I love children and always wanted to be a mum. I met my husband, Grant, when I was 16 and we married when I was 21. After a few years of trying to get pregnant, a doctor told me that my fallopian tubes were blocked. In 2011, we went to see an IVF consultant. He advised me to join an internet site for people going through IVF, to share stories and get support. That’s how I met Donna.
Donna messaged me; we soon swapped numbers and became the best of friends. Two years ago a national newspaper heard of our friendship and the unusual situation that brought us together, so they flew Donna from Scotland to Surrey to spend the weekend with me. It was lovely to finally meet in person. Since then we continued to speak every day by text, chatting about failed treatment after treatment. Eventually, Donna became pregnant and, a few months later, so did I. Both with boys! We’ve been so excited to see each other again and meet the babies, so this holiday was the perfect place for it.
“For me, this holiday was a first in some ways too as I’d never been with a baby in tow”
Donna and her husband Mark hadn’t been to Center Parcs before so it was my job to show them the ropes. If I’m honest I was a little nervous. When you talk so highly about somewhere you love, that holds such great childhood memories, you’re aware that someone seeing it with fresh and adult eyes may be a little underwhelmed. I didn’t need to worry; they loved it and have said they will definitely go back in future. From start to finish the staff were fantastic. For me, this holiday was a first in some ways too as I’d never been with a baby in tow.
Why we chose Center Parcs
My first ever visit to Center Parcs was the opening week of Sherwood Forest in July 1987; I was just 12 months old. Obviously I don’t remember much but it’s safe to say my parents got the bug. As each new Village opened up and down the country, we’d book a break to suss it out. We have continued visiting Center Parcs about twice a year ever since which, over the past 27 years, adds up to approximately 54 breaks.
Very soon our favourite Village became Longleat Forest, mainly because it was closest to us. We have been visiting for more than 20 years and I’m willing to bet a large amount of cash that any member of my family could find their way around every inch of the enormous Wiltshire site blindfolded.
For our first family holiday last week, we chose Sherwood Forest in Nottingham as Donna, Mark and their baby Noah were joining us from Scotland. As we live in Surrey, Nottingham is roughly half way, so Sherwood’s location worked perfectly. I was very excited to visit Sherwood again as I hadn’t been since I was very young, on the opening week.
We stayed in an Executive two-bed, two-storey Lodge with beautiful bedrooms and luxurious en-suites, complete with rainforest showers and jacuzzi baths. In our accommodation, we had a cot and highchair which was a great help. We had parking next to the Lodge instead of in the main car park, which was a lifesaver on arrival and departure day when packing and unpacking. We had also arranged for a family grocery pack to be there when we arrived and we were very grateful to see that it had already been unpacked and put away for us. It included all your essentials – including bread, eggs, drinks, crisps and teabags – which meant we didn’t have to think of a food shop as soon as we arrived.
“One of my favourite parts of the accommodation has always been the view from the lounge…It really feels as if you’re in your own little woodland fairytale”
It was a lovely treat to see wine and beer in the fridge too! One of my favourite parts of the accommodation has always been the view from the lounge. Staying at Center Parcs treats gives you a lovely little outdoor space through the patio doors, looking out on to beautiful woodland and a large pond full of wildlife. We had swans, ducks, squirrels and lots of other animals trotting up to us every day wanting to say hello. It really feels as if you’re in your own little woodland fairytale.
The activities and food
We were looking forward to lots of activities: having copious amounts of Starbucks, trying out the Baby Dolphin swimming activity, a group meal at Rajinda Pradesh, Quad Bike Safari for the husbands as well as a Fun Pots with Tots session. However, well, you know what they say: the best-laid plans often go awry.
Unfortunately on Tuesday, just a day into our break, my husband Grant started to feel unwell. There’d been a bug in our family the week before that he’d obviously brought up in his suitcase. Usually, he’s a typical man, pretends he’s on top of the world even if he’s dying inside, but he couldn’t even get out of bed. I started to worry and remembered I had seen signs for the Village Medical Centre, with a nurse there every day from 9am to 5pm. The nurse was brilliant, asking about all of his symptoms and whether he’d like a visit. When she heard there were young babies in the house she told me all the things to do to avoid them catching it and also what to do if they did get it. Excellent!
