on that. Once! We did, in essence, love this experience which was fun and frantic and a world away from the other pool at Center Parcs… The spa!
So my friend and I booked the most cost effective way of time in the spa which was to go for a twilight session at 6pm until 9pm. We did this as we were trying to do things on a budget but even if money wasn’t an option I would pick this time of day again. It didn’t eat into any of the fun I was having with the children and it was a gorgeous way to end the day. The spa is filled with decadence and with a central hub of a swimming pool open to the elements but as warm as warm could be while its surrounds are thermal rooms and sensory experiences scattered with relaxation areas and beds. I could have moved in for a week! I didn’t book a treatment on account of time, effort and budget but I don’t think I needed to. It would have been nice, don’t get me wrong, but three hours could have easily been filled if it was doubled with all there was to do and experience here. I have been to lots of spas including Champneys and this is on the same level as that – so pretty awesome then! My friend and I enjoyed water massages in the pool, a foot spa, lots of steaming and lots of giggles just us and with a glass of something fizzy it felt like the perfect treat. The food looked wonderful and I LOVED the sound of their overnight spa breaks which I might just perhaps have to book for my birthday – IF Raffie is obliging of course, currently he isn’t very keen on taking a bottle but we will see! One word of advice is that the spa is quite far away from everything else and in the dark and again with my crap built in navigation system, I found it SO hard to find. Luckily I was rescued by one of the park managers who escorted me to the door of the spa and then, sensing my obvious ineptitude, arranged for a car to pick me up and take me back to the baby for the end of my session. I suspect he had visions of having to send out search parties, helicopters with sensors and then would eventually find me rocking behind a tree somewhere and it was far easier to bundle me into a car – thanks to him I made it back to the children and my bed in record time which meant Jonny could go to the sports bar and watch football – his idea and very definitely different to mine, of a treat too!
Beds and more:
Now back to that room of ours… You can of course go the whole hog and spend as much as you would for a holiday in the Bahamas if you book a tree house or a games lodge or… one of the fabulous new boathouses we saw being built! But for us, the less expensive accommodation, which was all we could afford this time, was absolutely fine. I’d LOVE to try something more luxurious to see if I think it’s worth the extra dollar and I’m sure it’s all utterly divine (certainly looked it) but our rooms were clean and warm and the beds were the comfiest beds EVER! The kitchen had everything you’d want for it and even the storage was quite ample considering they’re small lodges. We loved the cupboard in the entrance hall which stored two kids bikes and a buggy all week as well as lots of other things like sun umbrellas and a cot – the adult bikes we locked up in the bike rack outside our front door. The bathroom had a bath with a shower over it and a heated towel rail which was brilliant for after the pool while each bedroom, though small, were perfectly formed. There was even a television in mine and hair dryers in each of the three. The heating kept us warm despite a dodgy window (which I didn’t mention so I’m sure would have been fixed had we remembered to ask) and there is a fire pit for logs to be burned for extra comfort and cosying. We didn’t do this as it wasn’t necessary and we forgot to bring logs – you can buy on site but we never got around to it. The children LOVED our little cabin and especially enjoyed leaving nuts and fruit on the patio table outside (which also had a BBQ) for the squirrels and deer. YES, DEER! Nothing to complain about in the end with our room which was very comfortable – I can see why it would be fun to have a tree house but not having anything to compare our accommodation to and I can’t find much to say the extra money should be spent!
Entertainment and activities:
There’s obviously lots on offer from the aerial adventure some of us took part in to boating, tennis, an indoor climbing wall and smaller activities like hair braiding or cake decorating too. We took our bikes and rode around the complex which was fun and exhausting and we loved both spectating and taking part in the tree top aerial thingy. It was pricey BUT… I’d pay for it again as much was taken from that with confidence as well as fun and the amazing zip wire at the end was simply fantastic over the lake! You could spend a fortune doing everything and have fun too but my advice would be just to pick one or two activities and spend the rest of the time not doing too much planned entertainment as it’s all exhausting. We’d had a bike trail booked for Wednesday morning but deluges of rain meant they gave us a refund and we just enjoyed the time better in the pool I think. There’s also some pretty fabulous play areas outside which we maybe didn’t get to enjoy as much as we would have if the weather had been better! We did bowling which, unlike anything else at Center Parcs, is quite under market priced I’d say. £24 for 6 people to have a game works out cheaper than the bowling alley near us at any rate and it was fun. The only activity which had been looked forward to and wasn’t enjoyed was the disco. Florence had envisaged something with games like at Haven and that would have been brilliant I think but it was just loud music and she wasn’t fussed after one visit.
Food and drink:
Ok so I’ll level with you, the food is NOT cheap when eating out but buying the breakfast passes meant we got breakfast everyday for about half the price of walking in. We went to Cafe Rouge every day (which had a small soft play area) but could have gone to Forresters (which was miles away next to the spa) or the Sports Bar (which was big and I wasn’t keen) and the food was lovely. We also ate out at Hucks the American Diner (which had a big soft play area) and Rajinder Pradesh for a curry. The curry was awesome, SUPER expensive but delicious and the whole dining experience there was brilliant. Hucks was less impressive but still nice. The only real complaint was that there was a big long black hair in my burger… Quite off putting but they took it off the bill and I had some crisps when I got in. Before that I’d say my food was very tasty. We didn’t get a chance to sample anything else but heard good things about the waffle and pancake place and next time we go we will make a beeline for there. The bar was nice enough and the staff made us brilliant gin and tonics that came in lovely heavy glasses with cucumber slivers decorating them – made it feel with one eye closed and the other one half squinting like I was in Mahiki opposite the Ritz… Nearly!
The staff everywhere we went from the maids with their bicycles to the reception staff (thanks Sue) and managers (thanks Andy) to the waiters in the restaurants and the lifeguards in the pool were all very friendly, very polite, very interested and also helpful. I heard a few people complaining when I was at the desk sorting out room gate and what I noticed was that there was never an argument, they were just always happy to help and resolve rather than patch over. I heard a woman doing her level best to have a hissy fit in Cafe Rouge about air conditioning but the manager wasn’t having any of it and he just smiled and talked her down (she was being a bit of a twat if I may be so crude as to say) with offering her what she wanted and he didn’t flap. I was mega impressed with everyone so good for them!
This was a holiday well worth the money we paid for it and we can’t wait to go back. We LOVED it and my friend and I exclaimed on the school run this morning how sad we are that it’s gone and made a promise to book for next year, the same week, asap. If you book within 28 days you get free cancellation and the promise that if you find the holiday cheaper at any point they will refund you the difference. Can’t say fairer than that and though we will be doing the same next year and trying to stick to a budget, perhaps at another point in the year we will be able to push the boat out (probably not ACTUALLY in one of the new boat houses which will most likely be a gazillion pounds a week) and stay in one of the more flash style lodges… Watch this space as I will let you know if we do!
The holiday is perfect for everyone, those with accessibility difficulties are well thought about too and there’s much enjoyment to be had for all ages.
I would take lots of changes of clothing at this time of the year as it’s very muddy and remember to take everything with you like dishwasher tablets, washing up liquid, tea bags etc. Store cupboard stuff basically otherwise you’ll spend a fortune in their shop. Which was well stocked if you do forget but prices were as you’d expect…
Well done Center Parcs, we LOVED it!
For transparency purposes I have not been asked to write this review and nor have I been compensated in any way. We booked and paid for every element of this break ourselves.