Center Parcs On Cheese

The Home of Center Parcs

Alongside some of their great contributions to the World, such as the Cruyff turn and Gin (“Dutch Courage”), the Dutch have somehow also found time to invent Center Parcs.

For the uninitiated, Center Parcs is a holiday camp aimed at families.

It is based around the concept that while it may be nice to get back to nature (woodland setting / no cars allowed on-site), it’s also nice to have stacks of pancakes for breakfast and then plunge head-first down a water slide.

We have managed a few trips to our local Center Parcs, at Longleat, and there’s not really too much that can go wrong from a family holiday perspective – unless you count the kids deciding that they need a loo break inside the lion’s enclosure at Longleat’s safari park.

After negotiating check-in and abandoning our car, we are generally allocated sixty seconds to unpack before heading to the water dome. The water dome is Center Parcs’ biggest selling point. A giant golf-ball shaped greenhouse, heated to tropical temperatures all year-round, and containing enough water based excitement to exhaust Michael Phelps.

When the kids were little and couldn’t swim, we might escape with a few gentle laps of the lazy river and an ice-cream. Nowadays, the kids can swim further than me, but they aren’t always tall enough to be allowed onto the water rides on their own. So my main role is to provide an appropriate adult so that the kids can chuck themselves down water chutes.

Before venturing further afield next year, on our round the world trip, we decided to play it safe this summer and let the kids run riot.

We opted to visit Center Parcs De Eemhof, which is around a 45-minute drive out of Amsterdam. Including the cost of flights from the UK, this was still a cheaper option than a week at any of the UK sites during school holidays.

Best Things About Center Parcs De Eemhof

1. Splashing about in the water dome

I couldn’t take my camera into the water dome, due to the oppressive humidity and my general fear of it getting slightly splashed. It is a new camera.

So you’ll have to take my word for it, or else pay a visit to Center Parcs, but the water dome is good fun. At least for a few hours a day, after which you might find it difficult to walk out due to the numerous bumps and bruises that are a feature of being dragged down the rapids on one too many occasion.

2. Splashing about in the canal

Advertised as paddle-boarding, I thought it would be a good idea to take the kids out on the water to experience some fresh air. Anja wisely decided to sit this one out.

Luckily they can swim.

Luckily the water was only two-feet deep.

Unluckily the water was filled with duck and goose shit.

The buoys in the background of this photo were designed to separate us from the local shipping channel. I would have preferred something more concrete to be on the safe side, but we all eventually found our way back to shore.

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3. Taking a stroll around the medieval town of Amersfoort

After a few days of non-stop water slides, it was nice to “escape” from Center Parcs and visit the local town of Amersfoort.

The centre of Amersfoort is well preserved from medieval times and, as you might expect being in Holland, is crisscrossed by a series of canals.

The kids were slightly despondent at the lack of water features, but they soon perked up when they saw some shopping opportunities.

I wouldn’t recommend visiting if you are expecting vibrant nightlife, but it was interesting to wander the streets and observe a real Dutch town at work.

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4. Chance to visit Europe’s largest marine mammal park

A tad pricey, but “Dolfinarium” is easily reachable from Center Parcs de Eemhof and is home to an impressive array of sea creatures, including Walrus, Seals, Sea Lions and Bottlenose Dolphins.

We were all especially taken with the Sea Lions.

It was, however, a culture shock to see some of the animals being asked to perform tricks. It was particularly unedifying to watch the Walruses being asked to play a trumpet, and it was hard to tell if they enjoyed doing this. But overall the animals appeared well cared for, even if it would be preferable for them to be in their natural environment.

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5. Kids Entertainment

There can be few parental pleasures that beat enjoying a guilt-free cold beer after a long day of family fun. In the Dutch version of Center Parcs, the kids soft play area comes fully equipped with a bar, which feels like a massive design improvement over most soft play areas we usually visit.

So while the kids flit between soft play area and taking in the local entertainment (Orry and Friends, in case you were wondering), mum and dad can take a well earned rest.

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6. Good food

We generally thought that the food options at Center Parcs de Eemhof were better than back home, but it helped that we were staying out by the Marina and there was an excellent local restaurant called Brasserie Zuiderzoet.

