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We have just returned from another really lovely break at Center Parcs.

This time, we wanted to experience the Winter Wonderland they do each year, as the first part of our build-up to Christmas.

We had booked plenty of lovely Christmassy activities for Lilly to do, including Christmas pottery painting, a Santa and Snowman hunt and a Frosty the Snowman art session which involved lots of glitter and Christmas stickers!

Lilly enjoying the 'Frosty the Snowman' art session

The weather at Whinfell Forest (Cumbria) was fabulous for the whole week – it only rained the day we left. The rest of the time it was crisp and sunny – perfect.

We were very excited to hear that there was going to be a fireworks display on the second night at 5.30pm – conveniently timed before the girls’ bedtimes, which is usually about 6.30pm. It is only this year that Lilly has recovered from her total and utter terror of fireworks – in fact on November 5th Lilly actually ventured out into the neightbourhood with daddy to admire the fireworks… even the really loud ones! But this was her first proper display.

We had such a tiring day on the Tuesday – starting with pottery painting in the morning. Lilly chose to paint a snowman, a stocking and a Father Christmas shaped ornament for the tree. Technically there should have been a lot of red and white involved… but I think Lilly considered white a little bit too boring to paint much of – so snowman ended up with a red face and Santa’s beard is a very attractive mix of purple and green! But they do look rather lovely all the same – and once again I was so impressed with how delicate and detailed she can be when she tries!

In the afternoon we’d gone swimming – which can be a bit of a military procedure with two little ones at the best of times. Everytime we have taken Isla swimming (on all our three previous visits to Center Parcs with her) she has hated it, where Lilly has always loved it. I think Isla has found it a bit of an overwhelming, noisy and hot experience. And at first when we took her in she was upset again and grizzly. So I sat with her in the baby pool and she sat on the edge with her feet in, playing happily with a bucket and a watering can for a while. Once she had acclimatised to the environment we tried taking her into the big pool – and this time, she actually seemed to quite like it! In fact, after a little while, she was giggling! It was a major breakthrough!

Lilly’s favourite thing about the pool as always was going round the ‘rapids’ and dodging the water sprays (she calls the big one Mr Sprayer and the little one Mrs Sprayer!) She also liked swimming outside – which was rather cold, I must say!

After the swimming we were all exhausted so decided to get a bite to eat in the village square instead of going home for tea and coming out again for the fireworks. It was a great plan (although an expensive one) – I was way too knackered to cook after all that exercise – and the timing was just perfect as the fireworks display started not long after we finished eating.

The display was brilliant – and all set to Christmas music. Watching Lilly’s face was the best thing for me – she was totally in awe of what she was seeing. Isla even tolerated the first few fireworks but once they started getting noisier she got upset and Tony took her back to the lodge. As Lilly and I walked home afterwards in the dark she was talking ten to the dozen about what she’d seen and what a “fantabulous” day she’d had. Such a wonderful thing.

Isla is chuffed after doing a slide all by herself for the very first time!

During the week we did plenty of walking and took in all the soft play areas Whinfell has to offer. Isla climbed up and slid down a slide all by herself for the very first time – and was pleased as punch with herself as a result! It then meant that she got a little bit overconfident and wanted to follow Lilly into the ‘big girls” area of the soft play – which meant that I once again found myself six months preggers and flying down numerous ‘tunnel slides’ and crawling through too-tight spaces to rescue a child who was stuck!

We also took part in the Santa and Snowman hunt which involved following a trail to find a series of Christmas related questions which we had to answer (some of them quite hard: name all of Santa’s reindeers being one of them… we *may* have had to google this…) At the end an elf gave Lilly a little prize for taking part and all the entries were entered into a draw… which we only won! We had a phonecall later on to tell us that Lilly had won a teddy making session and we took her up to the Time Out Clubhouse where she chose a tiger toy, was helped to stuff it and then picked an outfit to dress it in. Being totally mad on soft toys this couldn’t have been better for Lilly!

