My 10 year old daughter and I have just returned from our first trip to Center Parcs. We chose Elveden as it’s only a couple of hours away in the car. Choosing to go in February half-term was a bit of a gamble weather-wise but we could not have been luckier: it was mild, it was sunny, it was perfect. Except for the journey down. When it rained. And my soul – when faced with a pending wet weather week with a moodier than normal tween – felt like a balloon with a teeny pin-prick in it, squeaky-leaking air so that by the time we were half way up some long-arse A road I felt deflated as hell. But then the sun came out and I was won over by the gorgeous Suffolk countryside. TFFT.
I need to rewind a bit to the morning of our departure. First tip for taking a Center Parcs holiday: be bloody organised. Like the fly-by-my-pants girl I am, I never checked my bike until the morning we were due to leave. Right on cue there were two flat tyres. In fact they were so bloody flat that when I wheeled the bike to the car the rubber fell away from the metal wheel. FFS. So, my first sweaty-top-lip moment came before I even tried to load the car (any parent knows the absolute stress of trying to get ready to go away with a kid. And load a car. And remember to get the kid in the car. Before returning ten minutes later because the one thing you asked your child to remember, they forgot etc. etc.).
So it was a mercy dash to Halfords as when I said: “sod it, I’ll hire one” my Center Parcs app told me that EVERY LAST BIKE was already bloody hired. Argh! So, after shoe-horning the bike into the boot of my (quite new) lease car whilst screeching at the child: “left a little, up a bit, mind the handles on the paint work!!” we dashed to Halfords where I basically parked my shame alongside my decrepit bike and begged for help from the Halford’s man. He hated me. It was Monday morning and he had four bikes to build but I pushed in and he saved the day.
Half an hour later I exited with a bike with two pumped up tyres and a full health check for little more than a tenner (thank God ‘cos my brakes were non-existent apparently). I also somehow spent £75 on a bike rack that is now back in its box waiting to be returned to the shop. Seriously, after twenty minutes scratching my head trying to erect the damn thing I admitted defeat. All in all, we were running late and by the time we had packed our stuff in the car around my bike (I had previously booked a bike there for Moo) we were off. The top lip sweat was strong, I tell you.
Aside from the massive ‘Center Parcs’ sign, the queue tells you that you’ve arrived. We sat bumper to bumper for a bit waiting to be checked in but, all in all, fairly painless. Our apartment block was near by and we were able to park outside ready to unload when it was time to access our room (not permitted before mid-afternoon). However you have access to the grounds from mid-morning so we were good to explore. Everything is ‘nestled’ in Center Parcs so that nature is allowed to monopolise. Now, I love a bit of countryside, me, so all the greenery everywhere was giving me a bit of a head rush to the point I was practically giddy (honestly I am very easily pleased). After exploring and checking out the place we headed to the Pancake Hut where I got on the wine (I blame the stress of bike-gate). It was only one (
large-ish large) glass but mid-day drinking always leaves me feeling a bit wonky so when Moo suggested a bike ride once we’d collected her bike and unpacked our stuff I can’t say I was thrilled but, you know: no choice, so off we went.
I think I fell a bit in love with cycling when we were there and I actually think it was the freedom you have to just cycle everywhere that was my favourite bit of the holiday (I told you: easily pleased; normally by the free stuff). We got in the groove to go cycling each evening between 4-6pm as the sun set and we would literally chase it (that’s how we found the mega-expensive tree houses. OMG.). The only night we didn’t cycle was the last night when we were so bloody exhausted we literally sat in some kind of dazed stupor not even capable of conversation, lol. We must have looked like Kevin and Perry on a come down. I think riding alongside the sunset each day was definitely one of those warm, fuzzy memories that will stay with me. And it was free (one of the few things that is at this place)!
We eased ourselves in to the paid activities with a nice jaunt on an electric boat on the lake. Lovely. And I only lost my shit once with the child who insisted on steering the boat only to almost ground it in some trees at such an angle I genuinely wondered if I would be able to right the situation. After a bit of top-lip sweat (as you can see a sweaty top lip is practically a daily occurrence in my world) all was well and we ‘sailed back to port’. Obviously I got lots of insta-worthy photos that, one day, will help me look back with rose-tinted spectacles and forget the fact that for about a third of the boat trip the child and I weren’t actually talking.
I had decided that I would do as many activities as I could afford on this trip as I figured that if it was a one-off holiday then it would be good to access as much as possible. Such an activity was Mermaids and Sharks. Now this activity was overly subscribed when we originally booked the holiday much to my daughter’s heart-break as a Mermaid is her spirit animal/mythical being (along with unicorns…and, more recently, llamas. Who knew?!). And then, as if by magic they opened up a further session so Moo was beside herself at hearing she would get to live the dream. As a parent stood to one side trying not to faint at the tropical temperature in the pool I can honestly say I’ve had better mornings but Moo loved it.
If I’m honest I thought the activity was a rip off in terms of value for money. They ask you to come early and even though every one did (except us: we were late; we’re always late) the instructors did not have everyone fully kitted up for at least 15 minutes into the activity. Whilst that doesn’t sound too long when the activity only lasts for 45 mins, that’s a third of it gone just watching kids try to winch themselves into tails. They also didn’t have any child tails left so, as the late comers, Moo was given an adult one. Now fortunately Moo’s the size of a small adult so she fitted it but had she been one of those lean kids built like a streak of piss it would have been game over (and the fall-out would have been so dramatic I dare say I would have been on the wine by 10am that day). But all’s well that ends well and Moo more than enjoyed her Daryl Hannah moment.