Service in the on-site restaurants was on the relaxed side of slow, but the food we ate was always pretty good.

Dressing up is definitely optional, and we managed to get away with post-swim clothing most days…but the girls had to dress up at least once! I didn’t feel the need.

We would definitely recommend Center Parcs de Eemhof for a family break. The site offers better value than a comparable break in the UK, combined with the chance to explore a small corner of Holland that we would otherwise never have visited.

Airbnb Adventure in Denmark

Why Go To Denmark?

We decided to use this year’s summer holiday to take a mini-adventure in northern europe and pay a visit to Jutland, Denmark.

I fancied exploring some Danish culture, probably as a result of over exposure to Danish crime thrillers on the BBC and my recent reading of The Year of Living Danishly.

The kids were sold on the idea that we might pay a visit to Legoland.

We found a lovely beach house on the east coast of Jutland, booked through Airbnb, which seems like a really useful option for our year away. So we decided to use this week as a trial of our future living arrangements.

If you are new to Airbnb, Get £25 off your first stay here.

Initial Impressions

After a short flight from Amsterdam, we bounced into Bilund, the home of Lego. Our initial impression was how quiet it seemed. This turned out to be a theme of our time in this corner of Denmark, which was abundant with deserted beaches and empty countryside.

We are used to living in the south of England, where the first hint of sunshine means there will be queues on the motorway to even get close to the queues that will be lining most seaside amenities. We arrived into a relative heat wave (30 degrees celsius), yet we literally had miles of coastline seemingly to ourselves, without a fairground ride or ice-cream van in sight.

Our new home was around 45 minutes drive from the airport, tucked away in an idyllic location. Set in a forest and only a short walk down to the local beach on Vejle fjord. The view from our small back garden was spectacular. The kids were happy because they could run around on the grass and make some noise after a day travelling:

Airbnb Denmark

Crab Fishing

Our local beach turned out to be the ideal spot for crab fishing.

My usual attempts at crab fishing end in recriminations. The kids complaining about my lack of survival skills and general inability to persuade crabs to leave the seabed and climb into a net filled with raw bacon.

Luckily, we hit upon a better technique, courtesy of being told precisely what to do by the very helpful owners of our beach house. A piece of string tied around a stick, baited with some smashed up mussel’s attached with a clothes peg. This seemed too simplistic to work. Within five minutes of landing on the beach our bucket was nearly overflowing with claws and the kids thought they were in heaven.

It turns out the catching crabs is quite addictive. Anja was soon on the edge of a rickety pontoon, hanging precariously over the fjord in an attempt to land “just one more”. Kiera went for an even more direct approach, with some free diving to catch the crabs at source, while Lexi relished her role as chief mussel catcher.

Having amassed a small army of creatures, there was only one thing for it – crab olympics. They mostly went off fast from the side of the bucket, scampering back down the beach towards home. One or two stood to fight it out, claws waving wildly in the air, before deciding that they too would be best advised to retreat to shallow waters.

Legoland Bilund

After a couple of days chilling around the house and exploring the beach, the kids decided that they would take us up on our offer of one day at Legoland.

The Legoland in Bilund is built next to the original Lego factory and was opened in 1968.

Legoland Denmark

My only real tip for visiting Legoland is to arrive early and get in line. We also decided to head for some of the bigger rides first thing, so that we could get in a few circuits before the crowds started to build.

None of us are particularly brave when it comes to rollercoasters, so Legoland is ideal for us because most of the rides are well designed for younger visitors.

Legoland Bilund was a great day out and it did seem less busy than our English version in Windsor. The kids are also at a nice age now, at 5 and 8, where they can both ride most of the attractions that they (we!) are brave enough to try.

