When you think of Center Parcs most people think adventure, outdoor activity, action, cycling, and most probably able-bodied, not necessarily thinking it would be the ideal holiday for a someone with wheels. Don’t get me wrong there are a lot of activities that do require fitness and mobility. Put it this way, quad biking, paragliding, segway and wall climbing weren’t on the top on my to-do list (luckily even my able bodied friends aren’t that able!), I was looking to make it to the end of this holiday in one piece! However there is still plenty to do and see, and the Center Parcs I visited is set in the most beautiful peaceful Elveden Forest. There’s was even a man made beach!
I am known as being an over organised person. Being asked jokingly by friends if the weekend itinerary will be laminated! So true to form this holiday was organised right down to what we were eating for dinner.
Being organised comes naturally to me, I think it’s because I’m always having to think ahead. It’s not quite as easy to be spontaneous when you have to rely on people to assist you. Don’t get me wrong, I get up to plenty of adventures as you can see! But all these take planning…. how do I get there? Can one of my PA’s work? Is there wheelchair access? An accessible toilet? What time do I need to get back? The list goes on, and this holiday was no exception. There were four days to be planned, I was in planning heaven!
This was also the first time I’d ever hired a hoist. Although Center Parcs have accessible lodges, with an electric profile bed, (amazing!), they didn’t have or offer hoist hire. Which to be honest I didn’t expect them to. When booking the lodge and enquiring I was given the direct phone number to Elveden Center Parcs medical centre. On the ball, friendly and helpful they recommended a local company that other guests have used to hire hoists and various medical equipment. Newcampe Medical LTD. Brilliantly organised and very reassuring they told me the hoist would be delivered to my lodge before my arrival time, and collected after I depart.
It was here before we knew it, the day of arrival!
I don’t live far from Elveden, around a 30 minute drive. On this day we got to Center Parcs in a speedy 70 minutes…. ‘What?!’ I hear you say. Yes 70 whole minutes. Lesson 1, trust your instincts and not a sat nav. You hear stories of sat navs directing people to dead ends, lakes, all kinds of weird places, and you think fools, surely they knew it was wrong. Well that day I was one of those fools. Glimpsing a sign to Center Parcs and my PA saying ‘oh that says Center Parcs’, yet the sat nav telling us to continue straight, I decide to continue straight. The sat nav must know a better route. It didn’t. After taking us miles in what we knew to be the wrong direction, it then expected us to drive through somebody’s garden! Sat nav told off and ignored we finally found our own way there. About 15 minutes from our actual arrival I receive a joyful text from friends (the driver being the one that’s always late) saying they’ve arrived, parked and collected the keys. They ignored their sat nav.
Gloating over, a little explore, and a picnic by the ‘beach’, it was time for Adventure Golf.
Adventure golf is one the funniest yet frustrating activities known to man. Now I know I can’t physically play golf, but we came up with a system where everyone else would rotate when it came to my go…
When we started we were idling along having a laugh, not taking too long, but as there were 6 of us to get through (and sometimes that ball just didn’t want to get in that hole!) we took a little while. On about the third hole a large family appeared behind us, speeding through their game. Now if that was me I’d just take our time, let the kids have another go (nobody was behind them), but no, they were right behind us, waiting, watching, commenting. Letting their toddler run around between us, getting in the way of whomever is having their go. It’s only a game I hear you say! It’s never only a game when my friends get together! None of us are golfing experts, none of us even particularly good, (except Emma, I think Emma secretly took golfing lessons before our holiday) and we all know that. But somehow that makes you even more determined, in a fun, I don’t care if I win (I NEED TO WIN) kind of way. This was a great little ice breaking team builder style start. We didn’t all know each other as well as some.
By the way, I won! Even if I didn’t even touch a golf club. And maybe I nominated Emma for more of my turns than anyone else. Always take advantage of your situation!
It was time to find our lodge in the forest and unload.
I went to explore the lodge while waiting for the others to find their car amongst the thousands.
Wheeling through the extra wide doorway I entered the ‘coat hanging area’, an open plan hallway type area with a small carpet and a wall of hooks to hang your wears. From here you can pretty much see the whole communal area of the lodge, the dining area with a large white table and 6 chairs, the central kitchen, and lounge with fire place and squishy looking sofas. Directly to the left of the front door as entering is a very large wet room, with toilet, shower (with a fold down chair) and 2 sinks. I still haven’t figured out why 2! So please let me know if you know why! The wet room itself is very large. Plenty of turning space, easily enough room for myself plus 2 PA’s. But both sinks are weirdly small! There was also quite a large lip in the doorway, my electric wheelchair had no problem getting over, however it was a bit of a struggle for my PA. to get my NHS basic standard manual chair over.
