We are a family that loves Center Parcs. We first took my daughter when she was one, on her first proper UK holiday and undoubtedly her wide-eyed wonder at the experience adds to our love of it.
Having been half a dozen times or so we know all the tricks, the things to bring from home because you'll need them and it'll make you sad when you see how much they are in the shop, the must-do activities to book in advance and the essential nature of the end-of-holiday trip to the iconic pancake house.
But we've found, in recent years now school holidays have become a factor, that a Center Parcs break is creeping up in price in a way that makes us think twice about going regularly. So when I first saw pictures of Whitemead Forest Park in the idyllic Forest of Dean, the first thing it reminded me of was exactly that kind of leafy, squirrel-spotting chilled-out break.
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And having been for a long weekend with my husband and our five- and seven-year-olds I'm happy to say it absolutely delivers in a similar, but lower-key fashion that actually makes it perfect for younger families or people who want a Center Parcs experience on a smaller scale.
We arrived at Whitemead, in the town of Lydney, Gloucestershire, shortly after 6pm on Friday night. We just caught the booking office before it closed (after hours you go to the main guest services to collect your key) and were given a welcome pack including a tote bag ideal for using at the park shop and packed with maps, information on activities and a pack of kitchen essentials including a tea towel, mini bottle of washing up liquid, dishwasher tablets and a sponge.
With it being dark we were a bit concerned about unloading the car, but with an allocated parking space directly outside our lodge ours for the weekend it was an easy experience getting everyone transferred inside with all the swim gear, wet and dry weather clothes and footwar, board games, groceries and other weekend 'essentials'.
Our two bedroom lodge was lovely. The grown ups' bedroom was a double with an en-suite of its own, while the children's twin had a bathroom next door. All were spacious, clean and there were plenty of towels, extra pillows and blankets tucked away in cupboards in case we needed them. Not that we did , the heating was on and with everywhere carpeted except the kitchen area everything felt wonderfully cosy and welcoming.
The main living area had a lovely big dining table which the five-year-old pronounced immediately ideal for the board games and jigsaws he'd insisted we packed while the kitchen had a fridge freezer the same size as our one at home, perfect for us because we like to bring our own food so we're not eating out at every meal.
There was free and mostly-reliable Wi-Fi everywhere and, once we'd paired the large Samsung smart TV with a tablet, we were soon relaxing on the sofa with a glass of wine enjoying the next episode of our current Netflix obsession once the children were asleep.
We definitely needed to enjoy the peace while we could because once morning came and the children had a chance to see the park in daylight we didn't have time to linger over a restful coffee in the lodge, even if we had packed filter coffee for the machine tucked in the cupboard.
The first thing we noticed about Whitemead in the daylight was how compact it was, in a great way having younger children. On similar breaks we've paid £60 extra to be closer to the swimming and central areas because we haven't wanted to add 20 minutes' walk for little legs there and back to every activity we do.
Here, our lodge was 90 seconds (we literally timed it) from the central area which housed the shop, the pool, The Foresters Bar and Restaurant and indoor and outdoor children's play areas. Not only did this mean that we didn't have to leave the lodge with everything we needed for the day in one go like sherpas going on an expedition but, and this was a total game changer, after a lovely long session in the pool we were able to put towel ponchos and flip flops on everyone, walk back to the lodge and have hot baths and change at our home from home.
The swimming pool was open daily from 9am and access to it, along with the gym, steam rooms and jacuzzi that sit alongside it are all included free in the cost of your stay. But for additional cost there were plenty of other children's activities including sessions with Water Walkerz, giant floating inflatable balls you could stand in (£6), underwater sea scooters (£8), archery (£14), teddy bear making (£17) or painting craft (£5).
All activities were bookable via guest services. Time slots were varied and were spread throughout the week so it was important to make sure you'd figured out what, if anything, you wanted to do early in the break to make sure you didn't miss anything.
We had grand plans to sign up for some of these activities, but on our first recce of facilities realised that the children actually were perfectly happy with the pool, playgrounds and indoor kids play area with pool, table football, various games and a small free-to-play educational touch screen game.
The indoor play area was tucked in the corner of the on-site restaurant, The Foresters, which did food throughout the day and into the evening as well as takeaways. The food was simple but cooked freshly and the portion sizes were generous.
We went there for breakfast on Saturday morning and the cooked English breakfast (£8.75 for adults or £5.50 for children) was a big hit with everyone, not least the children who were able to play while we enjoyed a coffee and read the papers in content silence while the food was cooked.
Meanwhile, an early dinner sitting in the sunshine by the large outdoor playground was a lovely way to finish the day. Between us we all tried different things from the menu. The children's menu had five specific 'kids' options' but there was plenty from the main menu that everyone enjoyed sharing, including lighter jacket potato and panini type options, burgers, pizzas and an impressive selection of 'street food' snacks ideal for sharing.
If you were staying five days you might struggle to eat something different every day but for our weekend, with snacks, cereal and fruit in the lodge we had plenty of choice - and that was without us plumping for the impressive looking Sunday roast. That said, the food highlight for everyone was the waffles.
If the Center Parcs rite of passage is the much-loved pancake house then at Whitemead everyone is about the signature Whitemead Waffle. Available in three flavour combinations, Oreo, Lotus Biscoff or Unicorn multicoloured ice cream, the waffles bought gasps of joy from the entire table when they came out and were utterly delicious and gave younger members of the groups a burst of energy for a bit more time running round the field by the playground with the football with friends of a similar age they'd made from the playground.
The park has a range of different sized accommodations including some lovely looking two storey cabins that have their own private hot tubs, camping pods that look like hobbit houses and apartments for people looking for a more hotel-like experience.
The whole weekend was wonderful. Full of fresh air, quality family time, great swimming, walks and running around and then down time in a lovely home base including an outdoor deck area ideal for watching the world go by. Our son cried when it was time to leave and made us promise we would return, and we absolutely will.
When we checked out the children both chose the park mascot, Sammy the Squirrel, stuffed animal from the shop as souvenirs (a surprisingly reasonable £4.99) and they have pride of place on their beds, ironically next to their Center Parcs teddies.
Will we still go back to Center Parcs? Absolutely. Especially for longer trips, or as our children get older and want to take part in more grown-up activities on site, which is where the difference between the two forest parks becomes very noticeable (also, I missed the twilight spa!).
But as a family with a five-year-old and seven-year-old who love jumping in muddy puddles, running round playgrounds and making new friends while mum and dad sit in the sunshine enjoying a beer or a glass of wine watching from a nearby table, Whitemead is a fantastic, and very reasonably priced, alternative and actually the smaller scale makes for a more laid-back and less overwhelming experience for younger children.
It turns out pancakes and waffles are both wonderful treats, depending on what you're in the mood for on any given day. Our weekend in a two bedroom woodland lodge at Whitemead was £473 for three nights including welcome goodie bag, all access to all the leisure facilities and on-site entertainment.
Whitemead is owned by public sector and civil service membership club Boundless. Annual membership to Boundless costs £32 a year and gives members discounts of up to 20% on holiday bookings as well as discounts on theatre tickets, high street stores and more.