My family and I recently returned from a 4 night stay at Center Parcs Longleat Forest, I must say that we loved the place 100%.
Monday: We left home at 9:15am and we reached Longleat by 10:45am, When you arrive, you will see a board with numbers and arrows which directs you to the check in window that they want you to go to. After a short wait you will be called forward to one of these windows to receive your keys, they make you switch off your engine during this process. We received our keys and went to park in the main car park. After this, we got our bikes off the back of the car and went up to the "Jardin Des Sports" to book activites and have lunch. The fish and chips were wonderful! Now, we went for a walk around the lake which we enjoyed. Now, we went upto the Plaza (Greenhouse because its so hot in there) to go swimming. After an hour, we went shopping in the reasonably priced parc market and took it up to our villa. We were in a 4 bed comfort lodge (Number 694 Fir) and it was well equipped beyond our expectations. The only problem was a damp smell in the master bedroom, when I went to get the car I popped into Guest Services, who sent somebody up straight away. Infact, by the time I had brought the car up, they had been and gone! I returned the car and then we caught the first land train of the evening to go bowling. We came back on the 2020 from the plaza and settled in for the night.
Tuesday: We had booked badminton for 10am, so it was essential that we were up early, we walked down to the Jardin Des Sports, before returning back to the villa for lunch. After lunch, we cycled down to the Plaza to go swimming, my eldest spent 2 hours going round the rapids, last time i went down the rapids last year I broke my finger. We did some shopping and went back to the villa for tea. We then caught the landtrain up to the Plaza, it was quite late and everything was starting to close, so we took the land train to the village sqaure. Realising that was all closed, we went to the Jardin Des Sports for a drink before trying to catch the land train back. It was packed, nobody would move up to try and get everybody on. I even heard one passenger say "They've got legs they can walk" We walked home after this.
Wednesday: We were trying to make this our relaxing day! We went for an energetic bike ride in the morning, stopping at starbucks in the Plaza. We then went xmas shopping in the plaza shops. We went back to the villa for lunch, before coming back down to the Plaza (on the train) for swimming. We then went back to the villa to relax. We then went down to bowling (again) after tea
Thursday: We went swimming first thing in the morning, we had various activites booked for after lunch, table tennis, a relaxation class and once again, bowling! We also went to the Pancake House, never again. We had to wait outside (being harrased by the wasps) for 15 minutes until they could be bothered to lay a table. Once we were seated, we had to wait another 20 minutes for our order to be taken. Then 30 minutes for it to come out. The value for money is appalling. By the time we had finished, we only had 10 minutes to run (literally) down to the JDS for table tennis. PANCAKE HOUSE, NEVER AGAIN!
Friday: I made use of their minibus service to go get the car. We loaded up, took the car back (with the bikes on the back) and took them off to go swimming. We brought sandwiches from the Parc Marc. and sat on a bench. We then decided that we would then make our way home then and it would be terrible past Stonehenge, and it was. We left at 2:30am and didnt get home until 4:30pm.
I would recommend to anybody!
==== CENTER PARCS - BENELUX OR UK? ====
We have been to three different Center Parcs in Belgium and the Netherlands, and it is now established as a regular half-term option for us and our three children. This year, Flemish half-term was a week earlier than the main UK one, and the prices reflected this. Faced with Euro620 for a midweek stay in Belgium, I checked the prices for the UK. Up till now, I'd imagined the prices in the UK prohibitive, although I expected that facilities would be a notch above what we'd experienced before. In fact, for the week we wanted to go, a Comfort Plus 3 cottage at Longleat Forest was £315 plus a £6 booking fee for a Monday-Friday stay. A week later, and the figure was a staggering £785!
==== BOOKING AND PRE-ARRIVAL ====
The website - www.centerparcs.co.uk - is very easy to navigate around. You can narrow down your search by village (there are 4 in the UK), length of stay (weekend, midweek, week), type of accommodation. Once you have booked, you get a confirmation email, but what I hadn't realised was the amount of direct marketing that would come as a result, mainly advertising specific Center Parcs activities or recommend to your friends. I did not check whether you can opt out of much of this, so I may have agreed to this inadvertently.
One of the many emails encouraged me to pre-plan the activities via the website. For the children, there seem to be a huge range of activities available, but there is no indication of charges for any of them. The website is full of suggestions though, and it is well worth consulting before you go.
==== LONGLEAT FOREST VILLAGE ====
We chose Longleat Forest Village near the Wiltshire/Somerset Border. The park is less than a mile from Longleat House and Safari Park (shut for the winter when we were there), although it is only at the final roundabout on the route from the M4 that it is clearly signposted. Longleat Forest perfectly describes the Center Parcs concept - self-catering accommodation, set amid wooded surroundings, with an emphasis on active pursuits, mainly outdoors, although there is a large indoor swimming pool complex.
We can't give a fair evaluation of check-in, since due to dealing with the consequences of having all our belongings stolen from our car a few hours after arriving in the UK, we could only travel down to the park on the Tuesday, rather than the Monday. Checking in for us was very quick and straightforward, but we were the only ones checking in then, and I do not know how efficient the procedures are when everyone arrives on the same day.
