Against my better judgment, I agreed to go to Center Parcs for an Easter weekend break. We chose the one in Sherwood Forest, not because of any sentimental attachment to Robin Hood, but because it was the most inexpensive. Even then, it was hardly cheap: £804 for three nights and that didn’t include breakfast.
First, the good news. I was sceptical about the website’s promise of free Wi-Fi, imaging it would be similar to the ‘free Wi-Fi’ on Virgin Trains, but it actually worked. The connection speed was impressive, as good as my set-up at home, and it didn’t matter where you were in the resort, as far as I could tell. My guess is they’ve stuffed routers into every nook and cranny. That was a shrewd investment since it’s a good way of keeping grumpy old dads like me happy. I was able to watch the Brighton vs QPR game using the Sky Go app on my iPad, and that left me well-disposed towards Center Parcs, prepared to forgive any number of sins.
In addition, the staff were polite and friendly in a human, non-robotic way. That was true across the board, but particularly so of the guides and instructors who showed us how to do the various activities we’d signed up for, like the ‘Indoor Climbing Adventure’ and the ‘High Ropes Challenge’. They seemed genuinely happy to be working there, although that’s probably because most of them were in their twenties and have never known any better. It’s minimum-wage shift work for the most part, but one of the perks of the job is free access to things like the sauna and spa. The fact that 95 per cent of the customers are reasonably well-to-do makes for a convivial atmosphere. I imagine there are plenty of less pleasant service jobs in the East Midlands.
OK, now for the not-so-good news. The website promised free milk, coffee and tea in our ‘waterside lodge’, but that turned out to consist of four teabags, two servings of instant coffee and three individual long-life milk portions. In addition, there was precisely one toilet roll and one dishwasher tablet. That struck me as needlessly penny-pinching, but it was symptomatic of Center Parcs as a whole. You had to pay extra for all the activities, save for the swimming pool, which was elbow-to-elbow crowded. We booked five, which came to £308, and one of those was table tennis.
The food was shockingly poor, given that I’ve always thought of Center Parcs as middle-class. Where was the muesli and quinoa? The sandwiches in the only supermarket were sub-Ginsters and whole aisles were devoted to crisps and sweets. No salads to speak of and overpriced wines from vineyards you’d never heard of. A Sainsbury’s or a Tesco would have been a huge step up. Most of the restaurants were one notch above McDonald’s — chains like Café Rouge and Bella Italia — and there was an Italian-cum-Indian-cum-Thai-cum-Chinese takeaway, which was slow and borderline inedible. From a culinary point of view, it was like being trapped in a dying coastal town.
Center Parcs boasts a ‘family friendly’ atmosphere, but the fact that nothing apart from the accommodation is included in the price means it isn’t. Why? Because it means your wretched children are constantly pestering you to buy stuff, from soft drinks to beach toys. At one point I succumbed and forked out 99p for a plastic ‘spinning hoop’, the cheapest thing I could find. My children quickly discovered it suffered from a design flaw: when you threw it, it did a barrel roll, making it impossible to catch. Being a curmudgeonly type, I took it back to the shop and demanded my money back, only to be told that they had a ‘no refund’ policy. My daughter had to stop me piling the entire stock of ‘spinning hoops’ on to the counter and ordering them to take them off sale.
As for the ‘waterside lodge’, it had an air of ‘stack-’em-high, sell-’em-cheap’ functionality, as though it had been thrown together in a hurry. Bathroom fittings were crooked, and the slightly garish prints of outdoor scenes on the walls were bubbling and peeling in places. It was like a decommissioned Ikea showroom. Yes, it was by a pond, but that meant ducks and swans were constantly loitering by the barbecue pit, expecting to be fed.
All in all, not a terrible experience, thanks to the staff and the free Wi-Fi. But I don’t think we’ll be returning in a hurry.