Those who haven't stayed at a Center Parcs before could be forgiven for thinking they're like a middle-class Butlins holiday camp. But having just returned from our fourth Center Parcs family break in five years, I can assure you this couldn't be further from the truth. Our visit to Elveden Forest in Suffolk – one of five villages in England – was one of the best holidays I've ever had.
As soon as we entered the village (an easy 90-minute drive from our London home), a sense of calm overtook us. Whether it has something to do with not having to use the car for four days (they're not allowed on site) or the picturesque woodland that provides the backdrop to Center Parcs, it seemed a far cry from the hustle and bustle of our daily lives.
"It was a novelty to be woken by a family of ducks who'd gathered at the glass door of our lodge. This to me is what makes Center Parcs so special – the chance to enjoy nature at its best. And though we were lucky enough to have sunshine for most of our stay, there is plenty to do if the weather is bad."
From past experience we knew it pays to plan ahead at Center Parcs – though there is a staggering amount of activities on offer, some do fill up quickly. With our weekend mapped out for us thanks to a great pre-booking brochure that arrived a fortnight before our visit, we knew we had a couple of hours to explore our surroundings before our scheduled Rollerblading session.
Our three-bedroomed home for the next few days was one of the Woodland Lodges, with contemporary furniture, wooden floors and stylish beds. The lodges are cleverly laid out so that you feel a sense of seclusion from other families, although next time we've got our eye on one of the luxury Treehouses with their own hot tubs.
Used to the confines of our local park, my five- and six-year-old sons were thrilled to have free rein of their bikes, with me relaxed in the knowledge there would be no collisions with cars. Our five-minute cycle to the Village Square – the main hub – took us on a very scenic route. The Square is home to the sports arena, with the boating lake, country club, spa and nature club all in close proximity. With my husband in charge of our kids, who seemed to be spending more time on their bottoms than rollerskates, I went to sample Aqua Sana spa. It's one of the most luxurious I've ever seen, with a vast selection of pampering treatments.
After a peaceful night's sleep, it was a novelty to be woken by a family of ducks who'd gathered at the glass door of our lodge. This to me is what makes Center Parcs so special – the chance to enjoy nature at its best (something the kids usually take for granted). And though we were lucky enough to have sunshine for most of our stay, there is plenty to do if the weather is bad. The glass-roofed Subtropical Swimming Paradise area is extremely popular, and after a morning spent bowling and playing badminton, provided a fun place to cool down.
As for the next couple of days, each seemed to blur into the other with activities for the kids and ourselves. The highlight for the boys was a two-hour virtual fashion workshop where they learnt how to design their own T-shirts. We used that time to play tennis and take a much-needed cycle ride to burn off the excessive amount of calories we seemed to be consuming – blame it on the fresh air, or perhaps the unusual amount of sport I was doing, but my husband and I were constantly famished.
See our feature 8 Ways to Make the Most of a Family Break at Center Parcs for insider tips on enjoying your holiday to the maximum, and check out our other hand-picked family holiday park deals and recommendations in the UK and the rest of Europe.