Lilly cuddles up with 'Amelia', the tiger she stuffed herself after winning the Santa and Snowman Hunt

There were, of course, some stressful moments – Isla is at that stage where she only wants to walk and refuses to go in her pushchair. The only problem being, she doesn’t neccessarily want to walk in the same direction as everyone else and is rather prone to falling! Lilly moaned a lot because we didn’t get her a bike, and is possibly the world’s slowest dawdler at the best of times. And Isla was a little bit scared of the jet planes and Chinook which were practicing their flying overhead… although I loved them, I must say. Hubby wasn’t very happy because the nearest place to park the car while unloading was a fair trek from our lodge. But all in all I would say this trip has to go down in my memory as our best trip to Center Parcs yet – and we’ve now been seven times (Elveden twice, Sherwood once, Whinfell four times)!

But of course the main event of the whole week was saved for the afternoon of our last full day – a trip to see Father Christmas. Wewere all really impressed with it… Father Christmas was very authentic and really lovely – it melted our hearts to see Lilly so happily chatting away to him while so obviously in awe! She asked him for a surprise – and he promised her he had “just the thing in mind” for her, before asking her what Isla would like – “erm, I think a baby toy” Lilly suggested. She was also very eager to tell Father Christmas that she had made a snowglobe with his picture in it at the art workshop. And Father Christmas asked the girls to leave out a carrot for Rudolph on Christmas Eve. Then he gave the girls a gift each – a cuddly horse for Isla and a cuddly cow for Lilly. This AMAZED Lilly as she had been asking for a cuddly cow a few weeks ago – and Isla goes crazy for horses. So it just goes to show: He knows, you know.

Meeting Santa's reindeers

Our other holiday highlights included:

  • Isla saying “wack wacks” to all the ducks – first time she’s done this
  • Isla’s giggling when she, Lilly and I all went down a ‘tunnel slide’ together
  • Isla giggling as we went round the rapids and Lilly’s hysterics at being splashed by “mrs sprayer” as we went
  • Lilly’s insistence that she kept seeing a badger “I saw a badger! He was climbing a tree!!” and later, “I saw another badger, on the roof of that house!”
  • Discovering a ‘secret’ play area that we never knew was there before – it’s above Cafe Rouge, for anyone who wonders…

So yes, we’re still big Center Parcs fans. And no, this isn’t a sponsored post! And it is so strange to think the next time we visit, there will be three children… yikes! And that this could potentially be the last time we’ll be visiting in term time… ouch!!

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Last week we enjoyed another lovely week at Center Parcs – I think this is the fifth time we’ve been in the last three years.

For the second time we went to Whinfell Forest, in the Lake District, and were lucky to reap the benefits of the unseasonably sunny and warm first week of spring, in fact the best weather we have ever experienced at Center Parcs I think.

Make A Memory

For the first time we tried out quite a few activities – Lilly did Make A Memory (making a handprint in clay and decorating the box to keep it in), Little Kickers football, Active Tots (which, at three years old was probably a bit too babyish for her, but she still enjoyed it) and Party Hour in the Time Out Club (they play party games while the parents get an hour to themselves – in theory. That was, of course, the one hour of the holiday when Isla decided to throw a bit of an “I-don’t-want-to-sleep-in-my-pushchair wobbler). We also did the usual swimming and had a game of bowling, which Lilly loved.

Little Kickers

Other highlights included spotting frogs by the edge of the stream and Lilly helping me with the shopping by pushing one of the little trolleys (she was a little bit better at steering it this time!), and the animals we spotted from our window – all kinds of birds, red squirrels, rabbits and even a deer.

