Family Travel: September in Center Parcs

It was my birthday on September 5th, so we decided to sneak away for a family weekend and a little celebration of my increasing age. We went to Center Parcs – Whinfell in Cumbria from Friday to Monday and had a lovely, lovely time. We even managed to do it on a bit of a budget too!

It’s so easy at Center Parcs to overload yourself with activities, but we were all in need of a restful break. We decided to dial down the busyness and focus on chilling out and being together. So that’s what we did.

Family Travel: September in Center Parcs

We arrived mid afternoon on the Friday (my birthday), unpacked and went to the Subtropical Paradise, otherwise known as the swimming pool. It was great to get in the water, and because we went in quite late at around 5pm it wasn’t hugely busy. We enjoyed the rapids and the waves for a bit, then went to relax in the baby pool while the small boy poured buckets of water over us.

After swimming, we headed back to our lodge, had some pasta for tea, sang Happy Birthday to me and settled down for the evening. We were all exhausted so it was early to bed for us all.

Saturday we’d arranged a free morning. The boys went to the playground while I read my book in peace and quiet for a bit. Later we all went swimming (swimming is free, so we did this a lot), then back to the lodge for a picnic lunch on the patio (any food eaten outdoors is a picnic to us, the small boy is obsessed with picnics). After lunch we trundled off to see the rangers and enjoy the pre-booked Mammal Magic session.

Family Travel: September in Center Parcs

Ranger Richard is lovely, really knowledgable and great with the kids. He brought round a number of animals to stroke and learn a bit more about. It sounds like his house is a bit of a menagerie. We met a polecat, a rat, a hedgehog, an Australian sugar glider and a husky. The hedgehog and the husky were our favourites.

After giving our hands a good scrub we popped to the pub for a quick pint before wandering over to Hucks in the village centre for our pre-booked tea. Hucks serve American Style food. We’d been four years ago when I was pregnant and if I’m honest we weren’t that impressed, but decided to give it another go. The food was much better, we shared a tasty spinach and cheese dip to start; and then himself had a burger and I had veggie fajitas. The small boy ate from the kids buffet. It wasn’t gourmet food, it is what it is and it was okay. We would go again on our next visit.

Family Travel: September in Center Parcs

Sunday was the day I was most looking forward to. We had a relaxing morning drinking coffee in bed and watching cartoons on TV. Then we headed off to the playground to burn off some energy. We had lunch in Dexters which is a burger bar next to the Subtropical Paradise; then the small boy and I wandered over to the soft play area while the big boy swanned off to the spa for a spot of pampering.

We’d booked the small boy into the crèche to go to a chocolate party for three hours. This was so we could go to the spa together for a treat. For complex organisational reasons we were only together in the spa for 90 minutes. We each had three hours in there, moving from steam room to steam room, swimming in the lovely outdoor pool, enjoying the saunas, resting on the waterbeds, enjoying some serious relaxation.

I adore the Aqua Sana spa at Center Parcs, I was steamed to perfection by the time I left. My skin was glowing and smooth and I felt fantastic. I could do with a spa session like that on a regular basis!

The small boy had had a brilliant time at the chocolate party. He’d been sent away with a box of goodies and an apron he’d decorated himself. He’d had a good time and so had we, it was win-win. The Center Parcs creche is really good, there are lots of activity sessions to choose from and they are well looked after.

It’d been another busy day for us all, exhausted but happy we all had a really excellent nights sleep.

Monday arrived and it was time for us to leave Center Parcs. We packed up and went for one last play in the playground. We had one last swim and one last picnic lunch by the lake in the sunshine. All told it was a fantastically restful weekend. We were sad to leave but I know that we’ll be back again really soon. There’s already talk of a spa day.

Family Travel: September in Center Parcs

Read about our visit to Winter Wonderland at Whinfell

Travel: Winter Wonderland Center Parcs Whinfell

We’ve just got back from Center Parcs and I can confirm an excellent time was had by all. Since the small boy appeared on the scene three years ago we’ve been eagerly anticipating the time when he was old enough to appreciate Winter Wonderland Center Parcs. The lights in the trees; Christmassy activities; meeting and chatting with Father Christmas. This year was our chance, so in August we booked it. Four magical nights in the Winter Wonderland at Whinfell village, we couldn’t wait.

Family Travel: Winter Wonderland Center Parcs Whinfell

When we first started going to Center Parcs around 8 years ago, we had stacks of disposable income. We were young(ish) with decent(ish) jobs, earning ok(ish) money. Since then we’ve added the small boy to our ranks; my husband’s business has taken a knock during the economic downturn and I’ve quit my old, miserable, but fairly well paid job in search of self-employed happiness.

