So over Easter we went on an extended family holiday to Center Parcs Whinfell Forest on the edge of the Lake District. Before we went I spent hours, literally, googling “Center Parcs Toddler Ideas” and “Center Parcs Whinfell Forest what to bring” hoping that I’d get some inspiration to ensure we made the most of our week.
But I was surprised that most of the posts I found were families called “Center Parcs Family Bloggers” who seemed to be given their break on the house. And while they always say that their review or post is an honest one, I’d rather read something from someone not trying to get freebies! Having said that, we didn’t pay for our break either as it was paid for by my generous parents-in-law! But you know what I mean!
We left the site one afternoon to go for a hike in the nearby Lake District which I wanted to do given we’d traveled the whole way across from N.Ireland. But we had so much to do the week flew by and you could easily spend a week there without ever leaving the resort.
So here are my top tips:
1. When to go
Well, we went on Good Friday for a week, Easter Week – the busiest week in the year for holidays, isn’t it?! So firstly it was very busy and secondly it was very expensive for the lodge accommodation. As you’ll see from the points below we had a great time and will definitely return, but not in a peak holiday week! It was disappointingly cold for a mid April break – around 10/11° most days, so really needed coats and even hats!
2. Click and Collect
I read about doing an online grocery shop to pick up en route and this was genius. We ended up stopping at the Carlisle Tesco café for lunch then went round to the Click and Collect (was pretty culchie – just a car port next to one of the vans!) in the carpark and it took just a few minutes to get our shop for the week. There is a good sized supermarket at Center Parcs but this ensured we had everything we needed in terms of allergen free food and was a bit cheaper! The Carlisle store is right next to the M6 and only about half an hour from Center Parcs.
3. What to bring
I’d read that the kitchen wasn’t brilliantly stocked so to bring your own things from home. To be honest, I was happy enough with most of it but as many people are there in groups, the saucepans are too small for anything more than a small family. I brought a big pot from home to cook in and there was one big pot there I could cook the pasta/potatoes to accompany the meal but the rest were small. I also brought the following:
- Washing up liquid and a brush (they leave you a small cloth and a sachet of washing up liquid which we kept for our last day when ours was packed up again);
- Dishwasher tablets (we only used the dishwasher a couple of times but still worth bringing your own tablets rather than forking out for lots at the shop);
- A sharp knife. We use Zyliss knives which come with a blade protector so they're easily transported;
- Salt, pepper, olive oil and spices;
- Kitchen roll;
- Loo roll;
- Blackout blinds like this one. We even put one up in our room. The curtains were pretty flimsy! The ‘blind’ suctions to the window (with sometimes dodgy stickability, but still, better than the full on sun streaming in at 5.45am!).
4. Use the swimming pool
The swimming pool is the one of the few things included in the cost of your break so use it! I actually lost count of how many different parts there were to the pool complex – there was a baby/young children section with a baby pool, children’s spa pool, swimming pool, two slides and a splash area. And then a wave pool, rapids area, lots of slides and outdoor pools. They open the baby pools at 9.30am each morning for under 3s (and Daniel was allowed in – I contacted them in advance about him having Down Syndrome and needing some extra facilitation in busy places) which was great – they played Disney music and roped off the rest of the complex which gave Daniel some time to get used to the place and it got busy around us rather than us walking in to a loud and crowded place.
Your lodge ‘key’ is actually an electronic wristband that can also be used for the lockers so no keys or coins required – genius! Also most of the (huge) changing rooms are family ones which is a godsend.
5. Plan carefully
Particularly because we were part of a large group (there were 12 of us) and the time of year we went, I doubt we’d have got tables in restaurants at family eating times if we’d just turned up. We booked everything well in advance of going. Once we were there we booked a few extra activities, but if you’re wanting to do lots you need to book in advance to get the timings right.
If you have young children, make sure to leave some time each day for down time (nap time for the youngest ones) – we generally did activities up to 11ish, came back for lunch then headed back out mid afternoon onwards.