Our unit was a good mile and a quarter from the arrival point, so we drove to where we were staying, unloaded and then took the car back to the car park. One of the nice things about Center Parcs is that you do not have cars around the resort the whole time of your stay, so it is very safe for children and for cyclists.
I guess it is a sign that we have been in Belgium too long, but this village seemed very hilly. Indeed, in some places, cyclists are told to dismount, as the gradient is too steep. The resort is also quite extensive, with three main clusters for activities. In one, the Market Plaza, you have the main swimming complex (the Subtropical Swimming Paradise), supermarket, bowling alley, on-site supermarket and various shops and eating places. In another - the Village Square - you have an upmarket restaurant, coffee bar and pottery centre. In the third - Jardin des Sports - you have a vast range of indoor activities, a spa/sauna centre and sports bar. In the grounds around these clusters, there are adventure playgrounds, play areas for younger children, horse riding, archery, a boating lake and a network of cycle paths. If you don't want to walk, or if you are carrying shopping, the resort lays on a free 'land train' - a land rover pulling a couple of carriages - which goes every twenty minutes between all the accommodation areas and the activity clusters, but when it is raining, this gets very full indeed, and more than once not everyone could get on. This was very popular with our 3 year old boy.
==== ACCOMMODATION ====
We had a Comfort Plus villa, which is the one above the most basic level of accommodation, with four higher levels advertised on the website. This notwithstanding, we were quite impressed with the accommodation, certainly in comparison to our experience in Benelux countries, where it all looks a bit tired. There were 3 bedrooms - one double, two twins - a bathroom with shower/toilet - second toilet, storage room and a large lounge/kitchen/dining room. The three elements of the main room form an L-shape, with the kitchen at the angle. The kitchen had full oven, hob, fridge with small freezer compartment, dishwasher, toaster, microwave, kettle, cafetiere, cutlery and crockery. There is also a small welcome basket with tablets for the dishwasher, as well as some teabags and coffee sachets.
The living area has TV with a few freeview channels, and there is a DVD player. The corner sofa seats 6 people easily, but is not the most comfortable I've known. The dining table is perfectly functional, while the beds, which were made up for our arrival, were very comfortable, and not saggy. In the double bedroom, there was a wall-mounted flat-screen TV, alarm clock and Gideons bible.
==== OUR STAY THERE ====
One obvious destination for us was the swimming pool. There is one main pool, where the wave machine is switched on every half hour or so, preceded by a Tarzan cry. The main attraction is the rapids, which takes you outside and back again on a current of water. There is no big water slide, and the toddlers' pool was slightly tucked away. The theme is subtropical, so there are plenty of trees around, and you can sit in the cafe area and look down at the pool below. Our assessment was that this was OK, but not as well laid out as other resorts, particularly in the Netherlands. However, it was the one thing that was included in the price.
Since we arrived a day late, finding activities for our children which weren't booked up proved difficult. This was initially something of a surprise, since it was term time in the UK, yet many children had obviously taken their children out of school as this was the only time they could afford it. Among the activities we considered were horse riding (full), an hour watching owls in a bird hide (£6/hour - but it poured with rain) and bowling (£22 for a lane for 55 minutes).
We ended up spending £120 in the pottery centre where the five of us painted various ceramic objects - a spaceship and motorcar (boy), teddy bear, fairy, star (girls), sugar bowl and castle (parents) - which were then fired and glazed. You pay £5/adult, £4 child for 90 minutes use of paints, help plus the cost of the items you are painting, which range from £7 to £28 a piece unpainted. You can collect them the following day. It was expensive, but as a family activity after the traumas of having all our things stolen, probably justifiable, and the objects have come out very nicely.
The outdoor play areas were good and nicely maintained, being very clean, and obviously a great of care was given to the maintenance of the resort. The sports bar also had an indoor soft-play area, but this was quite small. Our impression was that, for all the extent of the resort, most places seemed surprisingly crowded.
==== FOOD, DRINK ETC ====
There are a range of food options available. It is hard to give a fair assessment, other than that the food was much, much better than in the Netherlands Center Parcs), but also not cheap - about £50 for lunch for 2 adults and 3 children. We cooked our own evening meals. The coffee is very respectable compared to elsewhere in England (around £2.30 for a cappuccino), although I think I have been in Belgium too long to appreciate the coffee on offer. The hot chocolate, however, was very good, and you can even have a Cadbury's flake with it!
The toy shop had plenty of things that attracted the children's attention, and we could replace some of the things that were stolen - top trumps, Thomas toys, littlest pet shop. The lady running the shop was very helpful, and the staff on the whole were helpful and efficient.
==== OVERALL ====
Would we go back? I think the answer would be probably not. Although the accommodation was good, and the setting was nice (although the small waterfall behind our accommodation was turned off after dark, which slightly ruined the natural effect), the hilly terrain meant our smaller children did not want to cycle as much as we hoped, so we were had to cast around for alternative activities. Most activities seemed quite pricy, which is a factor of having to pay for qualified staff, but it still felt like open-wallet surgery. In future, we will stick to Benelux, which all in all, is much more convenient for us, but more importantly, represents better value for money. We can see that for UK-based families, this will still be worth considering, but beware the additional costs.