What a week at Center Parcs taught me about holidaying in the UK

center parcs treehouse
center parcs treehouse

A holiday park sceptic reveals what happened during a week’s stay in Center Parcs’ new adult-friendly luxury treehouses

As a child, staycations are full of excitement, wonder and adventure. Camping trips with friends, days at the beach with grandparents and hiking in the fells with the family dog, all within driving distance of home – for young minds there’s nothing better than holidaying on your doorstep.

But with age the allure of exotic shores, faraway lands and thrilling adventure beckons and just the thought of planning a trip on home soil can begin to leave a sour ‘but it won’t feel like a holiday’ taste in your mouth.

I’ll admit to being guilty of thinking staycations, in particular those at holiday parks, are the bounty of pre-teens, after which a selfie on a beach has more bragging rights than a postcard from Penzance. Adults are merely just along for the ride and supervision duties.

But this summer, with 2020 being the year of the great British staycation, Center Parcs have gone the extra mile to entice adults like myself to holiday on home soil (and enjoy it too). The holiday park giant, which reopened its sites to the public on July 13, has unveiled four luxury treehouses at its Whinfell Forest base in the northern Lake District, just fives miles from Penrith.

Could a week in the trees, with luxuries such as a private hot tub, games room and sauna, be enough to prove to me that staycations aren’t just for kids? With a crack testing team including my niece Martha (age 8), nephew Charlie (age 4) I set out to channel my inner Peter Pan, here’s what I learnt.

Trees trump tents

From the spiral staircase twisting up the tree trunk, to the cosy reading snug, giant walk-in rainfall showers and eco-friendly log-clad exterior, the new treehouses are quite simply showstopping. If Peter Pan had a professional architect, building team and six-figure budget (Center Parcs invest £4 million in the project) I imagine he too would have a games den, hot tub on the terrace, four double ensuite bedrooms, sauna, gas barbeque and a fully-equipped kitchen. Tinkerbell could take a break too, with each treehouse having a dedicated host, on call to cater for every need.

treehouse interior
treehouse interior

Each evening as I bubbled away in the hot tub under the stars, suspended 11 metres above the forest floor below – soggy nights under canvas, static caravans and ‘is this place haunted’ holiday rentals a distant memory – I realised if one’s faith in staycations was dwindling a week in such a fairytale setting is a mighty fine way to reinstill confidence.

Planning pays off

Usually on foreign holidays I leave my itinerary wide open, enabling me to spend a spontaneous week combining lazy days by the pool with off-the-cuff exploration. The same approach doesn’t work on a staycation, I learnt.

The Center Parcs method of holidaying is the complete opposite to my usual whimsical technique and planning is essential, especially in the post-Covid era when capacity is limited and online booking is a must. However, surprisingly, the time spent researching, choosing activities in advance and planning our days was well spent. It meant that when we arrived at Whinfell all we had to do was look forward to our next adventure, while keeping an occasional eye on the clock.

whinfell swimming
whinfell swimming

One morning, a mini tree trek was followed by 4×4 off-roading for Charlie then an aerial adventure for myself before a finale in the Subtropical Swimming Paradise for the entire clan. The next day featured archery for Martha, mini golf and a game of squash. Despite my reservations about organised fun, it left very little time for me to even glance at my emails or connect with the outside world – in fact it wasn’t until the day of our departure, as we sipped a farewell coffee on Starbucks’ lakeside terrace that I remember what day it was – the ultimate sign of a holiday, surely?