6. Kids activities
The specific activities themselves then will depend on your children. There is a massive range of things to do and if your child is into school age they will probably enjoy a few but with two pre-schoolers, we found their attention spans weren’t up to much! Personally, I wasn’t keen on paying for much for the boys. Between our own picnics (we didn’t end up having any, weather was too cold!), treasure hunts, nature walks, cycling and swimming trips I didn’t think they’d get much more out of the organised activities at their age. And based on the few we did, I was right.
They also do cost quite a bit – we paid £29 for the four of us to do a “red squirrel adventure” during which we saw no red squirrels and the adventure was a hunt for letters on orange signs that spelled out pine cones (sorry to spoil the challenge for any going after us). Colin and I learnt a few things about squirrels and the boys didn’t mind the trek, Daniel even enjoyed hunting for signs even if he didn’t understand – but it was not worth the money!
7. Adult activities
Activities for the adults in our party ranged from quad biking and archery to badminton and pottery painting. I think everyone enjoyed all the things they did. The tuition at the archery and laser clay shooting was great and we enjoyed a bit of competition among us and the other people in our time slots. The prices were comparable with outdoor centres that I’ve been to and it was great to do lots of different things in one week and all at the same location. The problem would be if you have young kids and no one to help with childcare. My husband didn’t do the archery or pottery painting so he could stay with the boys and my mother in law took the boys while we both did laser clay shooting. Things like badminton and short tennis we let them play a little then we took it turns to accompany them on a walk around the sports centre. If we’d only had ourselves for company, few of these activities could have happened!
8. Soft play areas
There are various soft play areas in the restaurants and leisure bowl area. The one in the Sports Café was great, a really good size, and in the other restaurants we went to they were enough to distract the boys while we waited for meals to arrive.
Often we were the only parents supervising though and the toddler play areas had the ‘big boys’ running around. Most were kind to our boys but not all, so I wouldn’t have just let them go off by themselves!
There is a big playground next to the Village Centre but there’s not much for toddlers or children with mobility difficulties in it. The playground outside the Sports Café end of the Sports Arena was much better for our boys. The parks only have one entrance which makes the keeping your eye on more than one of them easier.
There is also a sand pit on the beach on the side of the lake. It would have been great if it’d been warmer!
- The site is big and while the odd time we used the buggy and walked, most of the time we got about on the bikes which was much handier. Each section of the resort (Village Centre, Outdoor Centre, Sports Plaza) has a number of cycle parks at the various entrances so it’s well set up for the bikes. Colin did the impressive cycling with a trailer with both boys in it. You can hire them there (which we did as Colin doesn’t yet have a bike). No cars are allowed on site during the week so it’s very safe;
- The bike trailer for the boys has a compartment in it for storage (enough for a couple of shopping bags or your swimming stuff) which was very handy, if further increasing the load Colin had to move up and down the hills;
- You can arrive before you get access to your lodge (you park up in a huge car park at the edge of the forest) so if you do that you can get a space closer to the exit (for later on when you get to drive to your lodge to unpack your stuff) and get in and use the facilities, like the pool. Next time I’d definitely head a bit earlier and make use of the resort on the first day too;
- There are some extras the website (which I think is pretty dated) doesn’t mention. The baby pool time each morning for example. But there is also a children’s disco at 6.30pm every night (I think) and a panto twice a week etc. So many sure you walk round the village centre at the start of your break and find out what’s on;
- All the restaurants have colouring pages and worksheets and crayon packets that the children get for free on arrival. They’re different at each one too and our boys loved them. And they do kids portions of food on the main menu for half price (or there abouts) which is great for us as our boys don't tend to order off the children's menu.
So there you have it, my completely non-sponsored post about Center Parcs Whinfell Forest. Hopefully it's of use to any of you thinking of going. We had a great holiday together as an extended family and I loved spending our time together being productive - painting pottery and doing archery - rather than just hanging out. Our kids absolutely loved all the things to do and being outdoors so much. It's a great place for a family break. Have you ever been to Center Parcs and have you any additional, or counter, wisdom?