Fluffy snowflakes are falling, the dark Cumbrian forest is sparkling with coloured fairy lights and our children are shouting with excitement. We’ve arrived in Winter Wonderland at Center Parcs Whinfell Forest in Cumbria for the annual festive celebration complete with Santa, elves and carol-singing reindeer. Fake snow, although contrived, does inspire festive jollity. However admittedly, this year, it’s been easy to slip into yuletide cheer with a stay in one of Whinfell Forest’s new luxury Exclusive Lodges. Nestled among scented pine trees, this newly built enclave of 10 detached two-storey wood-clad lodges is Centre Parcs Whinfell’s most expensive digs yet.
Conveniently-located, it’s a short pedal to the Sports Plaza, Santa’s Woodland Market and – the clincher for us work-weary mums – the Aqua Sana Spa. The successful Center Parcs staples are all still here – crisp luxury bedlinen, comfortable beds, high chairs, cots and those ingenious large wall-mounted chalkboards ideal for keeping the munchkins occupied while you unpack. But, at £1,649 for a three-night stay, what exactly do you get?
For starters, plenty of space. It was an ideal fit for our party of two families (four adults and four boisterous, over-excited children age 7 and 5). A carpeted staircase (with stairgates top and bottom) leads upstairs to four en-suite bedrooms (two with Jacuzzi baths and private balconies) off a central hall. Downstairs is a large open-plan kitchen, dining, living area with log burner. Luxe touches include two fridges, a wine cooler, Hansgrohe taps and a Bosch expresso machine. Understated decor plays on a woodland theme, with silver birch feature wallpaper, wood grain lampshades and leaf print rugs and artworks. Two sets of floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors allow panoramic forest views.
The children immediately commandeered the games room (off the kitchen). The pool table, flat screen TV and irresistible bean bags kept them amused for hours, allowing the adults rare uninterrupted conversation. Other perks include free Wi-Fi, dedicated parking (you don’t have to leave your car in the main car park), temperature controls in each room and daily housekeeping.
Outside, a large patio with an outdoor dining table, bbq and sun loungers meets the forest. The show stopper is the large ‘spa house’ – the size of a London flat – complete with generous sauna, steam room and indoor/outdoor showers. Everyone’s favourite was the large outdoor ‘disco’ hot tub (our kids loved the flashing coloured lights). Our first en-masse-with-kids-Jacuzzi was akin to being in a bucketful of wriggling minnows and had us all shrieking with laughter. Later, with the littlies asleep, we enjoyed a decadent steamy soak, sipping Prosecco under starry skies.
TIP: The hot tub is emptied for cleaning from 8am on Mondays, so make sure you use it before the last day!
Center Parcs Whinfell Forest has a mind-boggling 200 indoor and outdoor activities, plus festive events – we tried and tested the newest activities for 2017…
Indoor Climbing Adventure
Our kids couldn’t wait to try this colourful vertical playground.
How it works: Instructors fit children with a harness and they climb up the wall then simply let go and the auto belay system gently lowers them to the ground. Our kids loved scaling snakes and ladders, chess boards and challenging each other to hit the red timer button at the top. Racing their friends on the transparent double-sided racing wall was a huge hit.
Tip: Try it as a family – children are natural climbers and it’s a great confidence builder. Wear trainers and comfortable clothing for reaching high.
The Lowdown: All ages, minimum weight 3 stone, minimum height 1.1 metres, adult £23, child £21.50, from 9am.
The highlight of the trip – our kids loved the thrill of driving their own miniature 4 x 4 Landrover replica.
How it works: Kids don a tweed flap cap and instructors show them how to steer and operate the 4 x 4, then try a few laps of the training track to gain confidence. The idea is to drive laps of the off-road course, over bumps, obstacles, hillocks and through puddles while collecting puzzle pieces from woodland animals along the way. Favourites were splashing through a large puddle.
Tip: Parents are given a fob that will instantly but gently stop the car moving, but we didn’t use it. Bring your camera, our kids loved showing friends how they drove ‘a real car’.
The lowdown: Age 3-7 years, 30-minute session, £15, from 8.45am
Subtropical Swimming Paradise
Housed under a glass dome that’s heated to 29.5°C, with lush tropical foliage and waterfalls, the subtropical swimming paradise has water slides for tots to teens. There’s toddler slides with bubbles, mid-sized slides of increasing difficulty and thrill-seeking flumes. It’s vast, with several heated outdoor and indoor pools, ‘rock’ arches to swim under, a wave machine, a fast lazy river (a family favourite) and poolside café.
Tip: Arrive early at opening time (10am) or late afternoon to beat the queues for the most popular flumes. Go here for more tips on How to get the best from your Center Parcs stay.
Crèche: Childcare at Whinfell is in the Ofsted-registered Children’s Activity Den. There is a dedicated, secure crèche with age-specific toys and a quiet area with sleeping cots, for children age 3-23 months and 24-35 months. Three-hour session, £23, Wed, Thurs & Sun 8.45pm and 1pm.
Den Activities: Age 3+ go into themed activities, held in a large room with sliding doors opening onto an enclosed outdoor playground with pirate ships, slides, trikes and ride ons. Click here for a full lowdown on the Winter Wonderland Activities for 2017.
Tip: Book your child into the Children’s Den for a discount at the spa.
Aqua Sana Spa rivals any top hotel spa and is a must-visit. This relaxed adults-only area has an impressive 15 spa experience rooms; we basked in the balmy Indian Blossom Steam Room and Turkish Hammam and blissed out on a water bed for hours. My festive spirit was recharged by a relaxing Elemis mini-facial and frangipani hot stone massage, boosted by a glass of Prosecco in the spa’s Vitale Café.
Tip: A dip in the heated outdoor pool under the pine trees is heavenly. Book your child into the Children’s Den and both parents can receive a discounted spa session for £26 each.
The lowdown: 3-hour spa session, open Tues-Sun, 9am-9pm, £44. Elemis Brighten and Glow, 55 minutes, £79.
Where to eat
Relaxed family dining – tasty pizza (create your own and gluten-free options), pasta, burgers and a gelato cart – it’s hard to go past it. Kids were handed colouring-in on arrival and chose from the Piccolo 2-6 year olds menu (£5.95) or Grande 7-11 year olds menu (£8.20), prices include starter, main, dessert and drink.
Tip: It’s popular, book in advance.
WHAT IT COSTS:
A three-night weekend break in a four-bedroom new Exclusive Lodge (for up to 8 people) at Center Parcs Whinfell Forest starts from £1,649*, including access to the Subtropical Swimming Paradise.
(*Prices start from March 2018, correct at time of posting.)