Welcome to the pleasure dome

Martin Scudamore thought Center Parcs were simply throwback holiday camps with bubbles on. But he shed his prejudices and took the plunge
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The Independent Travel
It's a clear, dark night and you wade through the water chest- high. To one side you hear the screams of people plunging into a freezing pool, then the undertow seizes your legs and you start to float downstream. Feet first or head first, which is best? Too late to change your mind, you're swept under a bridge and round a corner. The water is lit from beneath, adding to the surreal effect as steam from the surface rises into the night air. Slipping and sliding, bumping off the smooth sides, trying to keep the right orientation, you hurtle down through the last few bends in a surge of foam. You're surrounded by bodies, eyes bright with excitement, and you can feel a huge grin forcing itself on to your face. Along with everyone else, you rush through the tropical foliage straight up to the top to begin the whole descent over again. It's compulsive, and attracts people from six to 60 - but some of us will feel those bumps and bruises in the morning.

The rapids are probably the most exciting of the free attractions at Center Parcs. That weirdly spelled name, and the idea that this may be some appalling marriage of Disney with Butlins, puts some people off. We children of the Fifties dimly imagined a holiday camp still to be a place where you are billeted in a cell and allowed out only according to the whim of the warders. Our misgivings were over-ruled by our children of the Eighties, who were desperate to visit, while we fretted about whether we would ever live down the naff associations of staying at a Center Parc. Yet the concept, which originated in Holland, turned out to be far from tacky. Think of it as living independently in a functional but comfortable villa in a pine forest, with lakes and waterfowl around, and virtually all the sports facilities you could ask for. There are roads in the parks but, except at previously set arrival and departure times, no cars at all - only bicycles.

Apart from anything else, the price is right - far cheaper than spending a long weekend on the Continent. And that double-glazed dome that rose UFO-like from Thetford Forest guaranteed us no rain. Prices can be as little as pounds 15 per person per night, if you choose your dates carefully.

Half-a-mile from your villa, at most, is the pleasurable dome: a huge hemisphere hanging over a compendium of activities. It houses a swimming pool, wave machine, slides, flumes, baby pools, hot pools, freezing plunge pools, jacuzzis, sun beds - and the rapids. The dome is maintained at a tropical temperature, an impression enhanced by the fronds of succulent greenery trailing everywhere. Entry to all of this is included in the price of your holiday, so if you have young children and are content to sit and watch them play happily in the water, the holiday needn't cost you any extra - apart from the occasional 90p for a giant ice-cream.

Away from the dome, there's a country club with snooker, fitness and weights room and aerobics classes. There's golf, archery, sailing, hockey and plenty more. The sport costs extra, and that can add a quite a bit to the cost of your holiday. But what you spend on sport, you save on self-catering: the on-site supermarket does not exploit its monopoly position. And those late-night swims are free.

Where to go

Center Parcs has three holiday villages: Sherwood Forest, Elveden Forest and Longleat. Layouts differ, but the essentials are similar. Villas accommodate two to eight people and have central heating, twin bedrooms, well-equipped kitchen, jet-bath, TV and private patio. Gas, electricity and bed linen are included in the cost. Reservations: 01623 411411.

What it costs

Prices for self-catering vary enormously according to time of year. For example, the Scudamores have booked a villa for six at Elveden for the weekend at the end of the February half-term. The cost is pounds 271, actually pounds 1 less than the same weekend last year. But for the weekend at the beginning of half-term, the price would be pounds 371.

WHAT OTHER FAMILIES THOUGHT OF CENTER PARCS

PAUL

As a fit middle-aged couple, we liked the way the place makes you feel young - but suffered afterwards from trying to do too much. The sporting and fitness activities were good; but it was a pain queuing to book them.

We knew we were near Center Parcs when all the cars seemed to have bikes strapped on the back. The lack of traffic on the site is wonderful and it is good to be outside in the middle of winter.

The children swam and played all day - no arguments - and the dome became quite magical in the evening. It was dark and frosty outside, yet swimming through a hot-water pool under the stars made you feel as though you were miles away from Britain.

It's brilliant. Swimming's the best thing you can do there, especially at night, but the changing rooms often get too crowded. The football training was fun as well. But it's best to take your own bike because the hire bikes are not so good.

The swimming is excellent - even the rapids and pools outside are nice and warm. But the pony trekking was really boring: all we did was walk around a muddy field. My pony was tiny and kept sinking in the mud.

RUTH

KAREN

OWEN (age 12)

BRYONY (age 10)

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