"It is fair to say that eyebrows were raised and giggles muffled when I told my friends that my husband, Ian, and I were going to be visiting Butlin’s Minehead with our two children, Tom, nine, and Katie, four. To be honest, I understood their reaction; holiday camps are not exactly my 'scene', and the old-fashioned, downtrodden image of Butlin’s didn’t do much for my levels of enthusiasm.
We suspected, however, that our children would love every minute of the break, with swimming pools, playgrounds and entertainment on tap, and the prospect of a weekend of ‘happy camping’ was sweetened by the fact that we would be staying in one of the resort’s brand new lakeside chalets in their exclusive West Lakes Village development. But would it really be possible to get that luxury weekend break experience in the middle of a bustling holiday camp with its 'no frills' reputation?
Butlin’s Minehead is situated on the Somerset coast, in the heart of the Exmoor National Park. It’s easily accessible from the M4 and M5, although its South West coast location means that the traffic can be heavy, especially during peak periods when everyone heads south to the seaside: on a bank holiday weekend, what should have been a three-hour journey by road took over five.
Butlin’s itself is a big place, and the queues just to get into the resort can add a long time to your journey. We arrived at 5pm and were lucky enough to drive right in, but as we left Minehead at 2pm on the first Monday of half-term, the tailbacks of arriving guests stretched for several miles – not ideal if you have impatient passengers in the back seat.
On arrival, we were shown straight to West Lakes Village’s dedicated reception area, with its own check-in staff. The arrival procedure was swift with no queues, and we were soon directed to a parking space right outside our chalet.
I was sceptical about Butlin’s' claims that their new chalets offered peace, serenity and relaxation, but we were pleasantly surprised by our two-bedroom Lakeside chalet. Newly opened in May 2015, the chalets promise to be the ultimate place for families to stay and play together, and our first impression was of space and cleanliness.
Our chalet featured a large open plan living space, with a flat-screen TV and DVD player and a well-equipped kitchen that included a dishwasher and microwave. There were two bedrooms – one king-size and one twin – and a modern bathroom plus an extra WC. We were impressed by the little touches such as origami elephants made from our towels – not something we expected from Butlin’s!
Our accommodation was simple but modern, with nods to Butlin’s 1930s’ heritage in the retro-style pictures on the walls. Its crowning glory was its spacious deck overlooking the manmade lake – a wonderful suntrap from which we were able to watch ducks and Canada geese drift past.
Designed in a colourful Hamptons style, the 117 chalets in West Lakes Village are set away from the other accommodation, and it really did feel like we were able to get away from it all despite only being a few minutes’ walk from the centre of the resort. There’s a choice of two-, three- and four-bedroom units, all with views over either the lakes or the ‘village green,’ which proved a popular gathering point for children with scooters and footballs. We were also surprised by the general cleanliness and good upkeep of the resort as a whole; although some areas do look a little dated, litter was minimal and the facilities were well maintained.
What we did
Butlin’s Minehead is not exactly a relaxing getaway, but if you have children who thrive on activity and excitement, its full timetable of events, from sports to swimming lessons to stage shows, is sure to appeal. The highlight for my children was the indoor pool, with its shallow beach area and wave pool, children’s pool, flumes and lazy river. It’s not cutting edge, but the children were having far too much fun to notice its slightly tired appearance. Be warned that it does get very busy, with long queues both to get in and for the water slides. Spending a little extra on ‘B-line’ fast passes means you can get in 15 minutes before opening time; these also allow you to queue-jump at the entertainment venues.
Tom and Katie loved the traditional fairground. Most of the rides, including a vintage helter skelter and carousel, are included in the price of the break, and it was nice not to have to think about how much we were spending, although some activities, such as the go karts and Zorbs, incur an extra cost.
Family entertainment isn’t a big draw for us, but we did check out a few of the shows. Katie was captivated by Angelina Ballerina’s dance class, and Tom joined the Red Coats’ party dances with great enthusiasm. There are also lots of free play areas, indoor and outdoor, dotted around the resort, as well as an outdoor paddling pool for younger children.
The children would happily have stayed on-site for the entire weekend, but there’s plenty to see and do in the local area. Just over the road is Minehead’s mile-long sandy beach, where we spent a pleasant afternoon building sandcastles and exploring the rock pools. The West Somerset Railway, with its vintage trains, is around the corner, and we all enjoyed our trip by steam to the pretty harbour town of Watchet. Dunster Castle, an imposing National Trust property a few miles from Minehead, is also well worth exploring and does a great job of making history fun for younger visitors: Tom and Katie enjoyed playing retro board games in the sitting room, ringing the dinner gong and dressing up as knights and princesses.
What we ate
Although the West Lakes chalets have everything you need to self-cater, we had Premium Dining passes to give ourselves a proper break from the routine. These entitled us to breakfast and dinner at a choice of two family-friendly buffet restaurants, The Deck and The Yacht Club.
Both restaurants were clean and modern, with a good selection of British and international food including continental and cooked breakfasts plus unlimited soft drinks, tea and coffee. Of the two, The Deck seemed more popular with families and offered a broader choice, including an omelette station at breakfast and wok, pasta and grill stations at dinnertime, where our meals were cooked to order. We, however, preferred The Yacht Club, which was smaller and quieter but still had plenty of options for the whole family.
There’s also a cheaper more basic half-board option, the Food Court dining plan, as well as a range of chain and independent eateries including Burger King, Pizza Hut, an American-style diner and two pubs if you want to pay as you go."
Butlin’s isn’t a luxury holiday, but staying in West Lakes Village did, however, mean that we had some nice little perks including daily maid service. The reception area had a wide choice of board games that we could borrow free of charge, as well as scooters for the children, and guests staying in the Village also have free WiFi access. Unfortunately, ours didn’t work, but that was probably a good thing as far as family time was concerned.
In addition, West Lakes Village has its own team of Red Coats who organise smaller-scale activities such as garden games and treasure hunts. These suited us well as it meant our children could get a flavour of the family entertainment without us having to battle the crowds in the main complex. A land train is also being introduced later in the year, connecting the chalets with the rest of the resort and the beach: guaranteed to be a hit with children.
Prices for a four-berth chalet in Butlin's' West Lakes Village start from £115 per person, and from £199 per person in the school summer holidays. Premium dining passes cost £24.50 per adult per day, £12.25 for children aged six to 14, and £6.25 for children aged two to five, with under twos free. B-Line fast passes cost from £16 per person.