Our much looked forward to weekend at Center Parcs in Whinfell Forest fell on a fairly grey and damp weekend in June. I was bothered that the miserable weather might spoil our fun but I needn’t have worried – there’s so much to do at Center Parcs come rain or shine and with the Village Centre being undercover at Whinfell Forest you can stay indoors for most of the day if you want to!
Now Center Parcs has something of a reputation for being expensive and this post is going to do little to refute that claim – the prices in the school holidays can be fairly astronomical – however what we did find during the course of our weekend was that how much your trip costs is entirely in your own hands. You can spend a pure fortune on booking activities and eating out for the whole trip or you can go back to basics – take your own bikes, self-cater and spend your holiday swimming, playing in the adventure play ground and exploring the beautiful woodland setting. It is perfectly possible to spend no more than the hire of your accommodation.
Our Center Parcs booking ran from Friday to Monday with our accommodation available from 3pm on Friday afternoon and to be vacated by 10am on Monday morning. You are actually allowed on site from 10am on the morning of your arrival until midnight on the day you check out – which means you can take full advantage of all the facilities. To make the most of this we took the kids out of school a little early on Friday afternoon (though ended up stuck in traffic anyway so didn’t really benefit) and we kept them off school on the Monday – obviously this isn’t something we do very often. In fact, Ben has only missed two days of school EVER – one for his Nana’s wedding and one when he was poorly. We felt really naughty keeping them off school for a day but decided that as we aren’t really going on holiday this year we wanted to savour the opportunity.
What we hadn’t realised before our trip was that Center Parcs bookings run Monday to Friday or Friday to Monday – which at first seemed a little odd to me, I didn’t like the lack of flexibility. However once we were on site we completely understood why this was the case. Basically, once you’ve checked in and have your lodge keys you are allowed to drive to your lodge to unpack and then your car must be returned to the car park and stay there until you leave again on Monday morning. (If you want to leave early then you must get permission to drive your car up to your lodge for a limited time.) Whilst I initially thought this was a bit of a faff, what it does mean is that once everyone is settled on site, there are no cars to worry about – it makes the site far safer for families who are walking or cycling around and is just so much more peaceful.
Bike hire is super easy and incredibly well organised. The Cycle Centre is situated just next to the car park so once we had returned the car we were able to pick up our bikes – we had booked a bike with a trailer for Dave & Amy, one with a tag along for Chloe & I and then a bike for Ben. It took no time at all to get sorted with our bikes, helmets and locks – everyone was really friendly and I was impressed with how efficient the service was. Taking them back at the end of our stay was even easier – we just rode them down to the Cycle Centre, they were scanned in at the door and that was that – job done! Although our lodge was actually within really easy walking distance of the Village Centre, we still used our bikes all the time just for the novelty value – the kids absolutely loved being able to cycle everywhere and the girls loved the tag-along which they ended up arguing over. Although it was recommended for age 5+, Amy was perfectly capable of sitting on the tag along and riding with me – she much preferred it to the trailer which I think she was quite bored of (especially after our recent 10 mile trek around Manchester).
I must admit that our arrival on Friday felt a bit hectic by the time we had made our way through the traffic up the M6 to Whinfell Forest, queued for 20 minutes to check in (which thankfully was fairly quick as I had pre-registered everyone online first), unpacked the car, collected our bikes and got settled in our lodge and I was glad that we had pre-booked our dinner at Huck’s American Bar & Grill! Huck’s basically does what it says on the tin – burgers, ribs, mac ‘n’ cheese – you know the drill. The kids all chose to have the “buffet” which was a great idea in theory as it meant they could pick and choose from all the usual kids’ favourites (nuggets, burgers, hot dogs) and go back as many times as they liked. In reality it was a bit of a pain as the buffet didn’t tend to be very well stocked so they kept having to go back to get chips or nuggets and because the buffet was hidden away at the back of the restaurant it meant that Dave or I had to go with them – it also meant we never knew when it had been topped up as you couldn’t see it from where we were sat. I ended up wishing we had just ordered them something from the main menu to prevent all the wandering around! That said, the kids’ desserts were a big hit. I decided to treat myself to a cheeky Friday evening cocktail and ordered a Margarita which if I’m honest was pretty disappointing, I’ve certainly had better cocktails. Our main meals were fine, nothing special but nothing to complain about. The desserts were lovely – I usually go for something chocolatey but was won over by a really taste Caramel Apple Granny. All in our dinner at Huck’s was convenient but I don’t think any of us would have rushed to go back.
