Virtually stress free in virtual reality

They were mocked when they arrived in Britain 10 years ago, but Center Parcs have slowly but surely won over parents and children alike. Isabel Lloyd discovers that it is possible to enjoy a family holiday
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The Independent Travel
HOLIDAYS AND small children don't mix. When you have got two under-four-year-olds, leaving the house for a couple of hours is a nightmare - let alone a couple of weeks. There is packing all the kit (travel cot, high chair, buggy, bottle steriliser, toys, favourite blankets, favourite eating utensils, 400,000 disposable nappies); there is travel sickness; there is whipping out the potty on the hard shoulder of the M25.

In three years with young children, my partner and I have managed only two weeks in a small cottage in Suffolk (borrowed from a friend), and another two weeks in a larger cottage in the Pas-de-Calais (as close as you can get to England while being in France). If you are not the sort who is comfortable putting a six-month-old in a backpack and hitching to Nepal, this sort of holiday is pretty much all that is practical.

And then there is Center Parcs. In middle-class west London, where I live, harried parents speak of Center Parcs in tones of hushed longing. Center Parcs have huge, heated, indoor swimming-pools, they say. Cars are not allowed, they say. They do mini-breaks. And even though Center Parcs' reputation is anything but cool, posh literate types quietly but regularly take their children to them.

Why? The answer has to be that they provide people, particularly parent- people, with what they want. Despite being mocked when they first arrived here from the Continent more than 10 years ago, Center Parcs is doing rather well, claiming to be 90 per cent full at any time of year.

There are three Parcs in England, all more or less consisting of around 700 self-catering villas and apartments, scattered artfully through 400 acres of mostly evergreen forest, together with a "Jardin des Sports" (sports centre), an "Aqua Sana" (spa, sauna, beauty treatments) and, most famously, a "Subtropical Swimming Paradise": a huge swimming-pool-and- shops complex, most of which is housed under a giant glass dome, making it a good place to be whatever the British weather is or is not up to.

On arrival at a Center Parc, you first drive past a security guards' hut and into an enormous car park, where an elephants' graveyard of large, shiny vehicles spends the weekend half-hidden between the first of many, many pine trees. Then you unpeel the children from their car seats and walk to a reception lodge, where, after a bit of very British queuing, you pick up the keys to your villa. Then it's a drive to the villa, unpack, drive the car back to the car park (where it has to remain) and walk back to the villa. The fact that I was on my own with our children (my partner didn't arrive until the following day, when he had difficulty persuading the guards to let him in) meant that this routine was necessarily performed in excruciating slow-motion and took the best part of two hours - even though our villa was much nearer the car park and other facilities than most.

Once we had finally made it there, the villa (a "two-bedroom executive") was a pleasant surprise. It may have looked like a large Kleenex box on the outside, but it was well designed and fitted out (if blandly decorated) on the inside. There was plenty of storage space, a microwave, hairdryer, a hubbly-bubbly "Hydrobath", a telephone, and, unusually for self-catering accommodation, genuinely useful cooking equipment in the kitchen cupboards. A cot and a high chair were also provided (which significantly cuts down on your baby travel-packing). Even better, we could get Sky Movies on the telly, and when we woke up in the morning, the only sound we heard was hundreds of birds having their morning natter high up in all those trees.

Unless it was Monday or Friday, of course. These are "change-over days", when one lot of visitors leave and another arrives. On the Monday morning I was there, the air was alive, not with birdsong but with the throaty roar of an army of leaf-blowers and strimmers, tidying and trimming before the next batch of Parcees turned up. Which kind of sums up these forest villages. It isn't real nature you are getting, nor anything approaching it, but a sort of sanitised, homogenised, virtual-reality nature, where you can look but not touch.

You get to sniff the fresh, pine-scented air, you get to watch ducklings panicking across your patio as you eat your cornflakes (bought from the Parc Market, a supermarket like any other, but prettier), you get to sit in front of a "real" fire (burning smoke-free Duralogs) in the evenings - but don't try leaving the paths and striking off into the forest proper - it's not allowed.

In fairness, Center Parcs says this is because it doesn't want the 750,000 visitors it plays host to every year mucking up the carefully maintained environmental work. Anyway, I shouldn't complain - the last time I spent more than a few hours in the countryside was at Glastonbury festival, circa 1986. There wasn't much mud that year, but then there weren't many loos either: three days peeing in prickly hedgerows made me distrustful of the natural world. (This, plus the fact that small children seem to need to go about every 20 minutes, meant I was deeply grateful for the superabundance of WCs.)

Other good things were the enormous wooden adventure playground, reassuringly safety-netted yet still challenging; the kiddie-trailers you could attach to the back of hire bikes (like miniature motorcycle sidecars); and - oh, joy of joys - the fact that baby-sitters could be booked in advance. But the best bit was the aforementioned Subtropical Swimming Paradise: a fantastical cross-fertilisation of the Palm House at Kew with an upmarket motorway service station. Here, cafes and shops ("The Trattoria", "Treats", "The American Family Restaurant"), serviced by staff in McJob-style uniforms, sit gently steaming amid a rainforest of well-kept banana plants and palm trees. Walk further into its bowels, and you reach the "Swimming" bit of the Paradise - an inventive series of linked pools, large and small, indoors and out, with slides and rides that little children (as well as larger ones like me) can enjoy. My progeny would have been happy to stay there all day - at least at first.

And there's the rub. By Monday, our final day, we had exhausted the repertoire of things for really little ones to do. There was a well-run kindergarten, but both ours were still a bit too small and unused to strangers for us to make much use of it.

Still, because of that god-sent baby-sitter, we got a blissful evening off. One son learned to ride a "big-boy's" bike with stabilisers, the other learnt to swim with armbands, and, for one weekend at least, I could escape that most 20th-century of burdens - worrying that my children are going to be knocked down by a speeding car. I did replace it with worrying that they were going to be knocked down by one of the hundreds of speeding mountain-bikes. But that's the joy of parenthood.


center parcs

Where to go

There are Center Parcs at Longleat in Wiltshire, Sherwood in Nottinghamshire, and Elveden in Suffolk.

Staying there

The author took a mid-season weekend break in a two-bedroom executive villa at Longleat Forest, price pounds 342. Prices range from pounds 159 for a mid- winter weekend break in a one-bedroom villa, to pounds 999 for a mid-summer full week break in a three-bedroom executive villa. Packages include accommodation, linen and unlimited use of the swimming pools. Other activities cost extra. Centre Parcs (tel: 0990 200200).