Days Out: Safe in the forest

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The Independent Online
Welcome to the pleasure dome: whatever your preconceptions, Center Parcs provides a neat package for a family, half-term break writes Catherine Stebbings

There is nothing English about Center Parcs, except the weather. The Dutch concept of an eco-friendly, family-oriented holiday camp within a forest is an ingenious one, an idea that can be used in any European country without having to change the formula. What's more, it works. Longleat Forest is no exception - set among some mature redwoods, its 600 little villas are rarely empty, any night of the year.

Center Parcs is designed for families, and stringently so. Everything is child-friendly and safe. There are no cars, no late-night openings - and security is tight. A maze of forest walks and cycleways is etched across nearly 400 acres, giving everyone a chance to find some peace - but ensuring they are never too far away. At Longleat the villas may look disconcertingly like Portakabins, but inside they are clean, warm, spacious and highly practical. Though they are crammed together, careful planning assures a degree of privacy.

Facilities are impressive, most of all the massive, glass-domed Plaza. Under one half lies a large piazza complete with restaurants, cafes and shops; under the other half are the spectacular pools, caves and rapids, all set in a subtropical arboretum. Slides and tunnels spew swimmers into underground caverns; waves lap against the mock sea wall; and parents sip cocktails under the palms while their young splash in the shallows or play in the sand. The pools extend outside, culminating in a hair-raising white-water run to the depths below.

At the other end of the forest the Jardins des Sports, a magnificent sports hall, offers everything from tennis and football to T'ai chi and fencing. Meanwhile, those wishing to be pampered could spend their weekend working their way through the range of options available at the Aqua Sana.

The visitors

Catherine Stebbings and her husband Jonathan, a teacher, took their daughters Imogen, seven, Polly, six, and Claudia, three.

Catherine: I've always been highly sceptical of pleasure parks, so my heart sank when I saw the rows of unattractive cabins dotted around the forest, and swarms of people heading for the pool. But before long I had entered into the spirit of it all and enjoyed myself immensely. Practically, the park is most impressive; every detail has been carefully thought out and the result is a civilised, safe and healthy environment where children are in heaven. Personally I felt somewhat cocooned in an expensive enclosure, albeit a pleasant one. I would advise people to cater for themselves. We tried a few restaurants and found them all over-priced and lacking in atmosphere.

Jonathan: Overall I was impressed with the breadth and quality of the facilities and activities. Although sophisticated tastes are not catered for in design or food, the purpose of the place - family fun - is fulfilled brilliantly.

With small children, we concentrated on swimming, biking and play areas, but I could see that, when they grow older, the sports centre will be equally satisfying: the various courts and studios are gorgeous. You do need to book extra activities fast. I ended up opting for an introduction to T'ai chi, as it was the only thing that wasn't fully booked by Saturday lunch time - but it did provide a relaxing end to the weekend.

Imogen: It was really brilliant, just like being in another country, and the cabins were cosy. There were loads of activities to do but my favourite was the swimming. There were lots of pools inside and out, with trees, rocks and caves. There were masses of slides, and outside there was a really good white-water ride. The water was really warm, even outside. We swam at night so we could see the stars. Mummy spent her time in the Jacuzzi.

Polly: Center Parcs was really, really good. You could only get to places on this little train or on your bicycle. We rode our bikes everywhere and went for a long bike ride through the forest. There were lots of hills so sometimes I got off, but most of the time I kept up with Mummy and Daddy.

The swimming-pool was really big and warm and the wave machine was on, sometimes. I liked the trees because you felt like you were at the beach. I also went riding Western-style on a little pony through the woods. I saw three deer and my feet got frozen.

Claudia: I had a little bike but I fell off a lot so I went everywhere on Daddy's bike. It was very cold. I loved the swimming-pool. There were lots of slides. I went for a walk behind our house and found some squirrels and a lake with lots of ducks on it.

The deal

How to get there: Center Parcs, Longleat, Warminster, Wiltshire (01985 848000) is signposted off the A36, 3 miles south of Warminster. Nearest intersections are Warminster and Westbury. Other Center Parcs in the UK offering the same facilities are Elveden Forest, Brandon, Suffolk (01623 872 998) and Sherwood, Nottingham (0990 200 300).

Access: cars are allowed for arrival and departure only. Access thereafter is entirely on foot or bike. Cycles, child seats and carriages are available for hire. Expect to cover substantial distances. Disabled access everywhere. Dogs are welcome in designated villas, but they must be kept on a lead and must use the dog toilets, which are few and far between.

Prices: costs vary throughout the year and depend on facilities in the villa. A basic villa for six would cost pounds 249 for a three-night stay in January and pounds 474 in August. Price includes villa, electricity etc and unlimited use of the pool complex.

Activities: Numerous children's activities are on offer, including horse- riding, archery, cooking and T-shirt design in the kindergarten.

Child care: There is a baby-sitting service available day and night.

Shops: a reasonably priced supermarket sells a range of essentials and includes a good delicatessen. There are shops for sportswear, children's treats and souvenirs.

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