Visitor to our garden

 

Looking at frogs on the boardwalk

Sleeping wise we had much more success than last time. We learnt the lessons from staying in a two-storey house where Lilly wouldn’t sleep because it was a strange environment and because mummy and daddy were too far away (i.e. downstairs). We went for a single storey villa this visit and Lilly went off to sleep great every night and (except the first night) slept right through. (In fact, both girls even slept through my unfortunate setting off of the smoke alarm incident – a tip for other visitors: use the extractor fan while cooking…) It took Isla a little while to get used to the new place – the first night she went to sleep fine but then started waking up crying every hour. For a few days she protested loudly about napping in the cot. But it wasn’t a major issue and after a few days she was fine. As for Tony and I, we were so exhausted after all the walking and activity with the girls during the days we were asleep by 10pm most nights!

We decided not to hire bikes for ourselves this time, because it is a bit expensive and Isla is a little bit too small to go in the back of one of the carriages. But we hired one for Lilly and we were both impressed how good she was at riding it. Our main error was not hiring a helmet – our theory being that she wasn’t going to go very fast – but obviously we hadn’t accounted for the park being quite hilly in places and Lilly having not yet mastered the art of braking. Thankfully there were no accidents but in order to prevent them we had to stick close by her and hold onto the bike whenever we were going downhill – but to be fair we would’ve been doing that whether or not she’d had a helmet! But all in all the bike was a real success, she loved riding it and never complained about being too tired (which she always moans about when walking, even a short distance). In fact it even became a useful ‘exit strategy’ when trying to get Lilly to leave playgrounds etc without tears – “do you want to ride your bike now, Lilly?”

This time I really expected Isla to LOVE the swimming, because she really enjoys bathtime and splashing with her sister. But, just like last time, she remained very serious faced throughout the experience with an expression that seemed to say “Er, mum, you sure this is safe?!” I think it is the noisy atmosphere that she’s unsure of, rather than the actual pool. But there was less crying and screaming when it came to getting dressed again at the end, which made the experience less stressful than when we went in September! Mind you, they have the changing rooms so hot that by the time we were all dry and dressed Isla had gone redder faced than I have ever seen her before and we were actually a bit worried about her so dashed outside to cool her down.

Watching Lilly playing was a joy – she is such a sociable little thing and just loves other children. Whenever we went to one of the softplay areas or playgrounds she was making friends – all I could hear was her chatting away to other children and introducing herself saying: “I’m Lilly! I’m three!” She still doesn’t entertain the idea of sliding down any “tunnel slides” which she is scared of, even if one of her new found friends tried to persuade her to try it. She is brilliant at taking turns, to the point where she will happily let several children overtake her! There was one incident where a little boy was nasty to her (we didn’t see what happened) and she said she was going to “run away very fast” but apart from that it was all good. Isla had a little sit in the soft play areas too – there’s only so much she can do as she still can’t quite crawl yet, but she seemed to enjoy watching what everyone was up to.

And Tony and I remained steadfastly on the Weight Watchers – we expected we would fall right off the wagon and although we did drink wine every night we managed to resist the numerous chocolate, doughnut, cake, pizza and bread shaped temptations that were winking at us in the supermarket. We packed salads for our picnics everyday and because we were so active and too busy to sit and snack we actually both managed to lose a few pounds – result!

All in all we had a really great time with only a few tantrums from Lilly (including two in the car on the way back – making us worry a bit about our road trip to France in a few months time, but hey, that’s another story!) and we wished that we were staying a full week (although it is so blinking expensive to do that!)

With a three year old my recommendation would be to book plenty of activities for every day – one for the morning, one for the afternoon (allowing time for swimming of course) because plenty of activity and stimulation tired our little one out nicely. Take or hire a bike but beware of the hills! If you’re worried about them sleeping, go single storey. Don’t pay to reserve a villa in the central area only to realise that if you have bikes you have to go the long way round anyway to get to the village centre because the direct footpaths don’t allow bikes. Take some chalks for the blackboard in the villa if you are staying in a “new style” as it will keep the kids entertained for quite a while (and they never supply adequate chalks themselves)

But yes, we remain big fans of Center Parcs and I am already persuading Tony that we need to book another break for later in the year, when Isla will be a little older and able to join in the fun even more.

