You don't have to stray too far from home for a blast of 'winter sun'. Juliet Rix and family warmed up in Center Parcs

The water is warm, the air humid, the sun reflects dazzlingly from the pool and a waterfall cascades off the rocks as we swim gently along. We are shortly to dine looking down on the floodlit rocks and vege- tation, watching the swimmers below. The pleasure is heightened by the fact that it is the middle of a British winter.

We needed a bit of "winter sun", a bit of let-your-hair-down, to help us make it through to the spring. But we only had a few days and we couldn't face long flights. So, I'll come clean, this is not the Caribbean. We are just a couple of hours from London in Center Parcs' "Sub-Tropical Swimming Paradise".

It isn't quite the same, it's true. It's a bit chilly as you pass any open doors and you don't come back with a tan, unless you take advantage of the sun beds. But, at least as far as my kids were concerned, the advantages outweighed the disadvantages. We hopped on a train at King's Cross, jumped into a taxi at Newark in Nottinghamshire and in less than three hours we were in the swimming pool.

The pool area is mostly contained within an Eden Project-like bubble, and there is something for everyone: a large babies' paddling pool, a toddler zone with pirate ship and slides, the main pool with a huge intermittent water spout and wave machine, a fitness pool, a couple of Jacuzzis, two flumes and the newly built Grand Cascade rubber-raft ride, which whooshes you, most enjoyably, down 450ft of twisting and turning watery tunnel.

My sons found the flumes "too mellow" for their 11- and 15-year-old tastes and the Grand Cascade was "great", but they didn't want to spend too much time queuing. So their favourite was the White Water Rapids - a long descent of bumps and dips, drops and whirlpools. One minute you are coasting along on your tummy, the next sliding down a steep slope to be tumbled like clothes in a washing machine. There are no queues, no red and green lights, everyone just piles in and reaches the bottom in one piece.

The top of the rapids is outside, but you enter the warmth of the water within the bubble, swimming out into a mist of steam. There is something magical about splashing around in swim-suited freedom, looking up at the lifeguards wrapped in thick jackets, blowing visible breath on to their hands.

Getting up in our "villa" the following morning, we found a mallard peering through the French windows. He had wandered up from the icy lake that glistened in the sun. He clearly wanted breakfast, so Luke obliged and soon found himself surrounded by 30 ducks.

We cycled the length of the "village" enjoying the fresh air, and the small, smooth, virtually car-free roads. Center Parcs is a controlled environment. Some find this off-putting, but it has its advantages; this unreal world is designed for families - there are bike parks, board games in the restaurants, waitresses who assure you that the fruit juice has no bits without looking at you as if you are mad.

Our cycle ride ends at the Archery Centre where, this being the Sherwood Forest Center Parcs, we have booked in for a bit of Robin Hood activity. Kitted out with bows, arm protection and a quiver of arrows, we walk around, shooting at target "animals". We love the feeling of letting fly, and a few arrows even find their target.

We move on to paintballing, laser claypigeon shooting and crazy golf. We could have chosen to balance on ropes, climb poles, bungee trampoline, abseil or horseride. In bad weather, the cycling would be a lot less pleasant, but there would still be plenty to do. There is badminton, air hockey, roller-skating, bowling and a vast range of multi-sport, nature, craft and computer activities. All must be pre-booked - and paid for - so take the opportunity to double-check the age ranges. My 11-year-old found himself the oldest in a group advertised for eight- to 14-year-olds.

Grown-ups can slip off for some tropical heat in the Aqua Sana Spa. Set around a floodlit pool are seven environments from a traditional sauna to a Japanese Salt Steam room and Greek herbal bath. Leave the Aqua Meditation Room until last. There I fell asleep, emerging refreshed and ready for the rest of the British winter.

The author travelled as a guest of GNER and Center Parcs. A three-night weekend at Center Parcs (08705 200 300; centerparcs. co.uk), staying in a two-bedroom Comfort Villa sleeping four, costs from £299, which includes use of subtropical swimming paradise and children's play areas. GNER (08457 225 225; gner. co.uk) operates trains from King's Cross to Newark from £19 return

Our alternative hot spot

Tour a South American rainforest, the Oceanic Islands and South Africa in a day at the Eden Project (01726 811911; edenproject.com) in Cornwall. Leaving behind the cold British winter, within the world's largest greenhouses you will be transported to warmer climes, if only for a few hours. Open 10am-4.30pm (shut on some Mondays for maintenance).

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