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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 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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