“THEY’RE a bit of a pest actually,” sighs Peter, a forest ranger at Center Parcs in Elveden, as he looks down at some freshly eaten primroses by the side of the path. He’s referring to Muntjac deer, which you’ll see a lot of in Thetford Forest.
But while they’re a pest in Peter’s eyes, stumbling across one during a guided walk as part of my recent mid-week break at Center Parcs was a real treat. “We don’t get these in Derbyshire” I informed him. “You will do soon,” Peter replied.
Munjacs, which are around the size of a labrador, are an invasive species that was never meant to take up residence in the UK, but they’ve bred quickly - much like the grey squirrel and even the wild rabbit.
But while these animals might be a bit of a pest to Peter and his team of conservationists at Center Parcs, to his managers they’re both a blessing and a curse. Visitors to the four Center Parcs ‘villages’ love to see a bit of wildlife - invasive species or not.
And Elveden, which takes up 400 acres of Thetford Forest in Suffolk, is one of the best villages for getting closer to nature and is home to some very interesting species of birds, mammals and plants.
But if that’s not your cup of tea then, as with every Center Parcs destination, there’s plenty of other things to do. Elveden is characterised by its flat topography which makes it a favourite destination for those less thrilled by the prospect of hilly walks and cycle rides.
Elveden was the second UK village to open and it closely followed the first park at Sherwood Forest, near Nottingham. It suffered a huge fire in 2002 and its re-opening the following year saw a completely re-designed village square and plaza.
Anyone who has visited a UK Center Parcs village will feel instantly at home in Elveden. It feels smaller and more intimate than our more local Sherwood but boasts a real lake and even has a hotel in the grounds.
Unlike the hotel, which overlooks the lake, the main accomodation, spread across hundreds of ‘villas’, works on a self-catering basis. Although a maid service is available, you’re on your own in the forest with nothing but the wildlife to keep you company. Your neighbours are never far away, but the cleverly designed and very comfortable villas don’t overlook each other so there’s a wonderful sense of privacy for every resident.
Step outside your villa and, as with every village, there’s plenty of options available should you want to take part in an activity. Everything’s here, from crazy golf, waterskiing, every type of sport you can think of and even archery and crossbow.
And there’s swimming. Lots of swimming. