Looking for a half-term break? Claire Spreadbury takes her brood to the family-friendly retreat in Longleat Forest.
Getting into a two-person inflatable raft – in a swimming costume – is one of the most ungainly things you can possibly do. But as I straddle the figure of eight-shaped rubber ring, gripping on to the handles and waiting for the green light of the Typhoon, I can’t say I really care. We’re all here for a bit of family fun, and trying out Center Parcs’ newest water ride is making me feel a bit giddy.
I’m not much of a water-slide fan any more. There’s definitely something about getting older and having kids that makes me less able to enjoy the sensation of feeling like my stomach is going to fall out of my backside, and more miffed about the pain plunging into a pool gives me as the water shoots up my nose. But the Typhoon, I have to say, is great.
It’s family friendly, so me and my eight-year-old Rosie go down together (there is a height restriction of 1.22m, which she’s only just over). It’s fast with a bit of splashing, but not so scary you lose your stomach or get spat out at the end.
To add to the fun factor, you can choose your own lighting theme – from treetops to rainbow – by pressing a button at the top, then swooshing down the tunnel.
For those needing something a little more exciting, the Tropical Cyclone has also just landed here at Longleat Forest.Up to four of you can go on a raft at any one time and there are mega drops, adrenaline-pumping twists and turns, and a world of swearing coming down the chute, despite the same height restriction. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but is a whole heap of fun. The rides are the latest addition to the Subtropical Swimming Paradise, where even on a rainy day in the school holidays it never feels too busy.
You can head to the main pool for squeals galore as you jump over the surf from the wave machine, splash about in a shallow kids’ play area, hang out in the outdoor spa pool, and slide down flumes of every size and variety. Oh, and be sure to drift down the lazy river at least 17 times, like us, and try out the fun rapids.
The great thing about Center Parcs is there’s an abundance of activities going on and you can choose how much, or how few, you fancy doing. We try out Den Building and Decorating – one of the newer family activities. Unlike the usual sofa and sheets affair that goes on at home, we head out into the woods where three thin logs have been tied together to start us off. We have a massive pile of twigs, branches and logs, a tarpaulin, some leaves, and four pairs of hands ready to get dirty.
We work together to make a small, pyramid-shaped den, create some “flowers” for the entrance by stabbing twigs through heaps of leaves and decorate some lovely signage.
At the end, all the families inspect the different dens, and one person from each clan has to sit inside while the waterproofing test takes place, and then we have to dismantle the whole thing.
It costs £46.50 (however big your party) and lasts for an hour and a half. We had a really good time getting stuck in, but there are oodles of other activities too, from sports and quad biking to ten-pin bowling and photography lessons. They all cost extra, but there’s no pressure or upsell to do a thing.
Adults also get to have fun. The Aqua Sana spa can be used by day guests, as well as anyone staying at Center Parcs. The spa itself consists of 25 “experiences”, from the Indian blossom steam room and the hydro pool, to the Tyrolese Sauna and Reflexology Footbaths. It’s a joy to slouch around, as you move from one meditative state to another.
Of all the Center Parcs, Longleat always feels the most sprawling, so hiring a bike is an ideal way to get about.
It is pretty hilly, as Poppy – my five-year-old – finds out on the first day. But, although it’s hard work for little legs, it’s the perfect place for practising those cycling skills sans stabilisers, as there are no cars allowed on the roads and paths except on changeover days (Mondays and Fridays).
Balance bikes, teeny cycles with stabilisers, kids’ bikes, mountain bikes and traditional upright cycles are all available for hire (as are helmets). Prices start from £21 for children and £30 for adults.
In line with the spend as much or as little as you like ethos that seems to apply everywhere at Center Parcs, the modern wooden lodges are fully decked out with everything you need to cook breakfast, lunch and dinner all week long. But if you fancy eating out, there are a whole host of restaurants to choose from, and even a takeaway, too.
On our last night, we plump for the newest eatery, Las Iguanas. It’s a heady mix of painted wood, vibrant food and Brazilian music, which puts you in the mood for sinking a cocktail or two the second you sit down (the mojitos, £8.50, are delicious).
There are great vegan and vegetarian choices, and a cracking kids’ menu too. For cheese fans, feast on deep-fried Brazilian cheese and Brie and mango empanadas to start (£5-6 each), before indulging in the Halloumi skewers main (£11). The desserts are a bit disappointing, but who cares when you can have another cocktail while the kids burn off some energy in the play area?
A weekend break at Longleat Forest for a Woodland Lodge (sleeps up to four) starts from £499, centerparcs.co.uk