Thursday, November 01, 2012

Center Parcs: Longleat Forest

We're currently on the last day of a autumn midweek break to Center Parcs Longleat Forest.

We've been many times over the last 18 years, and our activities have changed focus over those years as the kids have grown.

We still love to come. It's great fun, a truly different sort of holiday break where you can do as much or little as you like, irrespective o the weather (though it does impact some activities), swim under the stars on frosty, snowy nights, cycle through the forest and open your curtains to squirrels, deer, ducks and more.

It does have a downside though. It's very expensive.

We're restricted to coming during school holidays. A Monday to Friday midweek break in autumn half term in a 4 berth "villa" rocks in at over a grand - that's more than £250 a night per person. I've just had an email from CP advising a late break availability. If six people come for the same duration next week, you can get in for £16 (sixteen) pounds per person per night. That's a hell of a difference. Still, you pay your money and take your choice as they say. It's clearly a popular holiday. The place is buzzing this week, but the fact that CP know they have a captive audience and charge through the nose for it rankles a bit.

Part of the attraction is that there are a huge range of activities available, most of which though carry additional costs. The swimming area with the various pools, slides, rapids etc is part of the price, but pretty much all other activities cost. We don't mind paying for these in the main - there's pretty much something for everyone and every age, though almost £20 for 3 of us for 18 holes of mini golf is a bit steep. Again, it's there if you want it, and not if you don't.

There are a range of restaurants and catering outlets, and these offer varying value for money. At the poolside cafe for instance a round of 4 burgers, chips and a soft drink came to an eye watering £30 - much pricier than say McDonalds, and the service was pretty lame. A meal at the Strada Italian restaurant (part of a UK wide chain) for four (no starters) including a bottle of wine topped out at £80.

A pint of lager in the Jardin Des Sports bar costs £4.40, so your clearly not going to have a session here - not that I would if it were cheaper anyway, and maybe that's their aim, but if that's what people are willing to pay....

On balance then, I'd say come and enjoy, but know you're going to pay through the nose unless you come outside school holidays.

Finally, the other point that I'd offer, and this is entirely a personal view. The place is beginning to look and feel a bit tired.

The estate (the forest and surrounds) is well managed by an army of staff, and actually I'd highly recommend any of the nature/ranger walks (cost applies). The rangers are highly knowledgable conservationists, and the nature walk we did this year was fascinating.

But the buildings and facades haven't really changed in the years we've been coming. Inside the sub-tropical swimming paradise, the plants and palms all look a bit dejected this year (maybe it's an end of season thing, although I'm not sure there is an end of season at CP which operates year round), and the dome roof itself was draped in netting - for what purpose it's unclear but it looked a bit naff. We did see some blokes wandering round pointing at the roof today, so maybe there's some refurbishment planned.

Although there are some newer activities, and some development of new accommodation there's nothing fundamentally "new" about the concept at Longleat Forest. You still have the "dome", the Jardin Des Sports facility and the lake. I rather fancy that if this were somewhere like Disney or one of the big attraction parks, there'd have been some significant new offerings. I'm not making suggestions or ideas here, just the observation that it still feels fundamentally the same as it did 18 years ago - although I couldn't have posted this online from my villa via wireless then, even if I'd had a laptop!

That said, I'm sure we'll come again. The kids are bigger - our eldest starts University next year all being well, so we may not be back here as a family of four for a while. It does offer a unique experience, and perhaps that's why the basic offering hasn't changed too much. And it clearly sells.

At a price.

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