Thursday, 1 December 2011

Center Parcs - a Center of excellence 12 months a year?

This is a travel piece about a trip to see if our local Center Parcs really can deliver in the winter as well as the appeared in both The Bath Chronicle and Somerset Standard - the Longleat resort's two local papers. 

As we all know, the British weather is an unpredictable beast. In recent years especially we have seen all sorts of bizarre weather patterns and hardly a month goes by without some bright-eyed forecaster telling us excitedly that we have just seen the hottest/coldest/wettest/ strangest month since (and here comes that legendary phrase....) ‘records began’.

And yet, despite the unpredictability we privately cherish, one thing has remained absolute in people’s minds – if you want to holiday in Britain you had better do it in the summer. Or, at a push, at least the spring or maybe a bit of autumn. But holiday in the UK in winter? Forget it.

For Center Parcs, however, that is one concept they have never accepted.

And so when they first hit our unsuspecting shores some 24 years ago, one of their keenest philosophies was that they would aim to provide holidays and breaks of the highest quality 365 days a year. July and August are big months for them of course but unlike our beloved seaside resorts so indeed are January and February. It’s an all-year round holiday offering and, luckily for us, we have one of them at Longleat, right on our doorstep.

I have been to the parks before but always in those summer months so when I got the chance to spend a weekend at Longleat to sample Center Parcs outside of the cricket season I enthusiastically took it. So many people have said to me that the Center Parcs experience truly comes into its own when the nights draw in and having now experienced a November weekend there I can fully see what they mean.

I made the ‘huge’ journey down the A36 (told you we were lucky!) mainly to see how Center Parcs embraces the Christmas period, which comes in the shape of their 2011 all-new Winter Wonderland. It is a six week celebration of snow, lights and Santa and is designed to make everyone feel in the mood for the big day while not detracting from all the other traditional, amazing attractions on offer at the site.

The Winter Wonderland this year includes everything from an outdoor ice skating rink, a sumptuous festive firework display and a woodland Santa visiting experience to a host of different practical activities including a chance to design Christmas gifts and baubles and even a cracker making workshop.

But just as importantly to my eyes is that the whole woodland site is given a lovely slice of fairy dust too and there are an array of beautiful, simple Christmas lights shining throughout and one or two elegant and expertly put together displays dotted around. Throw in Longleat’s own panto and Christmas activities at a lot of the restaurants and main attractions and you have a real feel for the whole festive period. And, as you would always expect with Center Parcs, there isn’t a hint of tackiness or overt cashing-in – it is all there to enjoy if you want it but if you are more of a fan of Ebenezer than Rudolph then you can simply enjoy the rest of your break without ever feeling you are an enforced extra in a Christmas TV commercial.

So, the Winter Wonderland clearly hits the mark but what about the park itself? Does it ‘work’ as well when the sun is a somewhat rarer visitor and can you truly have as much fun in the middle of November as the middle of the summer holidays?

Well, if my visit is anything to go by I say a hearty yes. To me the sheer beauty of Center Parcs has always been that you can do as much or as little as you want and yet you always return feeling you have been well looked after and been given a myriad of opportunities to stretch yourself and try a wide amount of different activities.

And the calendar has no impact on any of that.

As ever I was enormously impressed with two things that can make or break any holiday – the quality of the accommodation and the staff. Center Parcs treats each of its woodland lodges like hotel rooms rather than traditional holiday camp chalets or caravans and our lodge was scrupulously clean and had everything we needed to spend our break in comfort.

And the staff? Once again I was so impressed with everyone we encountered who showed professionalism and care at every turn - and considerable passion for their areas of expertise. As just one example we dined on the Saturday night at the impressive Grand Cafe where we all enjoyed great food in a lovely atmosphere. But what impressed us just as much was that our server (Phil) on seeing that one of our party wasn’t eating and hearing he had heartburn immediately came up with his own private solution/concoction that took away the problem in seconds.

It was thoughtful and kind and exhibited the qualities we saw in so many of the staff we met over the weekend, many of course who are local to our patch and hopefully may see this as a result.

The Grand Cafe was a splendid place to eat and there are plenty of other top choices too (we particularly enjoyed our trip to Oretga’s for a sangria-led feast to remember) but as with everything at Center Parcs you can spend as much or as little as you want.

It is entirely possible to have a totally self-catered weekend (an on-site supermarket helps) and although Center Parcs isn’t cheap – and I mean that in every sense of the phrase – it is possible to enjoy so much it has to offer without breaking the bank.

If you don’t want to sign up for the bewildering choice of activities/sports you can spend time enjoying the amazing free indoor water world – still the beating heart and soul of the whole park for many – or just wander or cycle around the site and revel in the fresh air, the many lovely trees and all the other beautiful natural attractions that only a park in such a glorious forest setting can offer.

At Center Parcs if you love nature then the best things in life truly are free.

However, if you do have a bit of extra money to spend there are so many amazing ways to spend it and I would recommend you think of booking them well before you arrive as seasoned visitors do.

My partner and I had three hours of total relaxation in the glorious Aqua Santa, a place to leave your problems at the door and just unwind at a spectacularly peaceful pace. There are plenty of top quality treatments on offer for that extra investment and my partner tried one of them – an unforgettable Facial Decleor Aroma Expert Facial. She left feeling a million dollars – without thankfully having spent that sum to feel that good.

If all that sounds too relaxed for you then fear not – Center Parcs has a massive list of indoor and outdoor sporting activities to try and once again the fact that so many of them are under cover means that even if that famed bad weather does its worse then Center Parcs can cope and can still provide you with a schedule of high-energy activities that would impress Action Man.

But you don’t have to just take my word about how good our local 365-day-a-year holiday truly is – the proof of the pudding (Christmas or otherwise) is when you eat up the numbers.

Center Parcs has had a particularly good year by all accounts and occupancy in these winter months is as high as any other times of year. And that is because with their well thought out range of activities, great eateries, superb settings and top quality accommodation choices, Center Parcs has pulled off that unique thing for a British holiday resort – it has created a weather-proof break.

So yes, Longleat may currently be enjoying a Winter Wonderland but as far as I can see it is a wonderland whenever you go.

Twelve months of the year this truly is a Center of excellence.

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