We were really lucky that our lodge was right opposite an enormous adventure playground so we took advantage of stopping there for a play on the way back after dinner. Surprisingly, although the play area was only just over the road, we were never disturbed by it when we were in our executive lodge. In fact we weren’t disturbed by anyone or anything once we were tucked up inside our lodge! The adventure playground was perfectly pitched to suit all three of our children, there was plenty of challenge for Ben (who I’m sure is part monkey) without being too grown up for Amy. In fact I think all three of them could have happily played there for hours. As it was we didn’t want to keep them up to late when we knew we had a busy weekend of activities ahead!
Saturday morning was a fairly leisurely start at around 8am I think – everyone had slept really well. The kids enjoyed choosing their cereals from the multi pack which had formed part of our Family Grocery Pack (this was really handy as it meant that we had all the basics ready and waiting for us on site). I think we were all a bit disappointed that the swimming pool didn’t open till 10am but we were pretty much there and ready for opening time – which was just as well as the pool got busy very quickly. I should think the miserable weather played a part in that! We loved the spacious family changing rooms and the fact that our wristbands meant we could use lockers without worrying about finding coins and could also pay for drinks and snacks without having to carry cash or cards to the poolside. Our first experience of the Subtropical Swimming Paradise was a little overwhelming if I’m honest – it felt so big and because it’s split into different parts you can’t easily see other members of your family – for example if I was in the baby pool with Amy I wouldn’t be able to see Dave and the big two elsewhere. What this does mean is that there is plenty to suit everyone – from huge, fast slides for thrill-seekers like Ben (and Dave!) to a warm, waist-height toddler pool with little slides for Amy.
Because we had activities booked for the afternoon our first swimming session had to be fairly short so we could get back to our lodge in time for lunch. Ben, Chloe and Amy were booked onto the Chocolate Chef Academy at the Activity Den for three hours on Saturday afternoon – this meant we could leave them in the care of the Ofsted registered Center Parcs staff whilst we went off to the Aqua Sana Spa for a bit of time to ourselves. I can’t tell you how much I’d been looking forward to that in the run up to our trip! Our time in the Aqua Sana Spa seemed to pass all too quickly – we enjoyed trying out the different steam rooms and multi-sensory showers which I particularly loved (except when I accidentally got the lightly fragranced water in my mouth!!) and it was really nice to spend a bit of time lounging together and chatting. I could have happily passed a full day in the Spa and it’s certainly something Dave and I are going to look into doing together again in the future. There’s so many treatments to choose from but I decided to try out the Elemis Brighten and Glow (from £79) which was just short of an hour’s pure bliss. I think I pretty much fell asleep whilst I was having my facial – it was a gorgeous treatment and certainly something I’d re-book. (I must admit I wasn’t a massive fan of my therapist trying to sell me the products she’d used on me directly after the treatment when all I really wanted to do was go and lie down quietly somewhere!) There wasn’t all that long after my treatment had finished before it was time to go and collect the kids from the Activity Den and see what they had been up to. You’re asked to return about 15mins before pick-up time to give the children chance to show off the things they had been doing – they’d learned a new dance, a song, decorated aprons and made all sorts of goodies to bring home in a special box. They’d all had a great time – which meant we didn’t feel remotely guilty for having taken that time to ourselves.