What We Learned During Our Time in Denmark

  • There is more to Denmark than Copenhagen and it is well worth exploring the rest of this beautiful country.
  • The Danish do love their flag, with a full-blown flag pole on display outside most homes.
  • What we call Danish pastries at home, are known in Denmark as Vienna Bread (wienerbrod), having been originally bought here by Austrian bakers.
  • It is normal to see fully grown adults riding about on bicycles, as a means of transport rather than as an attempt to “get fit”, and without the need to wear any lycra.
  • Everybody speaks very good English, but most people you ask will say they only speak a little, before engaging you in a detailed conversation in our native language.
  • I thought it was only in Sweden that you had to drive with your headlights on at all times. I was wrong. Every car that we saw in Denmark had their headlights on, during the middle of the day, in the middle of August, when there was no conceivable reason to need any extra illumination.
  • There are no police in Denmark, except for the few wielding machine guns at the airport.
  • We felt extremely welcome wherever we visited, with total strangers striking up conversations with us on more than one occasion. I can’t recall the last time this happened at home.
  • Much to the kid’s amusement, on the odd time that Daddy was driving a fraction over the speed limit, a big sign on the side of most main roads would flash a warning to us reading “Din Fart”. It was a real highlight when this also happened to coincide with us heading in the direction of a local town called “Middelfart”.
  • Danish school summer holidays finish in early August, which may help explain why everywhere seemed relatively quiet when we visited in mid-August.

Glorious Weekend in Seville

I love travelling with my kids – taking them on adventures, opening their eyes to wonderful new sights, exploring exotic flavours – but isn’t it also amazing to travel without having to bring colouring books!

And so it was when I managed to persuade my parents to enjoy a weekend with their adorable grandchildren, while Anja and I endured the hardships of a weekend in Seville.

I am currently trying to learn Spanish (Habla Espanol?), which influenced my decision to visit Seville as soon as I realised that we had a free weekend to play with. What also helped was the fact that the weather in Seville is marginally better than the weather in Bristol and we both liked the idea of enjoying a nice cold beer with our tapas in the sun.

We arrived on a glorious Friday evening and made our way to our hotel, through a crowd of Seville football fans on their way to a home game. I was already feeling impressed with myself for having negotiated the taxi ride without having to resort to English or pointing at my guide-book.

Our hotel looked lovely, but we decided to make a quick turnaround when we arrived, so that we could make the most of our first night exploring Seville. We were still on “normal” mealtimes at this stage and feeling hungry by around 7pm, so decided to tackle our first tapas bar. Now was the chance to see whether my Spanish could navigate the menu, at least well enough to avoid ordering anything too outlandish.

A few slices of ham and cheese (really sticking to basics at this stage), and a small tumbler of beer later, and we were ready to really get going. We were staying in the centre of Seville, in the Santa Cruz area, which consists of a maze of old streets and picturesque little squares. This of course meant that we had absolutely no clue where we were going as our map was next to useless in the middle of this labyrinth, but it did at least mean that I could have a night off from being chief holiday map-reader, and so we just wandered.

It was evidently perfectly normal for families to be out together, with kids of all ages, taking a stroll through town and eating an evening meal, at what to me was already approaching bedtime. It didn’t take us long to adjust to the Spanish meal times, where lunch is usually eaten around 2-3pm and dinner can be anything from 10pm onwards, and it seems to make sense to eat a little later when the weather is very hot in the day, but I am still puzzled as to how anybody manages to wake up for work or school in the morning when kids are buzzing around eating ice-cream at midnight.

We hadn’t been to Seville before, so alongside baffling the locals with my mangled, beginner’s Spanish, we also had to make sure that we didn’t miss any of the major cultural highlights:

Seville Cathedral & Giralda – just around the corner from our hotel, so we headed here first thing on Saturday morning and got instantly nabbed by a tour guide. This turned out well, because it meant we skipped into a shorter queue and had a much more informed visit than I was planning. Definitely worth a visit just for the sheer scale of the cathedral and the views from the top of the Giralda. The Giralda is the bell tower of the cathedral, and instead of having steps to reach the top, there is a long spiral ramp, which was built to allow horses to carry people to the top – this wasn’t on offer today though.

Alcazar -this is a moorish built royal palace and UNESCO world heritage site, with amazing geometric patterns and impressive gardens. The gardens alone are worth exploring, providing some peace and tranquility within the centre of the modern city.

