Who went Sarah Moss, her husband Terry and children Laurence, 6, and Peggy, 4
Why we went
We wanted somewhere comfortable, convenient and with lots to keep our (very energetic) children busy.
Living in London and without a car, I always felt the Center Parcs were a bit difficult to get to for a short break, so was pleased to hear one was opening only 50 minutes away by rail from St Pancras (and just four miles from the M1 junction 13). This was perfect for us, especially as Center Parcs runs a mini bus service on Mondays and Fridays from Flitwick Station to the Woburn village. In just over an hour we’d been transported from grey Camden to a green leafy oasis set in 362 acres of forest – it all felt a bit surreal!
On your bike
The first thing to do on arrival was to get our wristbands, which act as keys to your lodge, can be used to pay for things throughout your stay, and secure lockers at the swimming pools and spa.
We also needed to collect the bikes we’d pre-ordered from the 2,300 available for guests to hire. Bikes are pretty much essential for getting around, although most of the lodges are within walking distance from the facilities – being on two wheels just means you get everywhere a lot more quickly! For children who can’t ride yet (like Peggy), there are trailers to attach to your bike so they can come along for the ride.
Don’t worry about getting lost either, as there’s ample signage and digital screens displayed throughout the village to help you navigate your way around. There’s even an app with interactive map and free wi-fi.
Entering our lodge, it was obvious we were at the newest of the UK’s Center Parcs – it had a light, airy open-plan living space with slick contemporary kitchen, with all mod cons (including a wine cooler, Terry and I were pleased to note), large corner sofa, and family dining table. The two bedrooms were both en suite, and large patio windows opened out from the lounge onto out own little paved area with barbecue station.
The lodges are staggered so you don’t feel overlooked, and there are plenty of trees to give a feeling of privacy and also of being at one with the great outdoors – the inside of the lodge echoed this theme, with a woodland mural on the living room wall, which fascinated Laurence and Peg. All 625 lodges at Woburn have been built using sustainable and high performance materials (including good insulation to keep heat loss to a minimum) and large windows to reduce the need for artificial light. There are also plenty of larger lodges with extra features such as hot tubs and saunas, should you wish to splash out.
What we did
Center Parcs are perhaps most well know for their all-weather swimming domes (I confess when I was younger I thought that the entire park was under a dome!). Woburn has the largest Subtropical Swimming Paradise (at 5,200 square metres) of all UK Center Parcs and we couldn’t wait to check it out as the imposing glass structure looked amazing from the outside!
I was really impressed with the changing areas – there were literally hundreds of spacious private changing cabins that you entered one side and exited the other – it made changing a wriggling excitable Peggy into her cossie so much easier! There were even coin-operated people-drying booths that were a fun way of helping the children dry off without tears.
The aquatic fun included a wave pool, Lazy River and Wild Water Rapids, all landscaped with tropical plants rescued from areas under threat of deforestation and heated to a balmy 29.5C – it felt like we were on a space station! Some of the rides were a bit wild for Laurence and Peggy, so we stuck to the gentle shores of the Venture Cove family play area. As the paradise is open from 10am to 9pm, Terry and I decided that we’d drop the children at the crèche later and return to sample the thrills of the Tornado, Twister and Typhoon.
With more than 100 activities on offer at Woburn Forest, there’s no need to ever hear cries of “I’m bored”. As well as having fun in the children’s activity den, Terry and Laurence did a bit of father-son bonding at a Robin Hood and Little Johns archery session (and despite their age difference, apparently Laurence’s aim had the edge on his daddy’s), while I took Peggy along to a cupcake decorating workshop.
We also enjoyed a family pottery painting session, where our artistic efforts were professionally glazed and fired overnight for us to take away.
What we ate
With 13 restaurants and cafés onsite, including Indian, French and Italian options, there really was something for every taste. On our first night, we bowed to the children’s tastes and convenience, by heading to Huck’s, an American-themed diner where Laurence and Peggy tucked into half-portions of sticky ribs, cheese-topped fries, buttery corn cobs, chocolate brownie sundaes and other messy fare I would only ever dream of feeding them on holidays (though I was reassured to note all food was GM free). I was the epitome of restraint nibbling on a Cajun spiced prawn salad, though I may have swiped an onion ring or two from Terry’s side dish.
On the second night Terry and I fancied a more adult dining experience, so after cooking the children some dinner in our lodge, we took advantage of the babysitting service and headed to The Shearing House, the most refined on-site option, which offers food inspired by the local area’s farming heritage and has a lovely terrace with forest views. My local pork belly slow cooked in white wine with was as succulent as it sounds and Terry was more than happy with his trio of Woburn sausages with onion gravy.
If you don't fancy eating out, it's easy to cook meals at your lodge, thanks to the well-equipped kitchen, barbecue facilities and on-site supermarket.
Not quite used to all the cycling and energy levels our stay required, I was beginning to feel in need of a little R&R, so I packed Terry and the children off to the swimming paradise for a few hours, while I indulged in a visit to the Aqua Sana Spa. Perhaps because it’s designed to cater for a more demanding London-based clientele and is available for spa days too, it is rather more swanky than you might expect. It was certainly the largest spa I’ve ever been in – huge at 7,100 square metres over three floors, with a gorgeous outdoor infinity pool, Jacuzzi and loungers.
That's not all, as there are six themed zones offering 25 different sensory experience rooms too.My favourite zones were Fire & Ice – where I moved swiftly from a hot volcanic sauna to rubbing crushed ice on my body – and Blossom, which was full of divine floral aromas. There were also plenty of relaxation zones where I enjoyed a doze, and because the spa is so big it never felt crowded.
Why we would go back
The feeling of security and being part of a little community. It really did feel like we were in a village full of happy families cycling around. Center Parcs was first dreamed up as a way of getting families to enjoy the great outdoors and partake in activities together, and it certainly did that. Of course, the fact that there is always have something to do, whatever the weather or time of year, is also a great bonus when ruled by the rather unpredictable climate of UK!
Midweek breaks at Woburn Forest in 2014 currently start from £349 per lodge. Weekend breaks start from £479. For more information, call 03448 267 723 or visit www.centerparcs.co.uk
There are also villages at Sherwood in Nottinghamshire, Longleat in Wiltshire, Elveden in Suffolk, and Whinfell, Cumbria.