Friday 14 June 2013

european vacation

I decided that we had to get away and have a little family holiday somewhere during half term break. Our last break ended a bit sooner than expected and with the loss of Jasper, so a week away felt like a good thing to do.

I looked at Cornwall as an option as we're not having our summer holiday there this year, but almost everything was already booked because I'd left it late. Then I thought a return to Center Parcs would be a nice idea, until I saw that Elveden expected us to cough up over £1,600 for a one week stay. I remembered friends saying that Center Parcs on the continent was a lot cheaper, and right they were - I booked us in at De Vossemeren in Belgium for a week for £800. The Land of Beer and Chocolate! Yes, please.

I paid for our Eurotunnel crossing with Tesco vouchers (loyalty points), so our only travel costs were for diesel and our passport misadventure (see previous post.) Eurotunnel is something to behold. You drive your car on to a train. YOU DRIVE YOUR CAR ON TO A TRAIN THAT GOES UNDERWATER. I shit you not. In roughly 35 minutes, you go from Folkestone in Kent to Calais in France.
It's the most ridiculous and fantastic thing ever. I don't care how sad this makes me, the novelty of this thing still hasn't worn off.

We emerged on the other side chanting our mantra: "Drive on the right." After a long journey thanks to a delayed train, Antwerpian traffic, and one son hurling into a plastic bag, we arrived at Center Parcs. 

Center Parcs in Belgium is surreal because it looks like an English Center Parcs, has all the same logos, but everything's in four different languages. When  you arrive, you know this is not going to be like England - the "Meh, do what the hell you want" vibe starts right at the gate. You don't have to go through barriers and have your guests carefully counted and verified by someone,  you just drive in, get yourself parked, and wander over to an information desk where someone just takes your word for it.

The park itself is very similar to the one in Elveden - the villa floorplans are the same and they are surrounded by woodland, and the pool layout is almost identical. It's a smaller park, which makes getting around with small children so much easier. The other European kids weren't on holiday that week (except maybe the Germans) so it wasn't very crowded.
We didn't leave her in the woods.
The activities are similar (swimming, indoor and outdoor sports, bowling, etc.) but far cheaper. The pool area is amazing, not because it has anything extra (although the underwater aquarium pool is pretty cool), but because they just don't really give a monkey's who goes on the slides. The age minimum is supposedly 8, but after we watched several small children with armbands and float vests going down the rapids with their parents, we threw caution to the wind and took all three kids down and on some of the slides. Back home, we would be much  more limited which makes doing anything as a family difficult (I usually end up trapped in the toddler pool area for hours on end.) In Belgium, they stick two fingers up to health and safety. Go! Be free to slide down our big plastic watery tubes as a family unit!

The other thing you will encounter at a European Center Parcs is a lot of beer-bellied men in very small Speedos and very large women in bikinis who simply Do Not Care, which is fine by me. The fact that I won't feel fat and don't even have to bother shaving my legs makes for a pretty good holiday, in my opinion.

Now, if you're eating, you may want to skip this bit. Although I say the villas are like their English counterparts, the toilets are not. There is what I can only describe as a "poo shelf" in every toilet. It's like a normal toilet, except for reasons unknown, there is a little step at the back where your poo rests tidily until you flush it away. My German sister-in-law forewarned us about the Poo Shelf, claiming that most Germans are hypochondriacs and like to inspect their poo in a Gillian McKeith manner.

Okay, you can come back now.

Climbing our way up to the sports cafe.
The pool is in the market dome area, which is where everything is located - again, very handy when you've got a lot of kids in tow. It's a jungle in there, literally. The market dome is bursting with trees, plants, flamingos and parrots, rope bridges to climb and stone paths in fish-filled ponds. 

There are the obligatory useless and overpriced shops, a food store, and a few cafes and restaurants (one of which was closed.) The food store is okayish, but not great if you are doing any great amount of self catering. You're limited by the lack of an oven in the villas (you have a hob and microwave, but no oven) so it's already a bit of a challenge to come up with meal ideas, especially if there is no fresh meat or vegetables in the store that day. Stock changed radically from day-to-day, which I suppose is in keeping with the European market mentality; you buy whatever's there on the day you shop. It was excellent for baked goods, snacks, and booze, though. If you're happy to live on baguettes, Doritos, and beer for the week, you're sorted. Oh, and you must like edam or gouda. Want any other cheese? You're screwed.

The restaurants are also okayish. As mentioned, one was shut (seasonal hours?) which left three others to choose from: a pancake restaurant, a buffet (which we never tried), and a place called The Grill. The Grill was fine - not great and hugely overpriced, but that's what you expect at a Center Parcs. I made quite a few meals in the villa using the hob and an electric grill we brought ourselves (like a Foreman grill.) Which reminds me, unlike Center Parcs in Elvedon, the smoke alarm doesn't start blaring at you the minute you emit any heat from the kitchen, including the toaster. I should also mention that the sports bar makes an amazing mojito that packs quite a kick for €6.

In front of a bookstore in Antwerp
The great thing about this park is that it's only an hour from Antwerp and theme parks, museums, and is just meters from the Dutch border. You're not limited to the park itself, which makes for a more interesting week. We went into Antwerp for the day - a pretty, friendly, compact city. You can default to French if English isn't understood (which isn't the case in some other parts of Belgium) although it's so touristy that everyone speaks English along with at least three other languages. 

We had some lunch, an open top horse trolley thingy tour, and I bought chocolate from two different shops. (I've eaten it all now.) 

Could have made a little more effort. Lack of gnomes.
When we drove through Lommel to get to Center Parcs on our first day, I was impressed at how tidy this little town is. Everyone's garden is immaculate and all the buildings look new. It wasn't until we drove to Antwerp that I realised that all towns are like this, and homeowners obviously take great pride in their outdoor space. It sounds a bit creepy, but I thought it was lovely. 

Everyone we met was friendly and didn't seem deeply resentful about having to speak English to us. The Belgians love the Canadians, which is always a bonus. Thanks to our wartime efforts, there is a memorial plaque in Antwerp to honour our soldiers.

The week was wonderful, despite the passport drama, the three hour delay getting on to the Eurotunnel train, two cases of sick children in the car, and coming back with miserable colds. It was an adventure. So many languages, so many new things to see, so many waffles. We got there in the time it takes us to drive to Cornwall. Brilliant, brilliant fun had by all. We will definitely return and have our day in Bruges next time.