Solitude and fresh air under a glass roof
It’s built from a plan but one family found Centre Parcs anything but artificial
Subtropical: The Swimming Paradise at Longleat Forest includes a children’s pool, wave pool, water slide, hot tubs and rapids
On our first morning in Centre Parcs, my three-year-old daughter stood staring out the patio window of our cottage, into Longleat forest.
"Imma," she turned to me. "Is that a dog?"
I'm not quite sure what I imagined - a snarling dingo? One of the neighbour's pets preparing to pounce? I rushed to the window.
There, right on our doorstep, stood a deer and a bambi. Completely oblivious to our presence, they grazed for a minute or two and quietly trotted off.
It was a stunning moment, which for me encapsulated the Centre Parcs experience.
On the one hand, nothing could be more artificial than a holiday village, completely isolated from the outside world and with all facilities, including many natural ones, built from scratch. On the other, it does this so well, it actually gets away with it.
A mid-week or weekend break at Center Parcs (08448 266 266; www.centerparcs.co.uk) starts at £239 for a family of 4. Book early for best prices and availability. For more information or to make a booking, please call: 08448 267 723
It may be an illusion, but it is a charming one. We chose to spend our weekend break at Longleat in Wiltshire, one of the four such villages in the UK (a fifth, at Warren Wood, near Woburn in Bedfordshire, is due to open next year).
This one is just a couple of hours from London, an easy drive from the capital, straight past Stonehenge.
The setting is exquisite. Set in more than 400 acres of woodland, with a small lake in the centre and wildlife all around, it is easy to switch off. It also helps that the park is car-free.
Immediately on arrival, all cars are parked for the duration and visitors amble leisurely across the park on foot, or whiz around on bicycles, thousands of which are available for hire.
This is a good idea. The centre is vast and we found it took more than 45 minutes to walk between some buildings.
The accommodation was modern and comfortable, as it should be, given that the UK lodges underwent a £60 million refurbishment programme last year.
Our mid-sized woodland lodge, which can house six, included a reasonable-sized living room, with a log fire, cable television and oak flooring; a modern kitchen with dishwasher and microwave as well as all the basics (relatively easy to kasher if you are self-catering); a dining room seating 8-10; three comfortable bedrooms and a bathroom. Decoration was bright and cheerful and there were plenty of cute touches; one of the walls in the dining room turned out to be a chalkboard, which my young children loved.
Not that we spent much time in the lodge. The bulk of our days were spent in the Subtropical Swimming Paradise, mostly in the children's pool, but also in the wave pool, on the giant water slides, the several hot tubs and the rather terrifying water rapids.
When I could sneak a few minutes alone, I quickly fell asleep in the "tranquillity cave", a quiet meditation area with deck chairs, soft lighting and even softer blankets.
But by far the biggest hit was the outdoor swimming pool. We were lucky it didn't rain during our stay, but there was no cloud cover and temperatures were close to freezing. The contrast between the warm water and the sharp air was thoroughly refreshing and quite addictive.
My husband was even brave enough to briefly jump into the plunge pool, at a cool nine degrees. He claims that it was one of the few experiences in life where there was far more to fear than fear itself. I chickened out.
Every day, we made a point of enrolling in at least one activity besides the pool.
There is a wide choice for adults, including rock climbing, water sports, exercise classes, jewellery-making, art classes, nature rambles and bird-watching, but we chose to concentrate on those suitable for the children.
So my three-year-old joined a cheerleading class, played mini-tennis and took an art lesson, while my 18-month-old spent time in soft play. In the evening, we enjoyed a family quiz night and some bowling. By far the best advice we had received was to book activities ahead of our visit, because the most popular ones get filled up months in advance. But I wish someone had told us not to book too many.
Half-way through our stay I realised we were over-programmed and actually skipped a couple of sessions we had reserved, opting to spend more time lazing around the pool instead.
On our last day, we sent the children on a stint at the creche, while my husband and I relaxed at the Aqua Sana spa.
Here we were thoroughly pampered, flitting between the outdoor hydrotherapy pool, a foot bath, saunas (both Finnish and Tyrolean), multiple steam baths (Balinese, Japanese and Indian) and a Turkish hammam.
The Greek herbal bath, a mild sauna which included the smell of herbs such as camomile, felt like sitting in a massive tea pot (but was delightful nevertheless). We both fell asleep on the water beds and again in the meditation room, emerging thoroughly mellow.
My only regret is that we had to drive home immediately afterwards. Any sense of relaxation dissipated quickly once stuck in traffic on the motorway.
Next time - and there will be a next time - we are going to start with the spa. There is simply no point wasting all that pampering.