It's now 30 years since the first Center Parcs holiday village opened in Holland and over 10 years since its Sherwood Forest village opened near Nottingham. There are now three Center Parcs villages in the UK, and they are so popular that you may need to book several months in advance. The pounds 100m Oasis Forest Village in the Lake District, opened earlier this summer, has a similar format to Center Parcs, proving that this is a type of holiday British families really do enjoy.
The original idea of the holiday village was to provide families with a stress-free forest environment, where there were no cars or ringing telephones in the houses to drag you back to the faster pace of everyday life. Every leisure facility was to be easily accessible. The notorious subtropical swimming dome that could make you feel as though you were in the Caribbean in the middle of winter was a key feature. A wide range of sports such as tennis, football, badminton and bowling were all under cover so you could have a good time whatever the weather.
Ideal for families
Families are the main market for holiday villages both in this country and in Holland - the concept works so well for them. The first time I took this type of holiday was to a Center Parcs village when our first baby was just nine weeks old. Prior to parenthood nothing would have dragged me there; the very concept of a "holiday village" sounded too much like an upmarket version of Butlins. But to parents still shell-shocked from the trials of dealing with a new baby, Center Parcs was a kind of heaven. It was a huge relief to be cocooned in a safe, albeit fairly ugly, little house in the woods where everything from a playpen to a cot was on hand (there is also a high chair and potty for older babies) and where the only neighbours to contend with were inquisitive rabbits peeping through the patio windows as I changed nappies at dawn. What a parental perk it was to be able to indulge in a massage and a facial as a break from the baby routine - both Oasis and Center Parcs have excellent health spas, ideal for stressed-out parents.
Even the trendiest and most right-on couples find themselves easily seduced by the ease and convenience of taking the family on such a holiday. Designer friends of ours who came on one of our Center Parcs short breaks couldn't praise it enough as their two boys had the time of their lives. Children adore the idea of living in the middle of the woods ("Why can't we live here forever?" mine kept asking) and as there are no cars, parents can feel confident about letting the older children cycle around the paths on their own.
Both Center Parcs and Oasis are very impressive in their attention to detail for children. What other holiday offers poolside cots, Lego tables in the restaurants and mini-size trolleys in the supermarket? Most of the sports on offer can be enjoyed by all the family - ten-pin bowling, short tennis, nature trails and, of course, cycling. You can't really appreciate a village holiday unless you get all the family on bikes - babies can sit in a basket on the front of your bike from about the age of six months, and older toddlers can sit behind you or hire their own trike or bike with stabilisers.
Marketed as holidays that the British (or Dutch) weather can't spoil, the subtropical indoor swimming paradises can certainly be a lot of fun for the family, with water slides, wave machines and whirlpools, all of which can be used from the height of summer to the depths of winter. I personally wouldn't, however, rank the swimming dome as the major highlight of this type of holiday.
If you come from a city, it's the outdoor element that is the real appeal. I have wonderful memories of building stick houses in the woods with the kids, spotting red squirrels at Oasis and watching all the deer, rabbits and wild birds who flourish in the forest environment. Make sure you don't overbook your schedule and leave plenty of time for just cycling and walking.
And, by the way, don't fall for the myth that the entire forest is incorporated under the dome. In fact most of each "village" is outdoors, so you'll need to pack waterproof clothes if you want to avoid getting soaked when walking or cycling from your house to the facilities.
Cutting the cost
You only have to look at the list of prices charged to realise that this type of family holiday doesn't come cheap. Make sure you budget for all the extras: a family of four on a weekend can easily spend pounds 100 on bike hire and activities. To cut the cost, make use of the free pool and the woodland walks. It's also worth self-catering as the houses have well- equipped kitchens, and in fine weather you can have a barbeque outside your house.
Choosing a village
l Center Parcs. Although other holiday villages have tried to copy their concept, there is something about the Center Parcs villages that remains unique. The villas are very cleverly laid out so that although they are quite close together you are not overlooked by, or even aware of, your neighbours, and when you throw open the patio doors it feels as though you have the whole forest right on your doorstep:
Longleat offers a tremendous sense of space and a surreal outdoor pool area as well as the usual swimming dome. It is rather hilly, however, for pushing babies and toddlers about in prams or for more elderly grandparents.
Sherwood Forest was the first holiday village to open in this country, and pounds 10m has been spent updating it this year. It has a particularly strong nature element.
Elveden Forest is probably the best all-rounder. Easily accessible from London (60 miles away), this Suffolk holiday village has sports facilities, shops and restaurants all under one roof and flat terrain for cycling.
l Oasis Lakeland Forest Village. Owned by Rank, this British village has taken the Center Parcs idea and improved on it in many small but significant ways. The "lodges" are larger and timber-clad - those in the luxury category have extras such as CD players, dishwashers, washing machine/dryers and a daily housekeeping service. Everything is slightly easier to arrange at Oasis - you can either pre-book activities before you arrive or phone to book from your lodge. You can even phone out for a take-away delivery. Checking in is also much simpler as you do it as you drive in rather than having to get out of the car and queue. I was also impressed by their restaurants which include an excellent French one, as well as an Indian and a Chinese. Oasis is also big, if a little uneven, on entertainment - we saw a brilliant stand-up comedy show as well as a dismal family spook show. There is also a cinema.
l Gran Dorado
There are six Gran Dorado holiday villages dotted across Holland and Germany. Although many of the facilities such as the indoor tropical swimming pool and the range of sports on offer are similar to UK villages, the atmosphere is very different. For example, instead of being set in a forest, the Port Zelande village in southern Holland is next to a marina so that at night you can sit and eat dinner on your roof terrace while watching the yachts rather than gazing out at pine trees.
For watersports enthusiasts, Port Zelande is heaven. There's a superb windsurfing centre which has a huge array of boards and sails. The salt- water lake is ideal for any type of sailing. We took our five-year-old son out for his first sailing lesson there and also hired a motor boat for all of us to explore.
The standard of accommodation, however, is not as high as at Center Parcs or Oasis - the facilities are basic and not so child-friendly. Our house had two flights of steep spiral stairs which terrified the life out of me with my small children. I was also amused to find that our neighbours in this village were a group of noisy bikers who liked to rev up their Harley Davidsons in the early hours of the morning.
Gran Dorado villages are smaller than Oasis or Center Parcs villages, so booking for the sports and activities is very simple and we didn't have to queue even in peak season. Safety standards, however, seemed to be a little lax. No one handed our non-swimming son a lifejacket when we went out together on a pedalo, and he also had a nasty little accident when his fingers were crushed while ten-pin bowling - the alleys use quite an archaic system which doesn't slow the heavy balls down when they are returned to you.
However, prices at Port Zelande are reasonable and getting there couldn't be simpler now that Stena Line has introduced its three-and-a-half hour catamaran crossing from Harwich to the Hook of Holland. Port Zelande is just another 30 minutes' drive from docking at the Hook.
Center Parcs (Tel: 0990 200 300 for reservations, 0990 200 200 for brochures.) Prices are from pounds 248 for a four-night midweek stay in a two- bedroom villa in October.
Oasis (Tel: 0990 086 000 for reservations, 0990 086 086 for brochures.) Prices are from pounds 354 for a four-night midweek stay in a two-bedroom Forest Lodge in October.
Gran Dorado (Tel: 01242 255000) Prices from pounds 285 for a family of four on a four-night stay in a two-bedroom house at Port Zelande, including Stena Line crossings.
Bookings can be made on 0990 707070.