By Judith Woods The Telegraph
“So,” I inquired on arriving at the new Woburn Forest Center Parcs, which opens officially on June 6. “Where’s the big glass dome? Has it been retracted?”
Dear reader, two days on, I blush at my newbie gaucheness. But in fairness, all I knew about the place was that it was a bit like camping but with a better loo block. How wrong I was.
My husband, who also thought Center Parcs was a fully glazed resort and a bit like camping but in a greenhouse, actually refused to come. Instead, I brought my two daughters, aged 12 and five, and my friend and her two sons, aged 12 and nine. This was partly because I thought it would be more fun for the children – but mostly because only a madwoman would take her children off for a half-term trip alone, without so much as a drinking companion.
Never having been to any of the four other Center Parcs in the country – in Whinfell Forest in Cumbria, Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, Longleat Forest in Wiltshire and Elveden Forest in Suffolk – I had nothing to judge Woburn by. But from the moment I engaged in merry chit-chat with the woman at the check-in by the front gate, I was bowled over. Everything had been thought of; so much so that Woburn had the other-worldly atmosphere of a place designed according to some sort of finely honed middle-class leisure algorithm. And I mean that as a compliment.
It offered space, greenery, a Strada restaurant, a small lake with an obliging pair of mallards and a dozen entertaining ducklings, worthy conservation values, electric vehicles, a smattering of upmarket retail opportunities and enough activities to exhaust a pack of springer spaniels, never mind four children. And the children adored every exhilarating moment; treasure hunts and climbing, archery and badmintonMy fun was relearning how to ride a bike; the last time I rode one I ended up unconscious on a French roadside. When I fell off my bike this time, something metallic crunched disagreeably. Unbidden, a pleasant young man came to my aid, sorted my gears, righted me and released me back into the wild.
For lads and dads there was a Sports Bar, to watch football, albeit with a play area, so fathers could be, nominally at least, left to mind babies and toddlers while mothers made a pilgrimage to the spa.
I was booked into the spa for the first morning, but kept deferring it as it was actually quite pleasant to spend my downtime drinking coffee on the balcony and watching the children hurtling about on bikes below. When eventually I dragged myself away to the glorious Aqua Sana spa, on the last morning, I almost dissolved with pleasure. This was high-end, and then some. So much so, I didn’t mind not having a treatment, because otherwise I might have missed a stop on the journey to ultimate bliss. In the space of three hours I took a herbal inhalation bath, a lava-volcano sauna, a rain walk through a simulated tropical thunderstorm and was steamed, minerally, aromatically and blossomy.
There was the lemon grass sauna, which felt like melting inside a sherbet lemon, the salt room, which was invigorating, and the full-body multi-sensory spa, which tipped me to such a point of cellular tranquillity that I nodded off in the aqua-meditation room. Afterwards, I was so relaxed I could barely walk and, in truth, if I’d visited the spa on the first morning I would have selfishly insisted on going every day. All day. Meanwhile, back at the lodge, not one of the six televisions was on. Instead, dens were being built and games invented.
Center Parcs is orchestrated entertainment and manicured nature, which for a short break, suited us fine. The glass-sided “dome” or Subtropical Swimming Paradise, heated to 29.5C, housed not just the slides and water rides, but a profusion of orchids, palms and bamboos, rescued by botanists from Sumatra, Laos and Burma, where they were endangered by deforestation.
By the end of three days, the children had to be bullied, cajoled and bribed to get into the car. They have also been pleading with their father since we got back to take them again.
After all, he’s never been to Center Parcs and probably still believes the whole site is covered by a big retractable glass dome.
A stay at the new Woburn Forest Center Parcs (08448 266266;centerparcs.co.uk/woburn) costs from £399 for a four-night midweek break in a two-bedroom Woodland Lodge, from £799 for a four-bedroom Executive Lodge, or £1,399 for a top-of-the-range four-bedroom new-style Exclusive Lodge with private games room, sauna, steam room and hot tub. The price includes unlimited entry to the Subtropical Swimming Paradise, but not activities that have to be booked, such as Segway hire or crafts sessions. Visitors can bring their own bikes or hire them there. There are several restaurants and a supermarket on site and all lodges have kitchens.