HAVING fun in the sun is a breeze, it’s the wet and windy days that can prove a challenge on a family break.

And let’s face it, if you holiday in the UK, there’s a fair chance of a downpour at some point, usually when you’ve left the brolly or one of the children’s anoraks behind.

So, after a couple of climactically woeful and stupidly expensive British holidays, most memorably the one last August when we spent one week drowning in Devon and the other trying but failing to dry out in Cornwall, we made a pact that, regardless of how sumptuous the digs, we’d never go on another ‘staycation’ – a word as stupid as the concept.

Why then, on the wettest weekend of the wettest April since records began and with the south on official gale warning status, were we heading to Longleat Forest in Wiltshire to spend a long weekend in a wooden hut with our five- and eight-year old daughters?

Somehow we’d convinced ourselves that the weather isn’t everything, that you get good days as well as bad days; we’d even checked the long-term forecast which said, in a nutshell, ‘nice-ish’.

Ah, but this is Blighty so by the time we were due to set off, the weather was headline news, and you couldn’t even see Wiltshire on the TV weather map as there was a dirty great yellow warning triangle covering it!

As I unpacked the optimistic little bundle of cheery shorts and sandals and replaced them with wellies and gloomy cagoules I thought: ‘Center Parcs, this had better be good...’ It was a promising start. Longleat is little more than an hour’s drive from Bournemouth, so we avoided the usual ‘are we there yet’ chorus and after a super-quick, friendly check-in we were feeling positively upbeat.

Even better, our ‘shed’ was anything but.

It was a luxurious two-bedroom lodge in a lovely woodland setting with designer interiors that would give a boutique hotel a run for its money.

Big fat sofas, arty canvasses, a full-wall fresco of a forest scene and plasma tellies in every room.

There was free Wi-Fi, but the girls were so busy oohing and aahing over a family of ducks on the patio that they forgot about their obsession with the Moshi Monsters computer game.

The gadget-laden kitchen had a dishwasher, wine cooler, coffee-machine and every utensil you could need; there was also a large dining area and a ‘blackboard’ wall you can chalk-scribble on just for fun.

Both bedrooms had the famous Center Parcs beds (so comfy they actually sell them online), both had en suites with oodles of fluffy white towels and tasteful toiletries and as well as a vast walk-in shower to the master bedroom, there was a bath that morphed into a groovy bubble-spa at the touch of a button.

The fridge and cupboards were quickly stocked from the pre-booked grocery pack, stuffed with good quality essentials such as bread, eggs, bacon, sausages, milk, tea, coffee, etc. which saves you lugging groceries with you.

The lounge doors opened out onto a private patio that led directly into glorious woodland and a lake teeming with wildlife.

On the first morning a couple of young deer hovered on the edge of the patio, just to check that we’d settled in alright.

We had, but there was still the awful weather and, of course, the bike thing to contend with.

Center Parcs, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, is all about cycling and the great outdoors but the deluge had now taken on biblical proportions.

There was nothing else for it but to grit our chattering teeth and hit the saddle.

And that was when the fun really began. Once we had our wheels there was no stopping us. Round the lake, circling the Plaza – heart of the park and great for eating out and shopping – down the Azalea Boardwalk to the Jardin Des Sports, home to a variety of frenetic activities and the Rajinda Pradesh, one of the best Indian restaurants we’ve eaten in and which had a spot-on kids menu that included a korma and tikka as well as the usual nuggets, through the forest, any excuse and we were off.

And when we fancied doing indoor stuff, we just rolled up, pulled on some skates and flew round the roller-disco, or went bowling or just larked about in the sub-tropical Swimming Paradise, where there is a lazy river, a mad white-water rapids adventure for stronger swimmers and where we all experienced the quite magical sensation of bobbing about outside in bath-hot water in the pouring rain.

Happily some of the pedal-pushing led to Aqua Sana, the ultra-luxurious spa where a deep-muscle Elemis Pure Harmony Massage, an hour-long indulgence which is way more than your average rub, left me feeling suitably pampered and revitalised.

By the time we’d finished our morning session in the spa’s relaxation zones, drifting between the likes of the Balinese Multi-Steam Bath, the Turkish Hammam, the Tyrolean Sauna, the Greek Herbal Bath and the Indian Blossom Steam Room, we were walking on sunshine, if not through it.

As we were being soothed by steam, the girls were letting some off at the Time Out Club and when we floated by to pick them up they were dressed in their own customised chef’s outfits and carrying the packed lunches they’d made earlier.

But what about the weather? Can’t say we noticed to be honest.


Lorraine Gibson stayed in a New Style 2 bedroom executive lodge (suitable for up to 4 people) at Longleat Forest, the price for this style of accommodation was £499. School summer holiday prices for a family of four start from around £499 and Easter School Holiday breaks in 2013 are from £479.

These prices are guidelines and can change, so check out centerparcs.co.uk for latest prices and special offers.

Entry to Swimming Paradise is free of charge.

Bikes, treatments and certain activities cost extra.