Friday, 18 August 2017

Staying at Center Parcs In Europe

We’ve just come back from our first proper family holiday. After much deliberation, searching and trying to justify the cost of amazing beach resorts we decided to go to Center Parcs in Europe. Center Parcs promised to have activities to entertain us all and we could drive there saving a lot of money on flights. Even with the poor performing Pound against the Euro Center Parcs in Europe are much cheaper than in the UK. We stayed at De Kempervennen just inside the Dutch border and had a great holiday.

A wooden walkway and a pond with stork like birds and blue parrots

The Apartment

We chose a two bedroom Eden apartment because they are some of the more spacious properties. They are also some of the most recently built and we read that the older properties are a bit tired. Even though our accommodation was pretty basic it was comfortable. Our property (816) was on the end of a row so we didn’t have many people walking past, in fact we saw more rabbits out of the floor to ceiling windows than people.

A view out the window of the apartment showing patio furniture and 2 rabbits in the background

I haven’t stayed in Center Parcs before and there were a few things that disappointed me. Even the European Center Parcs aren’t cheap yet you have to pay extra for a lot of things, for instance you don’t get towels unless you pay for them. Our Eden cottage was a Premium property so we had 2 sets of towels included. In each pack there is a big towel and a small one, so if you have 4 people staying you will need to hire or bring more. You also need hand towels for the bathroom and a floor mat for when you get out the bath or shower. We used the bath with our children because the beautiful stone tiled shower was so slippy without a shower mat that my toddler fell over several times. The bath was a big jacuzzi style one so the girls really enjoyed bathtime.

My other disappointment was the beds are all made up as single beds, but pushed together. While my partner enjoyed me not nicking all the duvet, we ended up sleeping miles away from each other which didn't encourage romance!

It felt like we were missing a handbook or information on how things are done: it wasn't clear what to do with the rubbish or whether we were meant to strip the sheets off the bed when we left because there was no information. There are recycling points on most roads, but we couldn't see anywhere for food waste (or nappies) so we ended up using the normal waste bins around the site. We asked at the info desk what we were meant to do and got told that there were rubbish bins at some of the recycling points, but despite looking throughout our stay I didn't see any.


Getting Around

The Eden lodgings are about 10 minutes walk from the Market Dome (where the restaurants, shops and swimming pool are). It was an easy walk, but we ended up hiring bikes to make getting around faster. A 5 year old can walk very slowly at times. There is a large range of bikes available in the Cycle Center to hire. It was really wet when we arrived so all the electric cars and bikes with trailers were booked out, but there were plenty of normal bikes. You can also hire novelty vehicles (like 4 person bikes and segways) for an hour at a time.

On changeover days (Mondays and Fridays) the roads in the resort are busy, but the rest of the week it's mostly bikes, pedestrians and service vehicles using the roads so you feel safe with children running (or cycling around). De Kempervennen is flat so it's easy to walk or cycle. You are meant to park your car in one of the main car parks after unpacking your bags, but clearly a few people were unaware of this and they had cards left on their cars asking them to move. One of our neighbours appeared not to care about the rule and left their 3 cars parked outside their property for their entire stay without any obvious penalty.


Most of the activities are close together near the centre with the accommodation sprawling outwards. Cottages near the centre obviously experience more noise, but that balances out with less walking. We chose the peace of being further out. 


A photograph of a map of Center Parcs De Kempervennen

Food

There was a kitchen in our apartment with a gas hob, microwave, dishwasher and fridge with ice box (no oven). There are most things you need for basic cooking, but we would have found a spatula handy, I don't know if it was just missing from our cottage. The shop in the Market Dome is a good size and reasonably priced, but we also went to a nearby Jumbo supermarket to check out their larger selection. 

We ate at all of the restaurants in the Market Dome as well as having pizza delivery and I found them expensive and not amazing quality, but they were convenient for when we needed something. The Fuego Adventure Grill was our favourite because there is a treasure hunt around the restaurant for kids (they get sweets for completing it) and they have fab make your own cocktails, including a 'nojito' for children. We went there on our last night and loved the fun atmosphere. My choices were limited in the restaurants because I don't eat dairy, but I managed to find something at each place. I'm pretty sure everything on the menu at Nonna's contained dairy though.

One day we hired a grill plate from the shop which was delivered to our apartment with a crate full of food: meat, bread, veg, puddings, pancake mix and dips. We cooked the food together at our table making a nice relaxed dinner. We also bought a disposable barbecue for one evening's dinner (I think VIP cottages have a built in barbecue).

