Happiness is a holiday in a bubble

Friends scoffed, but Cole Moreton was converted by his Center Parcs experience
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The Independent Travel

The woman had never shot a gun before. She hit the bird somehow, and spun round in delight as it fell to the ground. One happy finger tightened on the trigger. There was a huge bang as the shotgun fired again - and the inside of her husband's thigh was blown away.

The woman had never shot a gun before. She hit the bird somehow, and spun round in delight as it fell to the ground. One happy finger tightened on the trigger. There was a huge bang as the shotgun fired again - and the inside of her husband's thigh was blown away.

"And his privates," said the countryman telling this gruesome story. There was silence as five strangers gulped, crossed their legs and prayed.

We were being driven to a field in Suffolk, by a gruff instructor with gun-club patches all over his coat. Three of us in the off-road vehicle had never held a weapon in our lives. One confessed to having shouldered arms "professionally" in the services - although his inability to hit anything later that day suggested he had used the barrel to stir porridge in the catering corps. The fifth was a vet who had shot sickly animals "from a range of two feet". It was he who asked if anyone had ever hurt themselves on a clay-pigeon shooting range.

"Not themselves," the instructor said, a smile barely disturbing the leathery creases of his face. "Other people, mind. Stupidity, that's what it is."

His story was set on another range. True or not, it worked: we listened to every word of advice before blasting at the tiny black targets spinning overhead. Luckily, my inner being had been soothed before the shoot by a Swedish massage - so the fear of being blown to pieces by a trigger-happy novice registered as little more than a thrill that could not spoil what was turning into a splendid day.

You don't expect to shoot things on a family holiday. Each other, maybe, but not inanimate targets. A lot of men dread going away with their tribe, but surely even the most reluctant could endure it if they were promised a morning off being pummelled into a state of tranquility before getting the chance to play with very real, very loud guns?

Clay-pigeon shooting was one of the many optional sports on offer at the Center Parcs site in Suffolk called Elveden Forest. The idea seems to be that family members share a chalet but split up during the day to play sport, get spoiled in the spa, turn into a prune in the swimming pool, cycle in the woods, eat too much or drink themselves silly while watching sport on big video screens, before reuniting in the evening and collapsing, exhausted, into bed. Works for me. It also worked for my wife, who is not particularly sporty but has no objections to a luxury aromatherapy session or two.

We were with our son, Jacob, and wanted to spend as much time with him as possible, so went together to organised sessions such as Tinies Tumble Time, in which toddlers threw themselves around a course of soft obstacles. But if you have a grandparent in tow (best in small doses) or a clutch of stroppy adolescents, there is no reason to have to see them in excess.

I had expected the worst of Center Parcs. "Oh, the middle-class Butlins," said snobby mates. "IKEA-on-sea." The latter is obviously a fallacy, since all three Center Parcs in Britain are landlocked. But there is an element of truth in the idea that these are to Hi-de-Hi what the Swedish furniture-maker is to MFI.

So why go? Partly because leaving the country in search of winter sun is no fun with a three-year-old. Much easier to nip up the M11 for a holiday that is supposed to work regardless of the weather.

The first of the Center Parcs was built in Holland in the Sixties, to allow people to have short breaks close to nature. The company still boasts about its green credentials, although things are on a much larger scale now. The British sites, built around lakes, are heavy with conifer woodland. Elveden can take 3,500 people. These days Center Parcs are owned by money-motivated capitalists - Deutsche Bank recently bought them from Scottish & Newcastle, whose products were ubiquitous when we visited - but the company has won awards for its commitment to sustainable tourism and the environment. You don't have to feel guilty, in other words.

There was weak sunshine streaming through the trees when we arrived on the Monday morning. Cars are banned from the site and you're not allowed into your accommodation until mid-afternoon, so the trick is to get there early, look around and hire bikes. Jacob loved being towed along the forest path in a trailer seat, with rabbits and pheasants scattering as we approached. The landscape was flat so cycling was easy.

The chalets were meant to disappear into the foliage, but in December the branches were bare. From outside, in the half-light, they looked like grim concrete bunkers. Inside was another matter. Our executive unit had a posh telly, comfortable furnishings and a view over a lake. In the morning we woke to the sound of geese and swans tapping on the French windows with their beaks, demanding to be fed.

So to the Dome, the undercover complex at the heart of the site. First impressions were not good. It was hot, with heavy air, and busy with people. There were cobbled paths between the souvenir shops and themed restaurants, huge tropical plants and artificial streams. It was like being on holiday at Lakeside shopping centre in Essex on the Saturday before Christmas, which is close to my idea of hell. But unlike the shopping complex, all humanity was not here. Parents called out for Amber, Jade and Scarlett, a traffic-light set of names indicating that in this place the right of way belonged to the middle classes.

Centre Parcs is expensive - the chalet and pool are included in the set price, but you pay to play. The Dutch pancake fondue house was an overpriced disaster, but I wanted to kiss the genius who put Lego tables and chalk boards in the restaurants, so that ever-active fingers could find things to do while we parents actually had a chat over a meal. There were staff everywhere, smiling and eager to help, as though we had stumbled on a tribe of unnervingly happy people lost in the forest. A child noticed a dead fish in the water, and within moments a specialist with a net had come to fish it out, so as not to disturb our equilibrium. A bit Disney, that.

The "subtropical swimming paradise" was, in some ways, the whole point of the Centre Parc experience. I didn't much fancy fighting for space in an overheated public baths foggy with the odours of chlorine, sweat, and underwear. Even if it did have a wave machine.

It was a bit like that - overcrowded at times, uncomfortably communal in the changing areas - but Jake loved the place to bits. A red waistcoat stuffed with floats enabled him to stay above water while being whisked through tunnels and whirlpools on gentle rapids; and I had just as much fun on the faster and more violent set of rapids connecting hot spa pools in the cold air outside.

I expected to hate Centre Parcs. I'd love to be more cynical. It is hopelessly middle class, and prohibitively expensive for some. But the truth is that at Elveden Forest we had time together as a family, with space to relax. The afternoon after the clay-pigeon shooting I took Jacob to an indoor playground. For some reason a remix of an old Fairport Convention song was playing through hidden speakers - "Who knows where the time goes?" Wrestling with Jake in the ball park I looked at his smile and realised that the fun we were having together might be as good as life gets.

A weekend at Elveden Forest in April for a couple and a child costs £441.