It just doesn't feel like Christmas until the annual trip to Center Parcs is in full swing and trust me, seeing Longleat Forest aglow with hundreds of twinkling fairy lights – not to mention a tastefully decorated Christmas tree at every turn, festive edition Pieminister* on demand, reindeer (from the mechanical variety which sing Christmas carols to the real duo which overlook Santa's grotto) and a scarily lifelike Polar Bear called Bjorn - will never fail to turn even the most stubborn of Scrooges into Santa's Little Helper! ... You'll be partaking in the merry-making and donning your Christmas jumper before you can say ho ho ho!
Date: Friday 2nd December – Monday 5th December 2011
Name of Establishment: Center Parcs*
Location: Longleat Forest
Reason for Visit: The annual long-weekend of cabin-based exuberance and an inevitable festive foodie foray!
Arriving at Longleat on a beautifully frosty yet sunshiney day and, on my part, unashamedly decked out in festive attire, the scene for our relaxing winter break was set. Initiating the proceedings with a toffee nut latte in Starbucks which, situated in the main Plaza is one of two of this hit and miss corporate big-wig, I was reminded of the fact that here, the likes of big chains Strada and Café Rouge are particularly well attended. Existing side-by-side with such lesser known establishments as Ortega and Center Parcs' own creations; Rajinda Pradesh, American-style diner, Huck's, The Pancake House and The Grand Café, this diverse line-up of eateries can afford to hike up their prices with little danger of their clientèle deviating beyond the costly reaches of their picturesque forest setting. Thus, although many opt to 'eat-in' in order to save the pennies, a candlelit dinner for two (outside the comfort of one's cabin) is practically unattainable!
|It's a game of Musical Reindeer!|
For me though, each visit to Center Parcs constitutes a new favourite restaurant or watering hole...this time around highlights included the unlikely venue of the 'Aqautique' bar (adjacent the bowling alleys) for a blimmin' good mojito and our two-fold-visit to The Pancake House. Popular enough to command a queue at the door and set within the Christmassy Village Square, this venue offers a tempting line-up of sweet and savoury creations - freshly prepared pancakes and waffles generously slathered with your topping of choice. Given my notorious sweet tooth, it will come as no surprise that I elected to indulge in the caramel crunch waffle which had been drizzled with warm caramel sauce, adorned with sizeable chunks of honeycomb and, washed down with a well-made, rich roasted Lavazza Cappuccino, made for an entirely decadent breakfast. I went the whole hog on our second visit, choosing the ultimate in chocoholism; a single chocolate pancake topped with whipped cream, hot chocolate sauce, Maltesers and two scoops of good-quality ice cream. This ensemble was finished with a whole Cadbury's flake...heaven! Others made more nutritious choices; The Boy reported that the tuna melt pancake was packed with good-quality ingredients; succulent flakes of fish, the zing of spring onion and mature cheddar and yet unfortunately, his selection the following day didn't quite warrant the same praise, the New Mexico omelette hid a multitude of sins; dry chunks of chicken, anaemic-looking meatballs which bordered on inedible and an over-processed and luminous pink ham that masqueraded as salami...disappointing...
|Did someone say cocktails?!|
|Caramel Crunch Waffle (£5.95)|
We decided upon Ortega for our Saturday night nosh-up; a small chain restaurant with two further branches in London and Milton Keynes. Specialising in Spanish fare, our party ordered a selection of Tapas; calamares, chanquetes (deep fried whitebait), chorizo and Albondigas, (succulent pork and beef meatballs in a rich tomato sauce) to share between us. The Boy and I also decided upon the Ortega Paella; a well executed dish which had been colourfully arranged with chicken, chorizo, roasted peppers, juicy mushrooms plus a scattering of mussels and one rather ample king prawn! I think that the chorizo proved the only disappointing aspect of this dish due to its overly fatty tendencies. In addition to this, the service was a little stand-offish especially given the distinct lack of clientèle at the time of our visit and the cocktails were a little lack lustre to say the least – The Boy in particular, finding himself forced to return his Long Island Ice Tea (a typically pungent combination if you are not familiar) in favour for something, 'a little less like breakfast juice'! That said, the birthday boy of our party was allocated a free cocktail which, albeit, not quite up to scratch in terms of its alcohol content, was a nice touch! The last hurdle before calling it a day was remedying our miscalculated bill, an issue which, I have to say, our specific server dealt with efficiently and without any undue fuss.
Now onto those festive edition Pieminister which are available from the Grand Café or the Sports Café in the 'Jardin des Sport' (which incidentally, advocates a menu not too dissimilar from that of your average High Street Wetherspoons). First things first, they aren't cheap – you may well pay under a fiver for a pie, mash and a moat of lovely gravy in our beloved hometown but here, you're looking at approximately £12 for the same fare. Then again, previous experience denotes a good-quality and altogether satisfying experience guaranteed and sometime later, tucking into my 'Three Kings' Pie packed with British turkey breast, smoky bacon, outdoor reared pork and herb stuffing and cranberries, I decided that it was well worth the money and then some...even given that it had clearly been microwaved giving the pastry a less-than perfect disposition!
|'Three Kings' Pieminister with all the trimmings!|
Finally, no trip to Center Parcs would be complete without a trip to the Aqua Sana spa and their exclusive Restaurant and Bar, Zilli, (the namesake of Italian-born celebrity chef Aldo Zilli). In my view, this is one of the best places to dine on-site and, sipping pink Prosecco from a plush leather sofa and snuggling into an over-sized bath robe, I lined-up my post-spa snack. Paninis, fresh salads, antipasti and made-to-order flat breads are top of the bill, and, with a focus on healthy eating and the vibrant flavours of the Mediterranean, I was spoiled for choice. I decided that at only £7.75, the Ricotta and spinach cannelloni baked with tomato and béchamel sauces sounded fantastic and yet, sizing up the plump, home-made looking scones behind the counter as well as the impressive line-up of herbal infusions, a spot of afternoon tea would have also gone down rather well. Topped off with polite table service and clean, comfortable surroundings complete with heated floors (combating that bare-foot chill) and floor to ceiling windows showcasing the beauty of the forest, this was indubitably the epitome of calm and hence, a fantastic place to conclude a relaxing weekend away.
All in all, Center Parcs provides a sufficient level of catering; as well as the variety of on-site eateries, the well-stocked Parc Market has a fantastic patisserie which includes a range of lovelies from Pullins Bakers Ltd.* alongside a freshly-baked selection of breads, cakes and pastries. The in-house takeaway service, albeit a tad on the pricey side, covers Chinese, Indian and Italian cuisines which can be delivered directly to your cabin. Let's be fair, this is a complex designed to suit couples, groups and families alike and to that end, fine dining just isn't on the cards. Yet, you aren't exactly expected to slum it either as there are a number of venues (given that you visit outside of the peak hours) in which it is possible to have a good-quality (and reasonably peaceful) meal. I've never actually taken this trip outside of the festive season and for me, a December Center Parcs break embodies all the best things about this time of year – the most obvious being that elevated degree of excitement that the anticipation of Christmas establishes. Perhaps this is one of those things that you must experience for yourself but rest assured, fellow foodies, that you certainly won’t go hungry...just make sure you have more than a few pounds in your pocket!