Center of attraction
MARK LUNDRIGAN travels to France for a family holiday at two Center Parcs resorts
I didn’t even know they had Center Parcs abroad,’ said my excited nine-yearold daughter when I told her we would be heading to France for a week’s break.
There are in fact quite a few dotted throughout Belgium, France and Holland, where the first was built back in the 1960s, and as a family who are great fans of Center Parcs UK, the thought of trying out their facilities overseas was very attractive.
We were travelling by car through the Eurotunnel, so we thought it was best to pick the two sites in France nearest in distance to home, in fear our ageing Ford Focus may not manage a longer trip. We chose to stay for four nights each at Les Bois Francs and Lac D’Ailette, situated east and west of Paris respectively.
Just six hours after leaving our Surrey home (and getting slightly lost in Rouen trying to take a shortcut) we were driving in the familiar wooded grounds of a Center Parcs. In fact, if I hadn’t been constantly reminded to drive on the right and been mentally prepared to utter the first of many ‘parlez vous Anglais’ at the check-in, you could have easily been approaching one of the UK parks.
Our cosy two-bedroom executive lodge in Les Bois Francs had an open plan living and kitchen area complete with TV (we were determined not to use it, although with only French channels that wouldn’t be difficult) dishwasher and hob, although no main oven. The sofa and chairs in the living room were not the most comfortable but that is only a minor quibble when you consider the stunning view of the woods from the French windows and the cleanliness of the accommodation.
As with all Center Parcs, the big draw for families is the swimming area, in France called the Aqua Mundo, and we were soon heading off there on our hired mountain bikes. You can also rent out golf buggies, but we decided on the healthy option with a week of being as active as possible the main aim.
The giant glass dome at the centre of Les Bois Francs is a hive of activity, with shops, restaurants and the Aqua Mundo itself situated under its roof.
The swimming area is free for all and is open until 9pm, so it was packed as expected, but there is so much to do here that queues for the slides were not very long at all.
There were a number of pacy slides, but our favourite, as in the UK parks, was the rapids, which take you outside the glass dome and back again with little bursts of speed – it’s great with the whole family going down at the same time.
The rapids are best experienced in the evening – there is something magical about zooming down the rapids while it is lit up, the steam from the heated water giving an otherworldly feel.
We spent at least a couple of hours a day in the Aqua Mundo, but there’s so much else to do across the park.
We tried out the minigolf, bowling and table tennis, but there are also watersports and a treetop adventure course among other
activities. Unlike the Aqua Mundo, all of these are of extra cost, but the facilities are excellent and all were great family fun.
We were mainly self-catering throughout the break – there is a well-stocked stocked shop in the dome, or a cheaper Intermarche supermarket a couple of miles out of the park – but there are also restaurants available.
We tried one, Macampa, which focussed its menu on pizza, pasta and crepes, which was great for us. We all had tasty thin pizzas with chorizo and, of course, crepes for dessert. The price isn’t too bad and the food was good, but we decided on just one night eating out, with the rest of our meals at our cosy lodge.
Four days later and we were heading off to our second resort at Lac d’Ailette, a four-hour drive from Les Bois Francs.
If Les Bois Francs had a reassuring familiarity about it, our second venue’s look was completely unexpected.
Norwegian-style cottages were dotted around the park and instead of the usual uniformity of accommodation, they were different sizes and colours set in little clusters.
It looked spectacular and gave the whole area the feel of a mini village.
Our cottage, spread over two floors, was equally spectacular and the view from our veranda, overlooking a lake at the edge of the park, was beautiful.
Sitting out on the veranda with a beer as the sun set gave me the most relaxing feeling I’ve had from a holiday in a long time.
The interior of the lodge was well decorated and had similar facilities to Les Bois Francs (although this had a comfier sofa and BBC HD channels), while the upstairs bedrooms also gave a wonderful view of the lake.
Cycles and golf buggies are again available to hire, but I advise to get the former as the scenery while gently biking through the park is stunning.
Center Parcs is great whatever season it is, but during our autumnal visit the low lying sun and red leaved trees made it a breathtaking sight.
The heart of the park is home to the Aqua Mundo (and brilliant, as expected, slides and rapids), shops and restaurants, with a patisserie full of cakes to die for, and the help desk where you can book activities, which was manned by Englishspeaking French people, helpful to us with our small grasp of the French language.
Here we booked our paintballing, bowling and tennis, the former being particularly great fun.
We were on the family paintballing experience so the ‘bullets’ were not so hard (although there is the full version available as well). It was exhilarating fun, all four of us and other team mates running around woods trying to take out our opponents while dressed like crime scene officers.
There are plenty of other things to do including minigolf (outdoor and indoor), pony rides, quad biking, tennis and badminton, as well as activities on the lake.
It is also worth mentioning there are impressive-looking spas at both parks, but being a family holiday it was never going to be an option for us, even though a massage would have been nice after a day flying down the rapids.
After a week of fun activities, stunning scenery and quality family time we were ready to get back in our car and head to Calais with great memories and renewed vigour.
For a family holiday abroad with a difference, Center Parcs is an amazing experience whatever the weather.
n Center Parcs has sites across Holland, Belgium and France, as well as in the UK. For information on any of these sites, visit www. centerparcs.com.