Grant definitely wasn’t up to doing the planned Quad Bike Safari, so we called the Center Parcs team and said we regretfully had to cancel. Staff were very helpful. We left Grant in bed and popped out to Sports Café in Jardin des Sports. We lounged on the huge comfy sofas and relaxed for a couple of hours while the babies slept next to us. Lovely stuff. We ordered the chicken and bacon salad which was really tasty. It was nice to see a salad that wasn’t a cop-out made with a few simple leaves, but beetroot, grated carrot and lots of other lovely food making it a great hearty meal.
“I don’t know if I can find the words to fully get across how amazing it is in Aqua Sana…it was such a relaxing place”
By Thursday, Grant was starting to feel much better. Donna, Mark and I had lunch in the Pancake House and the food was fantastic. Donna and Mark had the All-Day Breakfast Pancake, while I ordered a chicken, mushroom and paprika omelette with a whopping chocolate pancake for dessert and a hot chocolate. It was so good I could barely walk afterwards, but totally worth it.
We went back to the Lodge to settle the babies with the husbands, before Donna and I swiftly made our exit and walked to Aqua Sana spa. I don’t know if I can find the words to fully get across how amazing it is in there. It has a calming atmosphere as soon as you step in the door with lovely, friendly staff waiting at the reception. We booked a three-hour Spa Session, which we thought would go very quickly, but it was such a relaxing place we felt as though we were in there forever. After a few days away with the babies and having dealt with a sick bug, our spa treat couldn’t have come sooner.
On Friday, we packed up our things and left the Lodge by 10am. We walked to the Village Square for breakfast in Café Rouge; Mark and I had eggs Benedict which was delicious, Donna had a sausage and bacon bap and Grant just sat there looking sorry for himself!
Everywhere we visited was super child-friendly. The walkways are spacious as are the shops and restaurants, just what you need when you’re taking a pram everywhere. When you find somewhere to eat, the staff do all they can to sit you somewhere with enough room for the pram and mountain of bags you inevitably drag around with you.
The most impressive thing for me, from a parent’s point of view, were the baby stations. In each restaurant we visited there was a microwave, bottle warmer, bowls and free baby food. An absolutely genius idea and such a lovely touch to offer the complimentary food to make life even simpler for mums and dads while out and about. Unfortunately, Austin isn’t yet on solid food so we couldn’t take advantage of it.
“In each restaurant we visited there was a microwave, bottle warmer, bowls and free baby food. An absolutely genius idea and such a lovely touch”
The baby area in the Subtropical Swimming Paradise is also great. It has separate, shallow areas that are much warmer than the main pools, which is perfect for tiny ones. We decided that for our first visit with babies so young we’d like some luxury. The main pool area is fabulous, but with a wet floor and lots of people – with our added load of changing bags and blankets – we fancied somewhere more private. We booked a Cabana and it was the best decision I’ve ever made. Away from all the noise and crowds, these delightful wooden huts are complete with seriously comfy loungers, a fridge with complimentary drinks, towels and a safe.
My husband and I both said that in future we won’t go swimming at Center Parcs without booking one – they really are a godsend. With young babies, it was so great to have all the space we needed when changing. We paid £50 for four hours and they seat 6 to 8 people. It was worth every penny.
Also in the Village is a Crèche and more activities than you could ever fit into one holiday. Center Parcs is absolutely made for families. With crazy golf, swimming lessons, arts and crafts, zip wire, high ropes, bowling, indoor caving, archery, squash, treasure trails, fencing, falconry, roller skating, watersports and much more, it really is the place to be when you have children, whether newborns or teenagers.
I thoroughly enjoyed it as a child and it is still my favourite holiday destination even as an adult; to me it’s better than any holiday abroad! I was brought up going every single year and now I have a child myself I am so excited to continue the family tradition. You’d be absolutely bonkers not to book yourself a family holiday and see for yourself. Go on, go!
Hannah Leber, 28 is a blogger at First Time Mummy.