It rains in England, deal with it

As tempting as it was to retreat to our woodland bolthole at every opportunity we refused to let a wet forecast dampen our stay. Lesson number one for staycation beginners? Quality waterproofs are essential – and luckily we had packed ours, meaning a round of minigolf (on a deserted course in a torrential downpour) and a cycle tour of the forest (featuring numerous sightings of Whinfell’s elusive red squirrels) were not wasted.

games room
games room

When the weather did close in (inevitable on a staycation, right?) and we admitted defeat our treehouse offered a welcoming sanctuary away from the elements. While on previous staycations being cooped up in a pokey lodge or tent might have left us feeling sick with cabin fever the treehouse had ample space for the entire family to relax and plenty to keep the kids entertained. As I soothed my saddle sore (having not ridden a bike so much in years) in the infrared sauna they happily watched cartoons in the games den – the sound of rain drops in the trees merely adding to the fairytale atmosphere. “If this is how kids holiday, maybe I don’t want to grow up,” I mused.

Everyone’s a winner

“You just can’t relax properly on a staycation,” is what friends told me when I shared our summer holiday plans. Challenge accepted, I took great delight in proving them wrong with a visit to Center Parcs Aqua Sana Spa while the kids swung, climbed and slid on the Adventure Playground.

Firstly, a manicure during which my therapist and I chatted through face mask, perspex screen and visor – new staples in the Covid-19 era of spa days. And then a full body massage, again with a mask (unless lying face down) but still the same level of revitalisation as before.

I left feeling totally pampered, while the kids left their playground pursuits feeling totally exhausted – everyone’s a winner at Center Parcs it turns out.

Holidays aren’t meant to be spent in the kitchen

Admit it, nobody goes on holiday to cook. While self-catering has its benefits, especially for families, it also brings a certain level of stress that is never welcome when you’re trying to have a break from the daily grind. In an effort to banish culinary woes, especially in times of reduced capacity in restaurants, Center Parcs has introduced a moped delivery service for all its onsite eateries.

On wheels, on two evenings of our four-night break we opted to let someone else do cooking, while we remained cosy in our treehouse. The process was remarkably efficient – order and pay from the menu online, pick a delivery time and wait for the doorbell to ring. Impressively, for the super organised among you, it’s possible to order up to three days in advance.

Plus sides of a pandemic

I’ll be honest, as a child-free late-twenty-something the idea of spending a week at a holiday park, filled to the rafters with screaming toddlers and stressed out parents scares me. I guess, until I have children of my own maybe, I’ll never understand how any adult could enjoy spending their well-earned break in such a whirlwind.

aspden family
aspden family

My week at Whinfell Forest this summer went a long way to curing that fear. In order to reopen under new Covid safety measures Center Parcs has reduced capacity to 40 per cent – this turned out to be a blessing in disguise and a real game changer. Only once did we wait in a long queue, which was very orderly, dispersed quickly and was in fact necessary for us to be ushered in the swimming pool safely following a temperature check. Never did I have to dodge a crowd of cyclists, grow thirsty for a drink in the Sports Plaza bar or queue for a locker. We remained in our own Aspden family bubble, crowd-free and content the entire time.

Thanks to Covid the staff have got room to breath too – at every encounter we were welcomed by impeccable customer service (albeit through plastic visors) and warm smiles – something I can only hope outlasts this pandemic.

Age is just a number

According to Peter Pan author J.M Barrie “All children, except one, grow up.” I beg to differ – when on holiday, whether that be at home or abroad, we’re all given a free pass to relish in our youthfulness and this has never been more true than during my week at Center Parcs. I zip lined over a lake, I cycled, I swam, I kayaked, I swang on swings way too small for me and I ate donuts for breakfast. Who needs botox when a couple of turns down the wild rapid water slide will make you feel 10 years younger?

I’ve found more often than not a conversation about a staycation usually starts with “The kids had a great time but…” The but is often followed by parental wows and a yearning for another foreign holiday just to recover. I was proud to return from our break with a different conclusion – the kids had a great time, and surprisingly so did I. In its new luxury treehouse offering Center Parcs has created its own staycation Neverland – there’s a bit of Peter Pan in all of us when on holiday, “all you need is faith, trust, and a little pixie dust.”

Short breaks in a treehouse for eight guests at Center Parcs Whinfell Forest currently start from £2,299 for a midweek break.

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