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Last week we spent Monday to Friday at Center Parcs in Cumbria – Whinfell Forest.

We are big Center Parcs fans, and have been twice to Elveden Forest (East Anglia) and once to Sherwood Forest (Nottingham) since Lilly was 10 months old.

This was our first time at Whinfell – Elveden being our favourite so far, but also being a ridiculously long drive from where we live in the North West. Whinfell is a much more civilised 1 hour 45 minutes away, and even that felt long enough! In fact, we made our first parental error of the holiday on the journey there – waiting too long before stopping at the services meaning Lilly fell asleep in the car and napped for 40 minutes – which came back to haunt us later!

Arriving at a rainey Whinfell Forest Center Parcs

First impressions of Whinfell were very good – plenty of parking (unlike Sherwood) and we really enjoyed walking in the rain in our waterproofs through the trees to discover the  Village Centre for the first time.

The Village Centre is all undercover, unlike Elveden, and, as there was plenty of rain showers the week we were there, it was just as well. We spent our first afternoon enjoying a rather large (and expensive) beer in Bella Italia and admiring the indoor water fountain before having a wander to see the Sports Plaza and enjoy a Starbucks on our travels.

The villas are a little different at Whinfell – as they were built when the park was an Oasis – and ours was a two storey wooden house. It looked lovely from the outside – much more aesthetically pleasing than the standard issue Center Parcs bungalows – but inside it could have done with a bit of a revamp – the white goods were a good 10 years old and the decor a little bit tired. We didn’t really mind that though, but could’ve done without the super creaky staircase and no downstairs loo which meant we spent most of our evenings trying not to need a wee in case going upstairs would wake up a very light sleeping toddler….

Our first night was not to be a peaceful one, as that illegal in-car nap formed a lethal cocktail with ‘First-night-in a new bedroom syndrome and resulted in, yes, you’ve guessed it, “I’m NOT tired!!” “I don’t LIKE my new bedroom!” There’s a squirrel at my window!!” “I’m SCARED!!”. We ended up bringing Lilly downstairs with us, which wasn’t too bad as she was chatting away and making us laugh. When 10pm came around, Lilly still wouldn’t go to sleep in her own bedroom alone, so Tony had to sleep in with her before she would settle.

When she woke up the next morning, early, lack of sleep had transformed her into A MONSTER with absolutely zero tolerance for anything and with with her emotions balanced on a knife edge…

But, before we fully comprehended just how terrible a mood she was in, we took the two girls swimming first thing in the morning. It was the first time Isla has been swimming, and she remained very serious looking throughout her short experience – then promptly fell fast asleep!

Tony took charge of Lilly while I got out with snoozy baby. In a fit of unusual recklessness, he decided to take Lilly on a rather big waterslide, which she seemed to enjoy first time around, despite getting water in her face. Second time around I watched – only to see both of them go right under the water in the plunge pool. A screaming Lilly soon emerged from the water – Tony (who was frantically holding Lilly up above the water while trying to steady himself) took another five seconds – Lilly was terrified!! Not a very good second waterslide experience but quite funny for a spectator (bad mummy!)

It all started to go a little bit wrong after that. Lilly wanted to go for a wee, so I walked with her to the changing rooms. On the way there, she slipped and managed to take me down with her, so that I landed right on top of her foot! She was screaming and I was panicking because I thought I’d broken her foot. I managed to carry her to the disabled toilets where Lilly said she couldn’t stand on her foot and then, in all the upset, did a wee all over the floor, all over herself, all over me! I had visions of hospital visits and plaster casts, but luckily after a while she calmed down and was able to walk again… phew.

Soon afterwards we decided to get out and have lunch. Bad mistake at 11.30, as every other family decided to do the same, so there were no changing rooms available, and people queueing waiting for them to become free. Isla started wailing – she wanted her bottle. Lilly started whinging – “I’m hungry, I want a snack, I’m hungry, I want a snack, I’m cold, I want a snack…” on and on and on.