This means that from now on our holidays and leisure activities need to be more budget than barnstorming. With this in mind we set to work figuring out how to have an amazing time without spending an awful lot. I confess there were somewhat mixed results with this, but if you’re going, you might learn from our mistakes.

The secret to saving money or not spending it in the first place is planning. We formulated a two-pronged attack. I was responsible for meal planning and catering. Together we chose which would be the most fun activities with the best fun-to-cost ratio. Husband was responsible for paying for it and remembering to put all the holiday food in the car before we left. Remember that.

Food at Center Parcs

Center Parcs does indeed have its own little supermarket, most of the products are reasonably priced and in line with maybe Tesco, but in this house we run on an Aldi budget. The plan was to stock up on staples at home and buy fresh fruit and veg etc there.

The night before we left I sent Hodge to Aldi with a perfectly detailed list of essentials which he dutifully bought. These essential essentials were neatly packed in a bag ready for popping in the car before we left. I was to pack up a few fresh things that were floating around our home kitchen, such as bread and milk before we left that morning, which I did do. Jobs-a-good’un.

The flaw to this plan, and I suspect you’ve already picked up on it, was that the large bag of essential foodstuffs bought especially for our holiday was left beautifully packed at home. Meaning that on arrival we had to re-purchase said foodstuffs at the ok-but-slightly-more-than-we’d-normally-pay prices. Ouch.

Activities at Whinfell

If you’ve got kids then the secret to a budget-friendly break at Center Parcs is the exotically named “Subtropical Paradise” or “swimming pool” as we call it. If you can tear yourselves away from the pool-side cafes and state of the art cabanas, then you can while away a few hours each day enjoying the waves, rapids, canyon rides and water slides. This was the key to our master plan and by jingo it worked!

The small boy loved it, we all loved it. There was a little something for each of us. I got to swim properly in a small roped off area. Husband, the ageing adrenaline junkie loved the rides and slides and the small boy liked bobbing up and down in the waves and pouring buckets of water over my head. You could really easily spend the day here.

In terms of forking out for fun we booked two things which we thought he’d love. The first was “Woodland Tails” which was brilliant; we had a walk through the woods with a ranger who then took us back to the Rangers Lodge to meet a polecat, a hedgehog and a very tame and beautiful tawny owl. The small boy loved it and it was worth every penny.

Family Travel: Winter Wonderland Center Parcs Whinfell

Ok, so we did massively push the boat out on an absolutely non-negotiable part of the break. Husband and I wanted, needed, insisted upon having a spa session together. This meant the small boy needed to be put in the crèche (or go to a brilliant party, which is how I sold it to him). Together our three hours of spa-bliss and a crèche place cost almost £100, but by-heck it was worth it. We really needed that afternoon of relaxation.

Center Parcs is littered with playgrounds and is incredibly bike friendly. You could easily get away with not booking and paying extra for any activities at all. There are a few free things around the village, trim-trails and so forth to keep you occupied. Or you could just spend your time bouncing from one Starbucks to another.

Winter Wonderland What’s On

During the “winter wonderland” season at Center Parcs they have a twice weekly firework display. I’m not a massive fireworks fan, but it was free. It was the small boy’s first display and it was absolutely lovely. There were lots of oohs and aahs from the watching crowds and the look on his little face just about says it all. Totally worth the £3.95 each for a mulled wine and mince pie while we waited at the pub.

Family Travel: Winter Wonderland Center Parcs Whinfell

Our second Winter Wonderland toddler activity was a visit to meet Father Christmas. Priced at £10 we thought this was actually really good value for money. You could explore Santa’s Workshop before going in to meet the man himself. You had a nice chat with him, got a pretty decent present and your picture taken, all included in the price. His workshop was located in a beautiful winter wonderland which we spent a few hours exploring.

After this we all felt incredibly festive and it was worth going to Center Parcs for just for that experience alone.

Family Travel: Winter Wonderland Center Parcs Whinfell

We do really love Center Parcs. I think as the small boy gets older we’ll start giving him a small activity budget so he can decide what he wants to try or do. We can’t wait to go back. We’re going to book a return visit for the spring. Hopefully this time my husband will remember to pack the food.

I’ll admit, it wasn’t the bargain-basement break we were after; but it was the slightly more expensive but brilliant holiday we needed, and that’s what counts. 

I’ve also had a separate article about our winter wonderland Center Parcs break published in Mums & Dads Magazine, you can read it here.

Read about our September visit to Center Parcs