Hi-de-Hi? No de no! Welcome to the British holiday park, 21st-century style
Butlins is opening a sushi bar. It's not the only venue of its kind breaking the mould. Kate Simon reports on Center Parcs' facelift
Sunday 29 June 2008
Seven o'clock on Friday night and the weekenders are descending on Elveden Center Parc in Suffolk. The car park is nearly full; most guests have dropped off the luggage at their lodge and dutifully parked up, because at midnight, car access within the grounds is restricted until it's time to quit this rural idyll on Monday morning.
This is just one element of Center Parcs' carefully constructed brand of rural escape, a concept created by Dutch businessman Piet Derksen in 1967 and introduced to the British public two decades later.
Its success here over the past 21 years has been phenomenal. The first Center Parc in Nottingham's Sherwood Forest has spawned three more sites across the UK, which welcome 1.5 million guests a year. (A spokesman told me Elveden achieves 96 per cent occupancy year round, with 60 per cent of guests returning.) It's no surprise that these parks are now owned by an American venture capital company, the Blackstone Group.
Elveden is a vast leafy landscape with a lake at its heart and an attractive cast of ducks, pheasants and rabbits (which oddly seem to hang out together). Fortunately, humans are not so ubiquitous; the 400-acre park may have the capacity for 4,000 visitors but on our first evening we barely met a soul on the 10-minute walk from our far-flung lodge to the "village", a paved precinct with a shop and restaurants. In fact, throughout the weekend, the only real crowds could be found at this hub and in the indoor leisure facilities.
But from the outset Center Parcs has aimed to offer more than just a breath of fresh air in its countryside havens. Back in the Sixties, the first park – then known as Sporthuis Centrum – in the forest near Reuver in The Netherlands, provided colour TVs and central heating in its 30 "luxury villas", and an outdoor pool.
That quest to give holidaymakers more of what they want has continued and is one of the main reasons behind Center Parcs' enduring popularity.
Today's sophisticated holidaymaker is currently being treated to an overhaul of the accommodation itself. The original lodges were built with flat roofs so that the surrounding vegetation could grow over them. While Derksen's "villa in the forest" concept remains central to the Center Parcs' experience, the choice of accommodation has expanded and been enhanced and its very shape has changed.
Now visitors to Elveden can choose from six types of lodge (there is also a hotel). As the price ascends (along with the height of the structures, from the flat-roofed one-storey cabins to pitched-roof two-storey houses straight out of Brookside Close), extras offered include dishwashers, flat-screen TVs, PlayStations, en-suite bathrooms, games rooms, patios, barbecues, saunas, outdoor hot tubs and maid service.
Guests can also enjoy "enhanced decor", the latest multi-million pound investment aimed at impressing the Changing Rooms generation, for Center Parcs has employed the talents of top interior designer Tara Bernerd, and given her a remit to wave a stylish wand over its Woodland, Exclusive and the most recently opened Executive Lodges.
The result is a showhouse look in white with bold accent colours, wooden floors, tactile cushions, throws and rugs, modish furnishings, plenty of chrome in the kitchen, photographic prints, and recessed spotlighting – Ilva meets Magnet meets The Bath Store.
The appetite to upgrade is also evident in the village. Center Parcs own American diner, Huck's, which was added to the choice of restaurants this March. And a take-away cafe is due to open. Where once there were only own-brand restaurants in the park, Blackstone has introduced franchising to offer familiar high-street names such as Bella Italia and Café Rouge – a third Starbucks will open, too.
In another part of the grounds the old country club has been transformed into a spa, a rare adult-only bolthole in this child-centric world, offering a seductive array of treatments and exotic spaces including a Japanese Zen garden and a Turkish hammam.
But some things never change. The signature glass dome that covers the Sub-tropical Swimming Paradise – it's a common misperception to believe the whole park is under glass – is still one of the major reasons why people come here. As are the multitude of activities on offer (plan your budget well, these can be costly, and beware there are steep rental prices for bike hire – £72 for a family of four for the weekend).
After all, with everything from framed silk painting to tree-top walks on offer, a holiday at Center Parcs is all about getting the family active. That's what really matters to its hardcore fans, but no doubt they'll appreciate a little extra style and comfort, too.
Center Parcs (08448 267 705; centerparcs.co.uk) offers a three-night weekend break at Elveden Forest from £969 for a new four-bedroom Executive Lodge, sleeping eight.
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