In the end, I took Isla into the disabled toilets to dress her while Tony and Lilly found a too-small cubicle to get dressed and I fed Isla her bottle standing up – not very comfy!

We thought the worst was over once we got out of the pool – oh, how wrong. Lilly’s mood was awful, we couldn’t go five minutes without a tantrum. We had screaming, lying on the floor, “NO! NO! NO!”, hysterical crying, refusal to walk anywhere, running off, you name it, we had it. We gamely attempted a coffee in Starbucks and some soft play near the bowling alley (they have an big open area in the bar where they play CBeebies on a big screen all day!) By about 3 O’Clock we couldn’t cope with anymore public tantrums so we all went back to the villa and prayed Lilly would go to bed ok later. Luckily, 7pm came and she went to bed fine, on her own, so we breathed a massive sigh of relief and poured a large glass of wine…

I’m happy to report that the rest of the week passed off much more harmoniously. Better sleep meant we got our good girl back, for the most part, and we had lots of fun in the playgrounds and back at the CBeebies bar (genius idea, Center Parcs!) One of the other highlights was shopping in the supermarket with the mini trolley – Lilly absolutely loved it, and looked just too cute pushing it around the aisles and loading all the items onto the checkout.

Back at the villa, we hung out three bags of peanuts on the tree outside our window and watched all kinds of birds feast on them for three days. We also had pheasants and a red suirrel come to visit – and spotted a rabbit emerging from a large rabbit hole outside once too. While we were there we had loads of fun spotting different plants and trees with Lilly on mini ‘nature walks’ – there were loads of different types of mushrooms growing everywhere. Typical though, that the main thing that Lilly remembers from these little walks was an old discarded baby dummy: “we saw a dummy, didn’t we mummy?!”

On Thursday, we had my pretend birthday (it was my 30th on the Friday, when we were travelling back), so we ate our lunch at Bella Italia (delicious) and had a takeaway for our evening meal.

We also learnt, while out and about during the week, that Lilly can do a wee in the bushes if neccessary!

All in all, we had a great time, bar an extremely stressful second day. Sleep is absolutely the MOST important factor in determining Lilly’s behaviour, and Lilly’s behaviour is the one and only key to whether or not we have a wonderful day, or the day from hell!

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I’ve been really disappointed with this summer, because when I visualised life with a new baby and Lilly too I thought of spending days in the park and in the garden, playing in the paddling pool and getting loads of fresh air.

It hasn’t really worked out like that, has it?

Ok, it’s not been the worst summer but it hasn’t really been the best. And, as a family we can be pretty indecisive about where we’re going to go and what we’re going to do with our days, so when you add uncertainty about what the weather is going to do, we often end up not doing much at all!

The weather did not put us off trying out our new double buggy!

 

But last weekend we decided to laugh in the face of the rainy weather forecast and go for a walk around the Albert Dock in Liverpool with the girls – one of our favourite places to go. Often if it is raining we take shelter in the Maritime Museum, but this time we decided we wanted some fresh air, rain or shine.

When we first arrived, the weather looked ok. But the wind was blowing quite ferociously, especially as we were down by the river. We had decided to try out our new double buggy (purchased with our future holiday to Center Parcs in mind). It started off really well, with Lilly keen to get in the buggy to sit next to Isla… and to sit under the “tent” (raincover) which we decided to use to keep the wind off Isla’s face.
Soon though, Lilly was bored of being captive in her buggy, and wanted to walk. As we started to walk along the waterfront, the rain began. It was coming down in short showers, but when it rained, it rained, and we got drenched!! But we had the whole stretch to ourselves, even on a Saturday in August and it was great fun just running along in the wind and rain with Lilly absolutely loving the experience!

The lifeboat was out as the Mersey was so choppy

 

The wind was also making the Mersey really choppy and at certain points along the way the water was even splashing up over the path – cue loads of squeals of delight from Lilly as we jumped to avoid them!

