I'd never been to a Center Parcs village before and I wasn’t at all sure what to expect as we drove into Woburn Forest, just a couple of miles away from the M1 motorway.
We were greeted at one of the eight drive-in checkpoints by a cheerful attendant who had all our details to hand, issued us with our precious green wristbands that all park visitors get to wear and were directed into the massive car park.
And that’s where you learn your first and most important lesson about Center Parcs - cars are allowed to unload and load at the beginning and end of your stay but apart from that, the site is a car-free zone except for the electric-powered maintenance vehicles that can occasionally be seen purring around.
Center Parcs is essentially a family holiday camp - except brought bang up to date with the latest facilities, sumptuous accommodation lodges that are spread out across the massive site, a hotel and spa, sub-tropical swimming paradise and a host of activities aimed at catering for the majority of interests.
We stayed in the hotel which is at the heart of the complex but it’s not like many hotels I’ve been in before.
In addition to the sizeable bedroom, bathroom and toilet, there is also a very well-equipped kitchenette, kitted out with a cooker/microwave, kettle, coffee machine, fridge, wine cooler, and even a dishwasher. The whole place is beautifully decorated to a high standard and each hotel room has a balcony overlooking the boating lake.
There is a supermarket right beside the hotel for those who want to cater for themselves but the park offers a wide range of culinary attractions including burger bars, Italian, French, Chinese and Indian restaurants. The Sports Bar in the central area offers a wide range of meals for adults and kids and sportaholics can enjoy themselves watching top sports on the huge screens dotted around the restaurant.
Since using your car is verboten, most visitors either bring their own bikes or hire them from the 2,500 models on site - catering for every shape and size and including towable buggies if you want to take your toddler for a trip around the park. Neither Julie nor I had written a bike for years but it’s amazing how quickly you get back into the swing of it – it’s just like...well, riding a bike.
There are dozens of other things to try out at Center Parcs - including archery, laser clay shooting and Segway riding, (great fun – we tried that and got to travel around the park complex at a heady eight miles an hour!) You can hire a boat or canoe on the lake, take on the thrills of the aerial walkway and zipwire while the younger members of the family can have fun in a very well-equipped adventure playground. There is also pottery painting, teddy bear stuffing, badminton, squash, table tennis - the list goes on,
But the piece de resistance from our stay was the Sunday morning we spent sampling the delights of Aqua Sana - the spa complex adjoining the hotel.
There are six different saunas and steam rooms ranging from the gemstone and mineral spa to the fire and ice section, each offering different levels of steamy relaxation. Never having been in a spa before, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it – but I’m now a complete convert – it was incredibly relaxing.
The Woburn Forest site was built with an eye to attracting more visitors from London and the south of England and I’m pretty sure it will do exactly that. Even in September after the schools had gone back, the place was virtually full.
Center Parcs isn’t a cheap holiday - aside from the cost of renting a lodge or a hotel room - and our hotel room was priced at £459 for a four-day break - you pay for virtually everything apart from the swimming centre. Bike hire, all of the activities and the spa all cost you extra but you cannot possibly criticise the standard of equipment or entertainment which is outstanding. And the staff are simply fantastic.
For a family with youngsters who want to be kept occupied and active, there can be few better places to take a short break.
Mort and Julie were staying as guests of Center Parcs.