Later this year we’ll be going on another Center Parcs holiday. Looking at the Center Parcs brochure and website, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there is nothing less than top of the range accommodation, permanent sunshine and family-friendly catering. Spoiler alert – its not quite like that. That said, we had a easy and relaxing time when we went on our first Center Parcs holiday in 2014.
Back then we had two kindergarten kids and Number Three was on the way. Having a small, neat house to stay in and in easy walking distance of playgrounds, the lake and the pool made for a very handy holiday. We chose Het Meerdal near Venlo in Holland for the simple reason that it is not too far from Bonn, where we were attending a wedding after our holiday.
Looking back, the holiday could have been a lot better if we knew what to expect realistically on an off-peak Center Parcs holiday. Hence this post – a reminder for me of what to pack and, hopefully, a few pointers for those of you who are considering a Center Parcs holiday.
Our Home for Five Days
Arriving at your holiday destination in the rain means you don’t quite get the full holiday feeling. When we arrived at Het Meerdal in mid-May to bucketing rain, we were still in good form. For me the mood-breaker was seeing our house for the week. The website cleverly photographs the houses for they seem to be set in green and isolated. That’s not the case. Ours was slapped in between two others in a staggered terrace and a disappointing sight. My initial reaction was “They’ve sent us to the wrong house!”. They hadn’t.
Inside, the accommodation had all the essentials and was clean and tidy, except for the kitchen. I’m not a fussy person in terms of hygiene, but having to wash all the delph and cutlery because someone else’s dried on dinner was caked onto it does not get a holiday off to a good start. Complaining about the situation was met with a shrug of the shoulders and a half-hearted “we’ll look into it”. We heard nothing more.
As I said above, the basics were supplied. That meant one tea-towel, a tiny portion of washing up liquid and a cloth. When you are a self-catering family of five on a five day stay eating at least three meals a day and having to do all the washing up by hand, that essential supply doesn’t last long.
Irritated, feeling a fool, but determined to have a good time, I set to work making the beds. We’d ordered the bed clothes package. I assumed that meant the beds would be made. They weren’t. That’s why this time round we’re saving ourselves the fifty quid and bringing our own bedclothes.
As the week went on I learned to like the house. The entrance was not appealing but the living room looked out onto a canal and the woods. We had wild animals – deer, rabbits, ducks – look in on us in the mornings. A real treat for the children. The weather was too warm for a fire, but we could have lit one in the living room if we wanted. The sofa was cosy and the house was so small that keeping it tidy was a cinch. Had the weather been a bit better, we could even have used the patio furniture more.
- Packing Item #1: Bedclothes for us, sleeping bags for the boys
- Packing Item #2: Towels
- Packing Item #3: Tea-towels, dishcloth, washing up liquid
All those Free Kiddy Activities
If you are willing to pay, there are tons of activities to take part in or send the kids off to at Center Parcs. What’s marketed as free activities however are, for me, a bit of a joke. Basically the dozens of free activities boil down to the playgrounds and the pool, at least off peak they do. Yes, the playgrounds are good and the pool is great but the expectation is that a lot more is included that really is. The kids club, horse riding, climbing, and so on all come with a hefty charge. The boys joined in on a couple of activities we booked at a discounted rate in advance. This time round we’re spending our money on activities rather than bedclothes and heading to Center Parcs with lower expectations than last time in this regard.
I said above that we had an easy holiday and we really did. The weather improved. We adjusted our expectations and let the kids lead the holiday. The Bavarian, not one to venture near water without thinking of fish, had packed fishing rods for all of us. We spent a great morning fishing in the on-site lake for free and breakfasted on the pier. This time round we’ll be making a lot of our own fun.
- Packing Item #4: The fishing rods
- Packing Item #5: A flask and cool bag for picnics on site
- Packing Item #6: Wellies and wet gear for beach and lakeside paddling
- Packing Item #7: A rainy day pack (colouring stuff, books, games)
All Those Food Options
Central to the Center Parcs concept is the market place, the plaza, the meeting place. It is where everything happens – the information desk, booking activities, shopping, eating and drinking,… This really impressed us on our first trip until we saw the restaurant prices. For the quality of food on offer we weren’t prepared to eat out much for the prices being charged. Luckily I like to cook. We’d stopped off in Venlo en-route and had bought enough food for most of the week. With only a two ring hob to cook on, we ate simply but well – pasta carbonara, omlettes, that kind of thing.
One great thing about the restaurant area was that the daily children’s entertainment show was on here and could be viewed from each of the cafes and restaurants. Generally the boys sat with the other children, enthralled by the tri-lingual show (Dutch, German, English) while the Bavarian and I had coffee and cake in a cafe and kept an eye on them. Afterwards the boys were allowed cake or ice cream. This arrangement worked out well for us – eating meals in the house and having treats while out.
The on site shop was surprisingly well stocked and the prices were reasonable. We bought fresh food and snacks here. One highlight for the boys was the freshly-pressed orange juice dispenser. Watching the oranges roll in and get juiced had them mesmerised. We spent a small fortune on juice that week. On the plus side though it is healthy and delicious.
- Packing Item #8: A self-catering meal plan
- Packing Item #9: A budget for treats
What If You Want To Escape The Parc?
Some days we stayed on site all day. On others we ventured out. In Arnhem we visited the WW11 museum and the local market where we feasted on kibbeling – fresh chunks of battered fish – straight from a market stall. This is definitely a must-eat if you are ever in Holland. In Velo we shopped and visited the Limburgs Museum. The displays were fantastic and the museum cafe had great food and coffee. Value wise, a lot better than what was on offer for similar money at Center Parcs.
- Packing Item #10: A list of things to do locally
The Overall Impression
While there’s a negative tinge to this post, it is all in your and my best interests. Center Parc holidays can be brilliant, if done right and approached with realistic expectations. On our initial trip we went with high expectations – expectations that everything would be amazing. On our upcoming trip we’re going with high expectations too – expectations that we’ve made the right choices, expectations that we’ve packed the right stuff, expectations that we’ll make this holiday amazing.