A table full of food and a grill plate cooking food
Our cook at home grill plate

Child Friendly Apartments?

They have a few kid's cottages, but they weren't available when we booked. Our property was fine for children, but it could do with a bit of baby proofing.
There was a cot which was easy to assemble, but we hadn't paid extra for the sheets. I took one of the duvet covers off a bed and put the mattress inside it so it worked as a sheet, we had brought Little Sister's sleeping bag and pillow from home.  
ᐧ There was a highchair, but it had no straps so Little kept climbing out. It also didn't have a tray or pull up very close to the table so inevitably a lot of food fell on the floor.
ᐧ They have some plastic plates (picnic ware) and small cutlery, but we mostly used the trusty ikea set we had brought from home.
In the small toilet there was a children's toilet seat and a plastic step so little ones can reach the taps.
ᐧ The open plan kitchen was a bit of a challenge because there was no way to keep our toddler away. The glasses were kept in a floor level cupboard and after just one day she had smashed one. There was a glass vase on a table when we arrived, but I moved that before it was at risk from our toddler. 
ᐧ The bedroom we put the children in was by the front door and there was an additional door between that room and the living space which meant we didn’t disturb them when they went to sleep.
ᐧ We brought a pushchair and it was easy to use around the site. There is a place to leave pushchairs outside the swimming pool and a wire you can lock them too, like most people we didn't have locks and luckily we were ok.

What is there to do for free?


Swimming
A lot of the activities you have to book and pay for, but with young children you can entertain them for much of the time for free. We went swimming every morning. The Aqua Mundo opens at 10am (during the summer it opened earlier on Wednesday and Saturdays). On some days you can pay for early entry toddler swimming.

De Kempervennen has a lovely area for babies with water no deeper than 15cm. It has a waterfall, some jacuzzi bubbles,  3 slides and a few jets of water. There is also a toddler/ preschool area with: slightly deeper water,  a grotto with water falling from the ceiling, a normal slide and a tube water slide. My 5 year old initially went on this water slide a few times before being brave enough to try the Wild Water Rapids and larger water slide. The water in the baby and toddler areas is slightly warmer than the main pool and the air temperature is warm too so I never felt like my toddler was cold.

Collage of pictures of the Aqua Mundo at Center Parcs De Kempervennen Clockwise from top left: The main pool with the highest water slide in the background; view from the entrance to the pool area showing the sloping edge to the main pool and a water slide in the background; the toddler area; another view of the toddler area.
Clockwise from top left: The main pool with the highest water slide in the background; view from the entrance to the pool area showing the sloping edge to the main pool and a water slide in the background; the toddler area; another view of the toddler area.

In the main pool there is a gentle slope down on one side so babies and toddlers can happily sit in the shallow area, over the other side of the pool there is another shallow area where my 18 month old could just about stand up. The different sections are separated by rope so you don't accidentally go too deep. The wave machine came on every half an hour which my 5 year old loved, but was too rough for my toddler. In the shallow areas she would get knocked over and splashed so I either had to hold her in the deeper area or take her to the children’s pools when the waves came on.

There is a small outside pool, and the living sea pool (where there are fish tanks under the water) and part of the Wild Water Rapids are outside too. The weather wasn't great, but these areas were still useable everyday because the water was warm. 

There is an open water slide which both girls went down on my lap and a higher water slide which was too scary for my 5 year old, but isn't that fast. She loved the Wild Water Rapids which are a series of slides of varying speeds where you get pulled along by the current.

Two children sitting in a lake and playing
In the water at The Beach

The Beach

On the edge of one of the lakes there is a roped off area for swimming.  We paddled and splashed there on warmer days. Also at the Beach is a bouncy castle and picnic tables and the largest play area. Like all the play areas the ground is sand which adds to the fun for kids, but gets in your shoes. There is a good selection of swings, climbing frames and slides suitable for a wide range of ages. 

A view towards the lake at with the playground in the foreground
The Beach

Animals

The Children’s Farm is next door to the Beach. The pigs and rabbits are in their own enclosures, but the sheep, chickens, goats, deer and peacocks wander around a paddock where you can get up close them. They keep on escaping too and can be seen wandering around outside the farm. Across the road there is the donkey enclosure and a couple of cows. You can feed the animals at feeding time (check times on the map), but we always seemed to be in the pool at the time.