The kitchen was brilliantly adapted. There was a lowered worktop with leg room underneath (until we filled it with a load of food and stuff!) where the kettle was so that it would allow independence for wheelchair users. The tap to the kitchen sink was on the front, to enable easier reach, however this did get in the way for some of my friends that found the placement awkward. But that just added to my entertainment!
The dining table was very minimal and sleek. With plenty of leg room underneath, no big table legs getting in the way. There were 6 lightweight, easy to move chairs.
There was another bathroom fitted with a bath, sink and toilet. This wasn’t really accessible. But not a problem for me as the wet room was. The first bedroom was mine, a twin room with one single bed (for my PA) and an electric profile bed for myself. The room had plenty of storage space and plug sockets by the bed (handy for my overnight ventilation, bi-pap) although I did bring an extension lead too as this isn’t always the case. The room was an ok size, but not overly spacious once in there with my wheelchair and portable hoist. The hoist was there waiting for me! With a kind note, instructions and contact details. Brilliant service!
There was also a double master bedroom with tv. And a small twin bedroom, very small, which I’d guess is usually expected for children to use.
The whole outside corner of the lounge was glass with large patio doors that looked out onto our al fresco barbecue area with outdoor table and chairs for 6.
Sitting here we were surrounded by trees, and a small pathway led to the lake. Ducks plodding around, with only water, breeze and animal noises to hear, we could be anywhere.
Everything unpacked, wine opened and Pimms in a jug, we attempted to have an all female barbecue (who needs men?!).
15 fire lighters later! We had a barbecue on our little patio in the idyllic surroundings looking out into the lake, when a deer joined us for dinner.
One of the lovely things about Center Parcs is how close to nature you are, the wildlife you see and how tame they are. We had birds and squirrels in our lodge, sneaking through the patio doors. Met families of ducks and a peacock on our travels, and often glimpsed a deer in the evening.
I know they say you learn something new everyday. Well I certainly learned something on this weekend away. You never fully know a person till you’ve spent a long weekend with them!
I’ve known Hannah for around, she’s sure to correct me here, but let’s say 16 years, properly anyway. Hannah’s bird knowledge! Never did I know she knew so much about birds. Every time we were like, oh there’s a bird, she’d be there saying, oh it’s a ‘blah blah’. She knew which were male or female. By the end of the weekend we would be jokingly asking Hannah about every animal species we saw.
First on the schedule was a photoshoot. A little cheesy I hear you say! Well we were hoping for a bit of fun, maybe some props, and coming away with a nice photo to remember our girly weekend by. Hair straightened, looking out the window we see a rain shower, donning our ponchos and raincoats off we set to get lost finding our way to the Sports Plaza where the photography studio was.
Arriving and checking in for the photoshoot horror washes over me as I spot the photography studio/room which is located down a steep set of steps totalling around 2-3 feet! (I’m not sure if I’m exaggerating, I’m not good at judging these things) On seeing my face the photographer reassures me that it’s not a problem he has a ramp. Of course he does, after all while in planning heaven I had triple checked everything! Little did I know he would appear with the biggest, steepest ramp I have ever seen in my life! Health and safety out the window I attempted this mean looking ramp as if I were a novice skier, sliding straight to the bottom. Nothing was going stop me once I started rolling, gravity doing its job, my PA and the photographer doing theirs resisting it to slow me down, holding on to my chair, I landed. I was in!
The photoshoot was fun if a little basic, there weren’t many props but we did have a good time improvising putting on our rainwear and posing with an umbrella, fan blasting us with wind like supermodels on a catwalk. Not. We did have a laugh and the photographer was fun, really getting involved. I’m not sure he really knew what else to do! I think he’s more used to shooting lovely family portraits!
Considering even by the end of our four days most of us still didn’t know where our lodge was, geocaching probably wasn’t the brightest idea I’ve ever had! For a start we arrived late as we couldn’t find our way to the Country Club to collect or kit. When we finally did an instructor was waiting with a look of pity on his face and an air of why are we even bothering about him, he handed us our equipment and off we set. The gps system making as much sense as… well not, we ended up wandering around the mass acres of Center Pacrs in various directions looking for rocks which housed clues. Once filled out on our answer sheet they should spell out a word.
At about clue 5 of 10 half of us, myself included, decided to go back to the lodge (if we ever found it again) and get dinner ready. Or in other words, quit!
The other three, getting the hang of it, and I think enjoying it a little more than they’d ever admit, decided to plod on.
Once the winning three (they came last by a long way!) returned from geocaching (after stopping for a pint on the way!) we all had a drink and chill in the lodge before venturing out again for the swimming pool. Subtropical Swimming Paradise (paradise isn’t quite the word I would use). This area was not hugely wheelchair friendly. The locker/changing rooms were a maze to get through with people everywhere, I think there must have been an easier route but there were no staff around to advise, and as I wasn’t getting changed or swimming myself I didn’t try to find anybody.
