How Centre Parcs opened my eyes
As a teenager, Tracey Davies's eyes were opened to the delights of the very first Centre Parcs in the Netherlands. Returning with her own children proved even more gratifying
Wednesday 15 August 2012
"If it's good enough for Judith Chalmers then it's good enough for us," was my mother's mantra when organising family holidays back in the Eighties. As an avid viewer of Wish You Were Here...? she was often inspired (in both the fashion and the holiday sense) by the grande dame of travel programmes. One summer she announced that we were going to a Dutch holiday camp as recommended by Chalmers herself. Being a surly teen with a bad perm and a rabid aversion to organised fun, I was a little dubious. But Center Parcs was no graduate of the Billy Butlin school of holidays. Back then, this environmentally friendly forest paradise in the Netherlands was the height of suburban sophistication. Now almost a quarter of a century later I went back with my own children in tow.
Although much has changed over the years, the wholesome virtues of a holiday in the Dutch polder has not – and I silently thanked Chalmers for her divine inspiration.
"Many of our guests came here as kids and are now trying to relive the memories with their own children," Paul Geraeds, the marketing director of Center Parcs Europe, said. New attractions such as the Marina De Eemhof and swanky waterside village that surrounds it are designed to keep this new generation happy.
Center Parcs started out nearly 50 years ago as a small campsite in the south-eastern corner of Holland. With an ethos of fun family holidays in a forest location, it grew rapidly and after two decades of success in Europe it came to the UK in 1987. Despite using the same name and branding, the UK arm was sold off in 2001 and now operates the four British parks as a separate entity. Nevertheless, the company's philosophy remains the same.
De Eemhof opened in 1980. It was the first Center Parcs to introduce Aqua Mundo, the glass-domed subterranean swimming extravaganza for which the brand later became renowned.
Back then it was like nothing I'd ever seen before: waterfalls, wave machines and supersonic slides, not to mention shy Dutch boys to wink at in the Jacuzzi. It even had a knuffelmuur, which literally translates as cuddle wall– a curved, heated wall built simply to lean on. Twenty-five years later and the knuffelmuur had gone but the rest of the park – the grey Bauhaus-style cottages, forest cycle tracks and pine-fringed lakes – was still comfortingly familiar.
As all great trips should, our holiday started before we'd even arrived. The children loved the overnight ferry from Harwich to the Hook of Holland, where we kicked back with a good meal before being lulled into a quiet slumber until we docked the next morning.
From Hook it was an easy 90-minute drive past windmills and tulip farms to De Eemhof, 30 miles from Amsterdam in the Flevoland province.
Holland is, of course, renowned for being flat, but revisiting the landscape is a reminder that there's not even a whimsy of a camber as far as the eye can see, with vistas interrupted only by pods of wind turbines rotating serenely against the green baize landscape.
We stayed at De Eemhof's new waterside development, which overlooks the marina and Lake Eemmeer. These swanky new apartments, all high ceilings and minimalist décor, wouldn't look out of place among the smart converted warehouses of a docklands development and ours was supremely decked out with four large double bedrooms, two bathrooms, plus a huge Jacuzzi and sauna.
Inspired by Port Grimaud on the Cote d'Azur, the sleek water quarter has a different appeal to the rest of the park. With modern apartments overlooking the lake and the melodic clink of sails in the marina, it's cited as "a little piece of the French Riviera in the Dutch polder".
Whether the French Riviera weather is guaranteed is another matter. While the apartments are owned by Center Parcs, the marina is the domain of the owner, Willem Zijl, who's worked with De Eemhof for the past 15 years.
"I'm very excited about the launch of the beach club," Zijil said enthusiastically. "We'll offer many different water sports, including wake-boarding, windsurfing and sailing and there'll be a nice beach café, too. Guests can even bring their own boat and moor it here."
The challenge with Center Parcs is there is so much on offer that it's easy to get holiday burn-out. However, don't feel too guilty if you don't leave the park. Bar Amsterdam, there's little on offer in the surrounding area. Bikes are essential (and can be hired on site) and are a great way to navigate the 70 hectares of forest and lakes. Although the kids will have little chance of getting bored, if you can drag them away from the pool there are numerous activities on offer from the zip wire to wild-water rafting from a few euros each.
We embraced our waterside location: with the whole family ensconced in rubber, we waddled to the "beach" for windsurfing and paddle-board lessons. With smaller boards and child-size sails and the knee-deep waters of the lagoon, even the six-year-olds were able to have a go.
Lake Eemmeer is also ideal for kids to learn to sail. One afternoon we strapped the gang into life jackets and took to the water to learn the basics of sailing. While the twins fought over the rudder, brother Angus took his role seriously to master the sails.
"You can sail to Amsterdam in three hours or all the way to the North Sea in a day," said Paul, our sailing instructor. However, if all this sounds bit ambitious, he also recommended a short sail to nearby Dead Dog Island for a barbecue or picnic.
On our last night, exhausted by almost a week of non-stop activity, we treated ourselves to dinner at Zuiderzoet, the trendy new brasserie which overlooks the waterfront. While the sun set over the masts, our three exhausted kids quietly dozed off into their half-eaten pizzas. We ordered another pint of Dutch beer and toasted Judith Chalmers once more: Center Parcs Europe was certainly good enough for us.
Stena Line (08447 70 70 70; stenaline.co.uk) offers twice-daily return crossings between Harwich and the Hook of Holland with fares starting from £118 return for an adult and car. Return fares for additional adults are from £24; additional children (between four and 15 years) are £12. Overnight cabins cost from £29 per person return based on two sharing.
The writer was a guest of Center Parcs De Eemhof (00 31 10 498 97 54; centerparcs.com) where Waterfront Suites VIP in the new Marina De Eemhof start at €579 (£460) for a three-night weekend, based on four sharing. Water sports and some activities extra.
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