By Richard Jones
IT's fair to say that Center Parcs is one of our favourite destinations.
The combination of homely accommodation, a range of activities and good restaurants, bars and shops, set in a forest teeming with wildlife, make it a winner every time with the Joneses.
However, what we've always loved the most is the 'family time' - a few days away from the stresses and strains of modern life, and the chance to enjoy each other's company.
Ever since our first visit back in 2012, we’ve been back to Center Parcs every year. But this spring, rather than opt for our usual Sherwood Forest weekend break, we booked in at Whinfell Forest in Cumbria.
The Friday evening journey up the A1 and across the A66 was thankfully stress-free, especially with the spectacular mist-shrouded mountains of the Lake District as a backdrop for the last few miles. But if you're suffering from fatigue and irritability caused by traffic jams, it soon subsides once you pull into Center Parcs.
We had a taste of luxury, staying in a single-floor executive lodge in Bilberry Wood. The spacious, stylish and comfortable open-plan living/kitchen area had a log fire, large flat-screen TV and DVD player, dishwasher, wine cooler, and lots of other mod cons that made our stay as relaxing as possible. The three bedrooms were all en-suite, while glass double-doors led out to a patio area with a barbecue, private sauna and acres of pine forest.
The lodge would make a perfect base for a weekend of relaxation, but with two energetic, adventurous daughters in tow there was zero chance of that. By 9am next morning, the cases were unpacked, a full English breakfast, courtesy of our Center Parcs grocery pack, was devoured and we were out and about exploring.
Of course, Whinfell Forest is car-free, so our first stop was the Cycle Centre where we picked up our wheels for the weekend. They have a large selection of bikes to suit all ages and abilities – Evelyn, six, wanted a ride-along at the back of her Dad's, while Isla, nine, opted for a small adult mountain bike with gears which made it easier to get up some of Whinfell's testing hills. Then it was a short pedal to our first activity of the weekend – the Subtropical Swimming Paradise. Open till 9pm, you could spend all day in this giant complex of swimming pools and tropical trees.
Our favourite rides were the rip-roaring Canyon, carrying us outside before splashing us down in the warm-water pool, and whizzing down the steep Multi Slide.
Back at the lodge, there was time for a spot of lunch before Evelyn's weekend treat – pony trekking. Despite being apprehensive, as soon as she was acquainted with grey pony Robin, she was over the moon and enjoyed a 30-minute trek around the forest.
The week after our trip it was Isla's 10th birthday, so we kept her activity treat under wraps. As she's quite adventurous and athletic, we thought the Junior Quads would suit her. An instructor showed her how to use the vehicle, before leaving her to to speed around the muddy off-road track. We were glad we weren't washing her overalls afterwards!
Many people choose to self-cater at Center Parcs, but there's a range of restaurants for dining out, including Rajinda Pradesh, Cafe Rouge, the Lakeside Inn, Huck’s, Dexter’s Kitchen, the Sports Cafe and Starbucks. We opted for Bella Italia, where we wolfed down antipasti, chicken wings, soup, lasagne, steak and seafood, washed down with a couple of cocktails for the grown-ups, mocktails for the kids and plenty of chocolate gelato.
A family bike outing to burn off the calories was needed on Sunday morning, so off we span on paths around the forest and lake, before our final activity. Whether you're sporty or arty, there are more than 200 indoor and outdoor experiences on offer. The Robin Hood and Little John Archery is a great way for kids to learn how to use bows and arrows.
My other half, Rachel, snook off to Aqua Sana, a luxury spa where, in the space of three hours, she took a herbal inhalation bath, a lava-volcano sauna, and a rain walk through a simulated tropical thunderstorm, and had a full Swedish body massage.
It was a weekend of treats at Center Parcs, with a pony ride, quad bikes and spa treatments. But I got the best treat of all - spending some quality time with my family in a beautiful forest. What more could a man want?
* Richard Jones and his family stayed in a three-bedroom Executive Lodge at Center Parcs Whinfell Forest for three nights, with prices starting from £599. Activities included pony trekking (£19pp), Junior Quads (£32pp), Robin Hood and Little John Archery (£11pp) and a Full Swedish Body Massage at Aqua Sana (£45).
* Visit centerparcs.co.uk or call 03448 266266.