One activity I definitely wouldn’t do again was the Aqua jetting. What a waste of money. Essentially you hold onto little motors that can guide you in the water. The area of the pool is small and once you’ve done a quick tour of the pool floor there’s not much else in it. Plus mine kept breaking and as a woman with two rather large natural flotation aids to my front no piddly little motor was going to keep me under the water for long. Next!
My favourite activity was line dancing: cheap as chips and just a bit of a laugh really. Can’t say the child felt the same which, to be fair, was half the fun 😉 We also did roller skating, and spent lots of time in the pool. The rapids were a lot of fun and it’s nice to do the one activity at Center Parcs that does not cost you anything. To be honest, our biggest expenditure was doing the aerial adventure which is essentially high ropes in the trees and, once at the top, you have the pleasure of zip wiring across the lake. Why the fxxk I ever booked that activity I will never know and nor would I ever do it again as I was petrified, however – like a work out – you never regret doing stuff like that and, yup, I’ll even go as far as risking sounding like a twat when I say it was one of those #makingmemories moments.
If it wasn’t for the staff I don’t think Moo or I would have got round the course as we both lost our nerve. We’d been so anxious whilst getting kitted up I found myself asking for stats on how many people have ever fallen from the course (‘cos, of course, that’s gonna be comforting to know, lol). We were assured no-one has ever fallen so off we went. Turns out we like to set records as once at the top of the first log Moo promptly slipped and fell off from its full height right next to a tree and face planted it on the way down. Poor thing chinned it and off we were escorted in some kind of walk of shame. I had to fill out an accident form whilst Moo sat with an ice pack wailing in front of a queue of petrified looking kids with mouths agape and eyes as wide as saucers lol! So it’s a bloody miracle, quite frankly, that we went back and did it. Turns out we’re both completely petrified of heights and I must have looked like a sodding koala every time we got to landing post. It was so high and so terrifying that by the time we got to the zip wire I literally flung myself off the platform such was my desire to just get it all over with and be back on solid ground, ha! I’m not even completely sure I waited for the child, lol!
We did venture out to the ‘village’ on the odd evening. One such evening activity was the family quiz. Now, I’m sure that would have been a very enjoyable family moment except Moo decided to tell me upon arrival that she had lost the room key (that you wear around your wrist). Obviously this is the same key that I had told her NOT to wear to avoid such an incident as the one unfolding, but, you know, ten year olds know best, right?! She also seemed to recall ‘maybe’ dropping it outside the hotel room door so of course I had visions of someone calmly helping themselves to our possessions whilst we sat losing our shit at the pub quiz. I had also just ordered two cocktails (obviously both for me, I’m not a completely irresponsible parent!) so I had to weigh up the chances of us being robbed over me wasting the cost of two cocktails and a fizzy pop for the child. The alcohol won but I missed half the quiz trying to resolve the issue. Fortunately we weren’t robbed but it made for one of those moments as a single parent when you just hate being the only adult and I did feel a bit sorry for myself. Even more so when we got thrashed but hardly surprising when some of the families had about ten members in their team compared to just me and the sidekick!
My mood was partly restored afterwards by a nice meal at Hucks restaurant where we were spoiled by our waiter who gave Moo a free dessert upon hearing it was our first time to Center Parcs. Other than that we ate in mostly as we were knackered after a packed day. I even hit #smugparent peak situ by packing some pre-cooked food: winner, winner, pre-cooked dinner! To be honest one night I think we went to bed at 7:30pm (that may have been post-aerial adventure and the shock may have had something to do with that). I didn’t mind not eating out every night really as I tend to find dining out on holiday can make you feel a bit conspicuous when it’s just you and your child. Like, I think I saw one other lone lady on holiday with her daughter whilst eating out and we did that weird closed-lip smile of solidarity thing (single mums, do you get me?!).
Single parent perspective
I don’t know why I feel like Moo and I sometimes stand out being around two parent families (at ‘family’ places). I genuinely think it’s just that a one parent/one child situation is often the minority and I feel under some weird pressure to show the world we are not lacking in some way. Honestly, I don’t know why I do that as, more often than not, Moo and I are having a great time. Take Huck’s, for example, we got the giggles over something so much that we cried and I genuinely think we were more raucous than the large parties in there (especially the 2.4 family next to us that I don’t think said one word to each other).
It’s odd really that considering 1 in 4 parents are meant to be single, we very much appeared in the minority at Center Parcs. It’s no great surprise really considering Center Parcs is costly and that cost is only really absorbed by booking in greater numbers which ultimately reduces the cost per head based on accommodation sharing. So even though I booked at a price and time that made it affordable for us, comparatively we got less value than a larger family both in terms of financial cost but also the type of accommodation as we were priced out of the more spacious cabins and could only really afford the apartment. So, that’s something to bear in mind for future in terms of maybe trying to holiday with another family/wider family/friends etc.
That said, we would love to return at some point. We loved the simplicity of it, and being surrounded by nature. And whilst it is expensive you can tailor it to your budget and still have loads of fun. And at least I now know never to do the aerial adventure again 😉