Three days with the kids at Center Parcs: A taste of what’s in store for Ireland

Ahead of the first Irish opening, in Longford, Conor Pope visits Woburn Forest resort

Conor Pope visits Center Parcs at Woburn Forest, an hour outside London, in rural Bedfordshire

 

Steam is rising off the raging water as it snakes sharply around a corner and plunges deep into the freezing blackness of the night. It’s the dead of winter and I’m up to my waist in a swirling torrent, wearing only shorts. I curse silently as I hoist myself onto a small ledge before toppling inelegantly, limbs akimbo, into the furious froth.

Then, in a heartbeat, I am gone, barrelling at breakneck speed after shrieking children, trying to keep my head above the foaming water so I can follow their progress from an ever widening distance. The bends come fast and furious and with each turn of the Wild Water Rapids, just as I think I am about to catch my offspring, they’re off and again I am floundering.

Two large men clatter into my back, spinning me like a top and sending me hurtling to the climax of the wild water, completely arse over tit.

“Again, again,”shout my little girls as we head back into the Center Parcs main pool complex, their voices echoing the quieter but no less insistent one in my head.

The Subtropical Swimming Paradise in Center Parcs, Milton Keynes. Photograph: Center Parcs
Center Parcs: the Subtropical Swimming Paradise at Woburn Forest, in England

The Wild Water Rapids in the Subtropical Swimming Paradise are the Center Parcs’ centrepiece, and one of the most entertaining and unpredictable water slides I’ve ever been on. Over three days, the Pope family must have gone down the rapids 100 times - in daylight, at dusk and in pitchblack darkness, in rain and in sunshine - and never once did the ride get boring.

There are other, less frantic, elements to the Subtropical Swimming Paradise, including some terrifying water slides, a wave machine, and a special area for toddlers to splash about in.

There are engine propelled mini-rockets for hire, and plastic pedalos for smallies to sit in. There are mini jet-skis and even beach huts with sand, fridges, flat screen tellies and table service. But they come at a cost.

All this watery entertainment sits under a giant dome-shaped glass house, heated to just under 30 degrees. The lush green vegetation, the heat and the sometimes blue skies outside create the impression that you are in a subtropical paradise, even though we are in England in mid-winter.

“Do you want to go to Milton Keynes for a mini-break?” says the voice on the end of the line. “Well, it’s not actually Milton Keynes, its Woburn Forest and there’s a Center Parcs...”

Before the last sentence is finished, I am mentally packing my bags. The Center Parcs notion - born in the Netherlands - has long intrigued me, not least because later this year the concept will come to Longford, after a €233 million investment.

Not long after the Popes had reached Dublin Airport en route to Luton and on to Woburn Forest, I realised I had left my driver’s licence at home. No licence, no rental car. I called Center Parcs for advice.

They said there was no point in hiring a car, as private cars are not allowed move on site apart from on arrival and departure days - which makes the whole experience calmer and much safer for kids on bikes. I was directed to a cab company, and a pick-up for the 25-minute drive was arranged.

Den Building at Center Parcs, Milton Keynes. Photograph: Center Parcs
Center Parcs: Den Building at Woburn Forest, in England
Fencing at Center Parcs, Milton Keynes. Photograph: Center Parcs
Center Parcs: Fencing at Woburn Forest, in England

We arrived in the late evening, and the first ooh was elicited thanks to the fancy fairy lights slung across the treeline. There were a lot more oohs to come. Having checked in online we were able to bypass the traffic snaking into the park, and a cheery young woman gave me the keys to our home for the weekend - fancy electronic ones that delighted the kids. The wristband keys could be loaded with electronic cash to make spending in the water park and elsewhere on site easier.

Our wooden chalet was bigger than our house for life. There were four bedrooms, a large living area, kitchen and a games room with a pool table. There was a sauna out the back too, and a barbecuing area, although neither got much of a look-in given the cold weather.

The next morning we hired bikes to explore the sprawling wooded site, and take part in a treasure hunt. You meet a staff member and get sheets of paper and a challenge. You then go in search of a clue, which leads you to a second clue and then a third. It was one of the cheaper and less exhilarating paid-for activities that make up the Center Parcs menu of add-ons.

There is also archery, climbing walls, paddle boards and dozens more. All are optional and some pricey, which has given rise to much comment about the cost of a holiday there. But most people will be happy on their bikes and in the pool. Adding one activity each day would hardly be ruinous for most budgets.

Along with the treasure hunt we added a Den Building activity. Finding the place was more complicated than the treasure hunt, and I led the Popes on several wild goose chases before we eventually located a small clearing off one of the cycle paths where the bones of various dens had been erected. Under the cheery guidance of a chap called Kieran, we built a fort that Bear Grylls would have laughed at.

Ziplining at Center Parcs, Milton Keynes. Photograph: Center Parcs
Center Parcs: Ziplining at Woburn Forest, in England
Center Parcs, Milton Keynes. Photograph: Center Parcs
Center Parcs: boating at Woburn Forest, in England

There are multiple restaurants onsite. We ate in two - Cafe Rouge for breakfast, which was greasy and instantly forgettable, and a burger and nachos joint called Huck’s American Bar and Grill for dinner. There were huge screens playing Back to the Future, and mountains of burgers and chicken nuggets and nachos and fries and pitchers of cocktails coming out of the kitchens. There was also a soft play area to keep kids amused, and a dozen computers with a wizardry computer game.

The food was stodgy, and long tables full of adults skulling pints and crotchety children fighting with each other was not an experience I cared to revisit.

Luckily I didn’t have to. The self-catering option is a more chilled way to do Center Parcs, and a lot cheaper. There is a decent supermarket on site or - if you are so inclined - you can bring your shopping with you.

There is a spa, but it was hardly the most relaxing with dozens of people milling around the hideously expensive Elemis-themed shop and nail bar, lending it an airport feel. There’s also a sports bar where joy goes to die, but not before it watches lower tier football matches and darts on giant screens while downing pints of lager and munching on crisps.

On the Sunday evening before our Monday departure, there was a fireworks display. I am not a fireworks person and after the first couple of oohs and ahhs, I get bored. It was also brass monkeys outside, so as I watched the hordes of happy campers walking towards the viewing area by the lakeside, I had an inspired idea.

I suggested we skip the fireworks and head back to the pool for an evening swim. We walked against the tide of people and when we arrived at the pool we were almost entirely alone, save for a few like-minded souls and the staff. We took a quick a whizz down the big indoor slides, but focussed our energy on the rapids.

“We decided to give the fireworks a miss,” I tell a lifeguard.

“Good call,” he says. “They’re a bit underwhelming.”

“Not much else on the site is,” I think. And then I am gone, barrelling down the wild water rapids like a carefree 10-year-old.

Conor Pope travelled to Woburn Forest as a guest of Center Parcs. The Longford Forest Center Parcs is taking bookings for stays from August 23rd, 2019, with three nights in a two-bed lodge costing from €699 to €1,049; centerparcs.ie

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