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Metropol Parasol – at the other end of the spectrum and across town, is what claims to be the world’s largest wooden built structure, which was completed in 2011. Known locally as the mushrooms, you can climb onto the top of the parasol for great views across town.

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Flamenco – we couldn’t visit Seville without seeing a flamenco show. Los Gallos was hidden down a maze of back streets in Santa Cruz, not far from where we were staying, but still only discovered after numerous wrong turns and a few surprised directions from helpful passers-by. Los Gallos were running two shows a night, which required booking as the small room was packed. We both enjoyed the show, although not sure we really had much clue as to what was happening.

Alongside the cultural highlights, the real beauty of Seville was in the maze of back streets and tapas bars, which we wandered endlessly to find our next meal. One place we kept returning to was the old fish market – mercado lonja del barranco – which was alongside the river next to the puenta triana. The market contained around 20 different food and drink stalls, selling everything from fresh mussels to fried eggs, but the simple potato tortillas were my favourite, washed down with a cold thimble of cerveza.

Journey

Gorgeous Start To Family Holiday – South Devon

We had a very lively start to our family summer holiday, largely due to the less than summer-like weather, meaning that our usual plan of staking out a good spot on the beach wasn’t really an option.

There are plenty of other things to do in South Devon apart from building sand castles, and so we made the most of our few days here to explore some areas that we haven’t previously visited.

Newton Abbot

A wet start to our holiday induced some initial head scratching, as we tried to decide what to do.

My sister lives in Newton Abbot, so we headed over to visit their new house and even newer dog. We then followed what appeared to be a very well trodden path into Trago Mills, seemingly along with the all the other tourists from within a 30-mile radius, similarly perplexed by the weather.

It is quite hard to describe Trago Mills, as I have never seen anything like it before. It begins as a shop, but one that specialises in everything, from toys to bathroom suites, on to camping equipment and fishing gear. You would never really need to visit any other shop in your life if you had a local Trago Mills.

However, this is only half the story, as not content with monopolising all local shopping options, the shop eventually gives way to an outdoor theme park, with a small zoo thrown in for good measure. The kids had a great time playing with their cousins and inducing the grown-ups to join them on go-karts and boat rides. I don’t really need too much inducing for anything go-kart related, but it’s nice to pretend that you’re only helping out.

We finished the day with a lovely pizza in Newton Abbot, before arriving back at our hotel just in time for the children’s entertainment.

One of the reasons that we like staying at The Langstone Cliff Hotel in Dawlish Warren, is that every evening during the summer holidays they host an hour of entertainment for the kids. Tonight was a magician, with real life animal tricks, which the kids thought was incredible. I also thought it was incredible, as Anja and I were able to enjoy a drink at the bar in absolute peace.

Dartmoor

We have enjoyed spending some time with my parents during our stay in Devon, who we managed to rope into joining us on a horse ride across Dartmoor.

Before we got to the horses, we managed to squeeze in a visit to the Dartmoor prison museum, where the kids were able to learn a bit of history before we let them have fun.

I learned that Dartmoor prison was built to house French prisoners of war during the early 1800’s, when Britain and France were often in conflict, culminating in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Today the prison no longer holds captives of war, but it is still home for several hundred people, who seem to largely spend their days making garden ornaments for sale in the museum.

The kids seemed more interested in the various weapons on display, crafted by prisoners over the years to aid escape attempts or injure fellow inmates. Hopefully the kids weren’t trying to size up their own escape options.

After lunch at the Two Bridges hotel, we headed to Shilstone Rocks Riding Centre for a one-hour experiment on horseback. It would be a massive understatement to say that we are novice horse riders, as the closest I have previously been to a horse is at the races, while the kids only have a few donkey rides on the beach under their belts.

So it was with a fair degree of trepidation that we announced our arrival for a trek across the moor. Clearly the owners of the riding centre had their own concerns about our competence, as we weren’t allowed to go near a pair of riding boots until I had signed forms for all the family that re-iterated our lack of expertise, and willingness to assume all legal responsibility for any mishaps that might befall us.

Having waived all future rights to compensation, we were introduced to our horses. The animals seemed bigger in real life than they appear on television or when viewed in a field from the safety of a passing car on the motorway.

