Parcs transformed into enchanting world for Christmas
IT'S a bit like being put under a captivating spell, entering Center Parcs during winter.
Walkways are bordered by forests where towering trees are adorned with tiny white lights and the sounds and smells of Christmas draw you in the direction of merriment.
Standing still, I take it all in, revelling in that feeling of being five years old again, when a boy parades past on a white pony, wearing a Santa hat and looking as pleased as a king himself.
His sheer glee isn't surprising, when I'm told the little boy is on his way to meet Father Christmas in his Woodland Workshop — just one of many special, magical and memorable experiences available for children throughout winter.
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As part of Center Parcs' Winter Wonderland programme, the villages at Longleat, Sherwood, Elveden and Whinfell are transformed into an enchanting world of glittering decorations and Christmas spirit.
There are a range of festive activities to delight the whole family and no break is complete without booing at the baddie and cheering the hapless hero in their traditional pantomime.
As a magnificent high point, each break also features a spectacular firework extravaganza.
Sat in the pottery studio, carefully painting snowflakes on to a ceramic bauble, the pre-Christmas excitement is almost tangible as children of all ages chatter away to their parents about stroking real reindeer and making presents for Father Christmas to leave on Christmas Eve.
"I love it here, Mummy," enthuses a little girl who's wholeheartedly prodding her ceramic snowman with a big brush. "Can we come again?" she adds, clearly eager for never-ending excitement.
It is a paradise for children and adults alike here, at whatever time of year, with activities ranging from quad biking — which went down a storm with Becky and Mel who were part of our group — to lavender therapy, a relaxation technique using the power of the flowering plant.
From outdoor enthusiasts, water babies, crafty folk, and those with a hearty appetite who want to make the most of the range of eateries here, there's something for everyone.
Cafe Rouge lends a familiar hand to the environment with their superb range of French cuisine and traditional dishes while the Pancake House serves up thick slices of crepes filed with anything from tuna to banana.
It's another joyful place to get your fill.
"The beauty about Center Parcs is the safety, the knowledge that cars aren't driving around and that everything is compact, all reachable from your accommodation by bike," says a mother who's here holidaying with her three children, all aged under 10. I agree.
Ditching the car at the car park and collecting your bike for the break is one of the highlights, adding to that feeling of being transported to another place where you can leave routine behind for a bit.
Careering around the park on two wheels with your friends through endless forests and past people heartily laughing is a delight in itself.
Having a whole world of activities and a village centre all within easy reach from your villa creates a wonderful feeling of safety and convenience.
With three children in tow, I can only imagine the relief of not having to worry about the car, or travelling to and from activity points.
It's all here, right your doorstep: you're right at the heart of nature, right at the heart of fun, and at this time of year, it feels like you're right at the heart of Christmas — everyone and everything is beaming and aglow.
Our accommodation is a new, exclusive villa with four-bedrooms, all en-suite, which sleeps eight and comes with its own games room, sauna and a spacious kitchen and dining room and lounge.
Order a grocery pack in advance — it will make life a lot easier when it comes to getting the basics in like coffee and tea.
Whether you're here with a family or a large group of friends, taking a bit of time out is paramount at any time of year and a visit to the Aqua Sana spa works wonders.
It's like entering a luxury inner sanctum where rooms, taking inspiration from all corners of the globe, tempt you to experience relaxation at its maximum level.
There are also a range of treatments available, plus spa days, overnight spa breaks and luxury spa breaks.
"We loved it and have already booked to come again next year," said a former luxury spa break guest.
Whether it's 'me' time you're after, a magical family break or time spent catching up with a group of friends, Center Parcs is sure to deliver on every front: from their outdoor, indoor and craft activities to comfortable, pristine accommodation and an on-site spa and creche to allow for fun and relaxation whatever your age.
If you visit during winter, you're guaranteed an even more magical affair where children's eyes are sure to be alight with a love for all things Christmas and where adults simply can't resist the temptation to discover their inner child.