A toddler looking at a dear walking past with two chickens in front of her and a goat behind
The children's farm

There are a couple of otters who live in a pond opposite the sports centre. They came out to play in the afternoon around feeding time, but the rest of the time they seemed to be curled up in their house. You can still seem them if you go over the bridge and down a tunnel.

Also worth a visit in the Market Dome are the parrots, birds with weird hair (storks maybe?), fish and terrapins. The wooden walkways over the indoor pond are slightly nerve wracking with a toddler who wants to climb into the water to say "hi" to the fish, but we managed to keep her out.

Play Areas

In the sports centre there is a small soft play and outside there is a play area with a fort. This is next door to a rocky area with water which I think was designed for paddling and play. On the sunnier days children were playing in it, but it looked too slippy (and dirty) for my toddler so I encouraged my 5 year old away from it as well.

If you walk right out of the Market Dome and you follow the buildings round you come to another playground on the side of the lake. This was very quiet when we found it, other than the large number of geese near by.

A girl on a swing in a playground
The quiet playground

In the Market Dome there are a couple of small play areas next to the restaurants which are handy to keep the kids entertained while waiting for food. On the stage in the Grand Cafe area there are a few children's activities though out the afternoon including a disco and a puppet show, later in the evening there are singers on the stage.

Other activities:

We mainly stuck to the free activities, but there are a huge range of activities you can get involved in for all ages. We paid for the following:
Trampolining: There are trampolines inside and outside the sports centre. They cost 1 or 2 euros for a couple of minutes. Big sister enjoyed jumping while her Little sister was in soft play. 
Crazy golf: surpringly hard work with a toddler around who keeps picking up the ball so we ended up strapping her in the pushchair. We just paid for 2 adults and Big Sister enjoyed writing our scores down. The course is quite worn, but still fun.
Cycling: We had a mountain bike, a ladies bike with child seat on the back and a child’s bike with stabilisers. They have locks incorporated and there are lots of places to leave bikes around the site.
Kid’s Safari: One of my favourite activities and bookable in the cycle center. Kids get 20 minutes to drive around a dirt track in an electric jeep. It doesn’t go very fast but they get to steer, control the speed and have fun. The adults get given a remote control button that allows you to cut off the motor if there are any problems.
Kid's Haven: We hired a little (very slow) motor boat for 20 minutes and you can also get pedelo's. The boat proved too difficult for my 5 year old to steer so we nearly crashed, but it was still good fun.
Bowling: We booked bowling which gave us a lane for an hour. We did "kid's bowling" so had a monster thing to roll the ball down and bumpers in the gutters. It was very hot and Big Sister got grumpy, but Little Sister enjoyed pushing the balls down the monster.
House of Games (arcade): There is pool, air hockey and slots machines where you win tickets or tokens. They are quite expensive, but we had fun before exchanging the tickets for a paw patrol pen. Unfortunately by the time we got back to the apartment the pen had been lost and there were lots of tears.

Clockwise from top left: trampolines in the sports centre; a mountain bike, a 12 inch bike and a ladies bike, Big Sister proud of her tickets win and jumping on one of the two bouncy castles.
Clockwise from top left: trampolines in the sports centre, our bikes, Big Sister proud of her tickets win and jumping on one of the two bouncy castles.


Visiting Other Center Parcs

One day, for variety, we went to one of the nearby Center Parcs because you can use their free facilities too. It took about 20 minutes to drive to De Vossemeren (plus 10 minutes to get off site at De Kempervennen from car park C). We had to ask at the reception next to the pool to be let through the gate, but we didn’t have to pay anything.

The baby and toddler area at the De Vossemeren pool was much smaller with less activities, but otherwise it was great fun and worth a visit. Their biggest water slide is faster than at De Kempervennen and their wild water rapids have areas you can stop and enjoy being outside. They also have a lazy river and some smaller water slides which I managed to persuade my 5 year old to go on. Like De Kempervennen it has a wave machine, a cafe in the pool area and a pool with underwater fish tanks. There was less seating available, but it is well worth a visit if you fancy a change. They also have Discovery Bay at De Vossemeren; a pirate play area with sand and water aimed at 5 years and upwards which looks like a lot of fun for kids, but we were told it was only open until 3pm so we didn’t have time to explore it.

If you like the sound of Center Parcs, but the school holiday prices are too much in the UK, it is definitely worth going to one of the many parks in Europe. 
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