Kiera has been pleading for her own horse for some time, so she put on a brave face, but she was clearly a little nervous once sitting high on the saddle of her new best friend.

Alexandra, whilst being the youngest member of our family at only just 4 and three-quarters years old, is also by far the boldest, and she practically leapt onto her mount and started galloping.

My horse was a little surly from the off, no doubt sensing my absolute ignorance, but eventually we were all on board and so commenced our amble out of the yard. We were capably led by two fine instructors, one leading the kids out front and one bringing up the rear, making sure that none of us escaped.

I probably haven’t concentrated so hard for a full hour since my last set of school exams, but it was nice to introduce the kids to a new experience and survive unscathed. I think that even my Dad enjoyed the ride, having initially expressed some surprise at having been volunteered to join us.

We stopped off in Teignmouth for fish and chips on the way home, which rounded off an action packed day very nicely.

Dartmouth

Anja was somewhat disturbed today that, despite being on holiday, we needed to set an alarm to make sure that we were on the road by 7.30am in order to reach Dartmouth canoe centre for the start of our kayaking trip at 9.30am.

Kiera and I dabbled with some canoeing during our recent week on the South West Coast Path, so I decided that the family might enjoy a half-day kayaking trip down the River Dart.

I found a local company called Sea Kayak Devon that were willing to accommodate our young crew in two double kayaks. We were met at the canoe centre by our guide for the morning, Tom, who set about getting us all suitably clothed in kayaking apparel.

Tom was excellent with the kids all day and very knowledgeable about the area we were kayaking along the River Dart. We enjoyed a gentle paddle upstream, pausing to spot some of the local wildlife, including a large flock of herons.

We were then treated to a real life “Bear Grylls” experience, as we pulled our kayaks onto a small, isolated stretch of river bank, where Tom had the kids collecting fire wood for our own small beach bonfire. Luckily we had some marshmallows to toast, which are a luxury only rarely found in the wild, but which tasted amazing in the morning drizzle.

Four hours in a small boat was enough for the kids today, but I would love to go on a longer kayaking trip at some point. The boats were a great way to see this area at a gentle pace and in utter tranquility. It felt like we were alone on the river at some points today, even though Dartmouth was alive with people getting ready for their annual regatta at the end of August.

This was a great way to end our short stay in Devon, and we’re now off to St Ives in Cornwall for the next week.

I am looking forward to spending some time in St Ives as I don’t know this town well, but also it is not far from some of the places that Kiera and I visited on our recent walk along the South West Coast Path from Penzance to Falmouth. I would like to re-visit some of the places we saw on this trip with Anja and Alexandra for company, and with the benefit of four wheels for transport.

Family Summer Holiday In The UK – Devon & Cornwall

We are taking our summer holiday this year in the gorgeous South West of England, with a few days in South Devon to visit my parents and sister, followed by a week in St Ives, Cornwall.

I am looking forward to what is likely to be our last holiday before embarking next year on our round the world trip.

We have spent many happy days visiting Devon and Cornwall, which have some of the best beaches and nicest seaside towns of anywhere in the UK. The South West also tends to benefit from warmer weather than anywhere else in the UK, although of course this is a relative concept and we shouldn’t be in any danger of suffering from heat stroke.

We are starting with a few days at The Langstone Cliff, which is a family friendly hotel set within a short walk of the beach at Dawlish Warren.

Kiera will be very happy to jump in and out of the surf for as long as she retains feeling in her arms and legs (the sea isn’t freezing, but nor is it very warm either!).

Alexandra is usually content to build sand castles and search for pebbles to provide the appropriate fortifications.

The kids also love spending some time with their grandparents and cousins, especially now that nanny runs a local bakery and always comes armed with a plentiful supply of baked treats.

This is also a big week because I will be telling my parents about our round the world travel plans. I didn’t want to discuss this over the ‘phone, so will tell them when the time is right this week. I am sure that they will be excited for us, but may question my sanity given the financial consequences of selling our house and quitting work.

Here’s hoping all goes well and, ultimately, my parents can only have themselves to blame for raising me in such a free-spirited and adventurous household.

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