My friend Hannah didn’t fancy swimming either so she and I figured we’d go along and chill by the pool with a drink or something while the others had a splash around. But once reaching the poolside area we had different thoughts, it was craziness. There were people, chairs and towels every which way and you couldn’t hear yourself think! We understood this was a hive of activity and knew it would be busy but thought there would be a place to sit, drink and observe. Not being able to find anywhere, and the noise getting too much we decide to let the others know we were leaving and going to explore. Exploring the Sports Plaza I noticed a lift. This took us up to a bar with a bowling alley, and large windows overlooking parts of the pool. We grabbed a table and a drink and had a good ol’ natter (while our friends enjoyed the pool, slides, rapids and what-not) It was nice chilling just the two of us. It’s a very rare occasion when I’m not accompanied by people, PA’s, family. Anyone.
On the Sunday we had all pre-booked a day at Aqua Sana. This is the spa that’s situated on Center Parcs site (although it is separate). During the morning we’d booked a 3 hour session in the spa and experience rooms, and then in the afternoon we were all having various treatments.
Before booking I telephoned to enquire about access and how I’d get on in the experience rooms. I must say the lady was a little vague, saying I might not get into all of the rooms with my wheelchair, however there will be some areas that I can access, there’s is a lift, and there are lots of places to chill with a book. Now, I’d never been before, had no idea really of the set up and what would be available to me, so thought ah well, let’s go for it, and booked my 3 hour session (with a PA admitted for free).
Paying £43 for these 3 hours I must say I was slightly disappointed. I couldn’t access any of the experience rooms. I could get to them, and the doors were wide enough, and there was a lift, but I’d be stuck in the doorways. As once the door is open there are just chairs and benches etc, and very little space. Yes there were places I could chill with my book, a big sofa area, beside a water bed (I couldn’t get on), or beside the hydro pool. However £43 is a big price to pay to sit and read a book when much of the time your friends are in one of the various ‘steam’ rooms. I would go again, but I wouldn’t be happy to pay that amount when I didn’t experience any ‘experience’ rooms. If/when I make a return visit I will be highlighting this fact and hope that I’m expected to pay a lot less. It was mixed reviews between the 5 others in my group (that could access everything). Some having a fantastic time and thinking it’s brilliant value for money. While others were slightly disappointed and thought the rooms were all quite similar and it wasn’t what they expected.
Lunch in Vitalé Café Bar (situated in Aqua Sana) was too a little disappointing. I must say that what I did eat was delicious if extremely overpriced. But the first two things myself and a friend ordered hadn’t been ‘delivered’ that day.
The afternoon was cram-packed with various treatments. Some of us having one massage, others booking 4 different treatments (I mention no names!). I’d booked an almond hand scrub with manicure, a facial, and a scalp massage. These treatments were expensive, more expensive than what I’ve paid at other spas. I’ve been to a few spas, one of my preferred being Bannatyne. So with a facial that was around £20 more than Bannatyne I was expecting something amazing. It was nice. All my treatments were nice. I felt pampered, and looked after. I didn’t feel overly relaxed. Not as relaxed as at other spas. My therapist talked quite a lot, and I felt a bit like I was attending a sales pitch. I was informed how amazing every product was, and how much more amazing I would be if I used them. I didn’t buy any. The staff were very friendly and accommodating, the room had plenty of space for me to manoeuvre, but I felt like I was on a conveyer belt.
I must also say that I was advised by Aqua Sana to book my treatments far in advance as some of the treatment rooms are not accessible (I think they’re upstairs). So I did. I booked my treatments around 3 months ahead saying that I was a wheelchair user and needed to be booked into an accessible room, they said absolutely fine, all sorted. Two weeks before our holiday, and only because I am a triple checker due to past experiences, I phoned to confirm my booking. The booking was there, with no extra notes declaring my needs. I again reminded them that I needed an accessible room, and was told they’d ‘write it in the diary’. I thought they’d done that 3 months ago. Fortunately my times and bookings were still ok.
Miraculously we were all packed and ready to depart our lodge by 10am (checking out time). Housekeeping were next door cleaning, moving on to us next, so the 10am doesn’t seem too strict if you need a little extra time.
A coffee in the sun outside Starbucks, a browse of the shops for gifts to take home (mostly chocolate!), and Krispy Creme donuts bought for the road, we departed.
Sad to leave but ready to go home (there’s nothing quite like your own bed), I had a lovely weekend with friends. Relaxing yet busy and full of laughs, I never really thought that I was only 30 minutes from home.
It’s good to get away, a different scene, however far you go.
Photo Credits: Becky Franklin, Lucy Betts, myself.