With our wives sunning themselves on the Côte d'Azur, my friend and I bravely took our respective kids to Center Parcs Elveden Forest for the weekend. Forty-eight hours later, we were back – in one piece, and full to the brim with good food and happy memories.
But best of all, we'd fallen in love – with the shuttlecock. For it turns out that kids love badminton in all its guises – singles, mixed doubles, under-fives, dads versus kids, and all possible combinations in-between.
Any worries we’d had that we wouldn't be able to keep the children occupied were dismissed the minute we pulled up at our very well-appointed four-bedroom executive lodge with its generous welcome pack of food (“Look! They've got variety pack cereals!”), PS3, pool table, five TVs and private sauna. From this cleverly designed base camp, we could plot our mission with military precision.
'Yes, Center Parcs does offer parents an indulgently luxurious Aqua Sana Spa with everything from hot-stone treatments to cold-water plunges, but personally I found the wild-water rapids took years off me.'
Without mothers around to say no, we were soon bullied into giving into our children's every whim. This was Daddy Day Care on an industrial scale. We tried to control our little ones with idle threats such as, "Right, if you don't go to bed in the next 15 minutes, you won't go screeching down the water rapids tomorrow, followed by junior quad-biking, jewellery making, ten-pin bowling and a sumptuous buffet at Hucks, the all-American diner!” But rather than simply shutting their eyes and resting their weary heads, they shouted back, "You forgot badminton at 11.20!"
Center Parcs is amazing. Kids love it. And parents love it because it makes them feel like kids again. I love waterslides. There, I said it. I'm 42, married, and have a semi-serious job. But I love hurtling down flumes, twisting down rapids and splashing headlong into pools of water. And enjoying it with your kids makes it even more special. Yes, Center Parcs does offer parents an indulgently luxurious Aqua Sana Spa with everything from hot-stone treatments to cold-water plunges, but personally I found the wild-water rapids took years off me.
In amongst all the fun and craziness, it's easy to find quality time to yourself. Qualified nannies will dress your little ones as fairies and wizards, paint their faces and take them on a teddy bears' picnic, while you have a massage or work on your badminton serve. Older children are well catered for with everything from ropewalks high in the trees to DJ tuition, leaving you plenty of time to have a coffee at the on-site Starbucks or a pedicure, or just practise your backhand. You can do as little or as much as you like. We chose the latter.
Yes, it was non-stop. But it was non-stop fun. We only had 48 hours, but we tried to fill as many of them as possible with splashes and forehand smashes. Within 30 minutes of arrival, we'd picked up our hire bikes with no queues or hassle and were dining at Hucks with its fantastic kids' play area, children's cocktails and buffet that included slices of healthy cucumber and carrot alongside pasta, hot dogs and nuggets. An hour later we'd played our first game of badminton and were heading into the Sub-tropical Swimming Paradise. After 25 slides and a wave pool, we were cycling through the forest back to our villa. With the children finally asleep in their comfy beds, we dads shared a bottle of wine on the sofa and tried, in vain, to diagnose England’s World Cup run of shame.
After a restful night’s sleep and a quick breakfast, we were back on court by 9.30am, and back on the rapids by 11am. After lunch at The Pancake House, where we sampled everything from classic lemon and sugar to adventurous chilli beef and salsa, we headed off junior quad-biking and T-short designing – two extremely popular activities that had big smiles on everyone’s faces by the end. An early evening was filled with the obligatory badminton mini-tournament and one last life-enhancing slide down the rapids before we were back at our lodge – only 10 hours after our initial departure – for a delightful BBQ, with sausages, burgers and lamb all purchased from the well-stocked on-site supermarket.
It won’t surprise you to hear that badminton featured on our final day. By now every point seemed crucial as inter-family rivalry reached fever pitch. With victory somehow shared (via an age-weighted points system that puts proportional representation firmly in the shade), disaster was avoided. The kids then spent a fun hour and a half learning how to be a DJ, mixing tracks and creating their very own CD of their efforts to take home.
On the Sunday we brunched at Hucks, which further increased in popularity when the kids realised they could help themselves to however much they liked and that that included a chocolate fountain, surrounded by fruit and marshmallows. It was a true feast – English breakfast favourites, Danish pastries, made-to-order waffles, freshly cut fruit, main courses, cheese and biscuits. In short, the brunch of true badminton champions.
Full-up and covered with chocolate, we decided to ignore the crazy golf and head for one final treat – knee-boarding on the large Center Parcs lake. This sent the kids into orbit as they were whisked around the lake at high speed. After a few spills, they got the hang of it. Indeed the only way Center Parcs could improve, in their opinion, would be to invent the sport of wakeboarding badminton (this will undoubtedly be on offer next year).
So there’s certainly no lack of things to do at Center Parcs – you do have to pay extra for most of them, including bike hire (the pool and rapids are included in the price). The staff are extremely friendly, the roads are safe and the food is plentiful and tasty. The only downside (and this isn’t Center Parcs’ fault) is that there just isn’t time to do everything. Or perhaps this is simply brilliant marketing – the second we pulled out of the site, the kids were begging us to return.
And return we will. To do battle once more with flume and rapid, marshmallow and fountain, and most importantly of all, shuttlecock and racket.
Sun-kissed Mums returned to find exhausted children (and fathers) with big smiles on their faces. Yes, they may have drunk cocktails on Cap Ferrat, they may have danced till dawn in beachside night clubs and ogled tanned, muscled young French bodies. But they hadn’t truly lived. They hadn’t heard the thwack of racket on shuttle, the scream of a grown man on a waterslide or the splodge of marshmallow on chocolate. Or at least, if they had, they didn’t admit it.
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