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 closest for Scottish readers being Whinfell Forest, Cumbria) and the set up is a winning combination for many families – self catering accommodation, masses to do, and everything you need on your doorstep. For others, the ‘organised fun’ element is a real turn off, so if you’re not going to sign up, there’s not a lot of point in coming.
Of all the times to try it, though, now is a no-brainer. It is expensive, but so is pretty much every holiday at the moment and availability is slim. And although lots of us prefer to book meals and activities when we feel like it, organised fun is part of life in 2021.
The accommodation here is varied with a basic lodge for you and yours, or hire a huge space with friends or family.
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. 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 cost more, but they’re great, and cater for every age. 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 decorate cupcakes (£27pp), my other daughter Rosie, 12, and her dad, head off for Laser Combat (£36pp, or £30 for under 12s).
Covid-related downsides mean you can currently only book two swimming slots within your stay, though they do release extras closer to your break. All toiletries (apart from soap) are gone from accommodation, arcades are card only, so you exchange £10 for 10 games coins and food and drink are ordered via QR code.
The main difference is that you need to book everything in advance, from four weeks before your visit, from free and paid-for activities to tables for dinner. If you don’t, you’ll always find the odd slot, but if for fancier activities, spa treatments or some choice on activities, you need to get organised.
The plus side is 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 time of day (aim for early morning or evening for the quietest spots).
Aqua Sana spa offers some much needed respite. 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 (for a snooze on a waterbed), 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, leaving you ready to return to reality.
Another day 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 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 decent workout, whether you’re attempting to cycle up one of the many hills, or just walking and 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.