We walked all the way to the ferry terminal where Lilly spent some time kissing and hugging the Beatles penguins (!) and managed to use the big toilet (twice).
The double buggy had to be called into action again when Lilly got a little tired and threw an impressive tantrum – poor Isla’s face as a screaming toddler was strapped into the seat next to her against her will was a picture!
All in all we had such a lovely family day and I hope it has taught us that we really aren’t made of cardboard. Next time we fancy a day out, perhaps we should ignore the weatherman, take our waterproofs and just see what happens!

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When we went a few weeks ago. Well, it was fab, as hoped. We went to Elveden Forest again, which is in Suffolk – so a three and a half hour drive for us with a potentially impatient 14 month old.

However, Lilly was an angel on both journeys – she slept for two hours on the way down, and an hour and a half on the way back, which is unprecidented! She was getting a little fed up by the end, but then again so were we grown ups.

Anyway, it was unbelievable how much snow was still on the ground down there. It had been a good few days since the last snowfall but it was still a couple of inches in places and the lakes were still largely frozen over. There was a snowman in our back garden!

This time we only stayed for a long weekend – Friday to Monday – instead of M0nday to Friday like last time. It did feel a little bit too short but i suppose only keeps us keen to go back for more.

The highlights of this trip were watching the ducks walking across the frozen ponds, Lilly laughing at the snow, seeing ducks & squirrels (who ate bread out of our hands) geese and a deer outside our windows, our ‘duraflame’ log fire on the last night and Lilly’s first soft play experience. She had an absolute whale of a time playing with a little girl of about 3 who kept jumping up and down and acting silly to make Lilly laugh. It was really gorgeous to watch!

Luckily, when he started pecking furiously, there was a patio door between them Luckily, when he started pecking furiously, there was a patio door between them

 

Once again it was a lovely and relaxing experience for Tony and I – i just cannot recommend the Center Parcs experience enough to fellow parents of young children. Amazingly, considering she has not done so for months and months, Lilly was still content to sleep in the pushchair for long after-lunch naps in very noisy environments (which is not something she does lightly) so we were able to chill out for a bit with some newspapers and watch the world go by. She also slept well in the villa – we had one teething related wake up on the first night – so we both had relaxing nights cuddling up in front of the telly with a nice glass of wine and our duraflame log fire!

Since i’ve got back to work i’ve been raving about it to all my colleagues – i expect the ones without children think i’m mad as they plan their gorgeous foreign trips! But two of them who have children have both been on the website looking for holidays – but decided it is too expensive. We were lucky enough to get a fairly reasonable last minute deal.

I have now decided that, WHEN we win the lottery, we are moving to Center Parcs. Can you imagine?!

Lilly enjoyed her bike but wasn't too impressed at sharing it with all the lunches and the shopping... Lilly enjoyed her bike but wasn’t too impressed at sharing it with all the lunches and the shopping…

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We’ve booked last night to go to Elveden Forest Center Parcs next weekend. We went a few months back, when Lilly was about 10 months, and had a lovely family time together. It was also extremely relaxing for Tony and I, something we didn’t think was possible with a young baby!

Lilly is crawling now (she was just on the verge of it last time we went) and she’ll be able to take advantage of the baby soft play areas dotted around the place, which will be good. We are all looking forward to a long weekend of relaxing, cycling, swimming, coffee and cakes, maybe a few sneaky ales and cosy nights in in front of the log fire… bliss.

Elveden was our third choice of park really, as it is a good three and a half hour drive, which is a bit of a trek, but the prices for Sherwood and Whinfell were astronomical because it’s half term and Valentines Day. But this deal popped up on the website last night (only one remaining!) so we decided to go for it.

Center Parcs is a really lovely place for a family holiday. All the convenience of being at home but all the enjoyment of being away. I really recommend it, especially for families with young children. But the prices vary wildly, so be warned.

Can’t wait!

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