A pre-Christmas trip to Center Parcs puts Emma Leask well and truly in the Santa spirit
Driving through a dark Cumbrian forest we turn a corner and suddenly the woods are illuminated with fairy lights, snow-dusted pine trees and fluffy falling snowflakes. It feels magical and Christmassy and our children, aged six and three, are shouting with excitement. It’s the first weekend of November; Center Parcs Whinfell Forest in Cumbria is unveiling this year’s Winter Wonderland and we’re among the first guests queuing up for a little dusting of yuletide magic.
As a somewhat frazzled family, we found Center Parcs mercifully easy. Everything is laid on for families, it’s a holiday with no fuss or faff. A green wristband lets you into your accommodation and pool lockers.
We stayed in a three-bedroom lodge in Bilberry Wood, opposite a large adventure playground. It has a spacious open-plan kitchen living area (a grocery pack loaded into our fridge for our arrival was handy), log fire, sauna and outdoor eating area. Each bedroom has a television and sprawling bed with luxurious bedlinen and en suite bathroom.
Part of Whinfell Forest’s appeal is that service vehicles apart, it’s a car-free village so it’s safe for cycling or scooting around. On Saturday we headed straight to the Subtropical Swimming Paradise. Housed under a glass dome heated to 29.5C, with lush tropical foliage and waterfalls, it has several heated outdoor and indoor pools, “rock” arches to swim under, a wave machine, “rapids”, waterslides for every age, toddler pools with bubbles and a pool-side café.
The festivities continued that afternoon with a pony ride to Santa’s Woodland Workshop. Situated in a Scandi-style log cabin in the pine woods with fairy lights and snow, it was quite charming. Visiting Santa took around ten minutes and the children came out beaming; our six-year-old (who last year grilled a bewildered mall Santa about the exact details of her Christmas letter to test his authenticity) confirmed it was indeed definitely The Real Santa, not one of his “fake helpers”.
Back in the Village Centre – a glass dome with pool, ten-pin bowling, theatre, shops, supermarket and restaurants (think Café Rouge, Starbucks) – the children played in the pirate ship playground until dinner at Bella Italia. Dinner (garlic king prawns, antipasto, gluten free pizzas and chocolate ice cream) went down a storm and they pottered about in the soft play area, allowing us a rare uninterrupted conversation.
There’s a sackful of festive activities including carriage rides, elf hunts, jingle bell rock and roller skate and Christmas crafts, as well as the usual offerings of archery, geocache, high ropes, paintball and quad biking – you could never be bored.
Next morning the kids trooped off to Elf Academy to decorate Christmas cupcakes. My husband made a beeline for the sports bar (each booth has its own TV) which had a small soft play for our youngest (not in the mood for elf antics). Happy days.
A visit to Aqua Sana Spa for an Elemis hot stone massage and facial helped me channel my festive spirits. Sampling the impressive 15 spa experience rooms, including a sizzle in the Turkish Hamman, Japanese salt room and a lazy lounge on a water bed left me mentally recharged.
That afternoon, any excess energy was burnt off at Aladdin, an hour-long pantomime with obligatory roaring at the baddie and space for tots to bop around to upbeat music. The day ended with a treat at the Pancake House, watching the fireworks over the lake, a decent display that added a little glitz to the trip. Our exhausted littlies passed out early that night and we drank wine in front of the log fire.
Every Christmas, like me, you may be prone to knocking yourself out attempting to deliver The White Company Christmas Catalogue Dream. This year, having rather smugly already delivered the Dream to the minions, I feel my grip has loosened somewhat on my annual quest for festive perfection.
I’m refreshed and ready to embrace with good cheer the stacks of cards waiting to be written, post office queues, food and present shopping, and the onslaught of nursery and school Christmas parties… Actually, sod it – I’m booking into Whinfell Forest for Christmas Day – and Hogmanay while I’m at it. Merry Christmas, knock yourselves out.
• Centerparcs Whinfell Forest (www.centerparcs.co.uk) is a 2.5 hour drive from Edinburgh. A weekend three-night stay in a three-bedroom New Style Executive Lodge (up to 6 people) starts from £559, including access to the Subtropical Swimming Paradise. Winter Wonderland activities were; pony ride, £7.50, Elf Academy £30, Aladdin, adults £10.75, children £7.50 and cycle hire from £20 each.