Because the sun was shining when we got back to our lodge we decided to get out on our bikes for a bit and explore the site properly which was great fun – if a little exhausting, the site definitely isn’t flat and Chloe didn’t peddle enough to pull her own weight! I would suggest that bikes are pretty much a necessity if you want to get about as some of the lodges are a long way from the Village Centre and the site is fairly enormous. After a short ride we popped over to the play area to let off a bit more steam before tea time!
Aside from our meal out on Friday, we fully self-catered our trip using a combination of the Family Grocery Pack which had been ordered for our arrival and a trip to the supermarket before we set off so Saturday night’s tea was a Morrison’s curry deal – always a hit in our house! After such a busy day everyone was shattered so the kids went to sleep without any fuss, leaving Dave and I to watch TV together in peace. We had slipped up really as we hadn’t particularly thought about taking any films or anything with us and the TV channels at Center Parcs are decidedly limited – at one point we did find ourselves watching a badger on the site CCTV for about 20mins!
Sunday morning started with a full cooked breakfast to set us up for another day of activity. Again we were at the pool for 10am and this time stayed for a couple of hours. We had got our bearings and worked out which bits everyone liked which made it much easier for us to organise ourselves – Dave would take Ben on the big slides for a bit whilst I had the girls in the toddler pool and then we’d all go in the main pool for the half hourly waves. After our swim we went back to the lodge for lunch and to get ready for our activities which were booked in for the afternoon.
Ben and Chloe were booked for the Tree Top Adventure with Dave whilst I took Amy for the Mini Trek. Having only just been to Go Ape a couple of weeks before we were fairly confident that they would enjoy themselves. As it turned out the Tree Top Adventure was considerably higher than the trail at Go Ape and way trickier, I think Chloe made it about half way round before Dave had to relent and call a member of staff to rescue her! In no time at all they had abseiled her down and kept her with them whilst Dave and Ben completed the trek. I think she will be keeping her feet firmly on the ground for a while now. Ben & Dave loved it though! Amy’s Mini Trek was only just off the ground – I could have held her hand the whole way round should she have wanted me to. She was fastened onto the trail with a harness and had to find different ways round to collect pieces of a jigsaw. At the end of the trail, children with a completed jigsaw were rewarded with a very cute little red squirrel. If I’m honest I think Amy would have liked the trail to have a been a little more challenging – bearing in mind she had completed the Junior Go Ape trail just a couple of weeks earlier – but it was a really good starting point for little ones.
On Sunday night, after the kids had eaten their dinner, we took them back down to the Village Centre for a kids’ disco – this isn’t something we’d ever done before and they absolutely loved it. Dave and I were able to sit and enjoy a cheeky drink while the kids were thoroughly entertained dancing and messing about with some soft play equipment which was set up at the side of the dance floor. It made for a really enjoyable last night to our holiday. I must admit I forgot that Dave and I hadn’t actually had our tea and two Cosmos later I was a little tipsy riding my bike back to our lodge . . . whoops!
Dave and I had packed most of our stuff up after the kids were in bed on Sunday night so we didn’t have too much to do after breakfast on Monday morning. We cycled down to the Cycle Centre together to give our bikes back before bringing the car up to the lodge to pack. Once we were all packed up Dave took the car back to the car park whilst I set off to walk up to the Village Centre with Ben, Chloe and Amy. The plan was to swim until we were starving and then go home! Three hours and some very wrinkly fingers later we left the pool and decided to have lunch in Dexter’s Kitchen to set us up for the journey back to Manchester. The pool was so much quieter on Monday which was really lovely – typically both girls who had been quite wary of various slides over the weekend finally decided to brave them and both loved them!
As you can see, we packed a lot into our three night break at Whinfell Forest – but I think we’d have loved it just as much if we’d done nothing more than swim, cycle and play in the park. (Well, maybe the Spa too because that was just bliss!) All three kids absolutely loved our Center Parcs holiday and are keen to go back. I’d love to go back with friends for a long weekend or even a full week’s stay.
*We stayed at Center Parcs free of charge for the purposes of review however all thoughts and opinions remain our own*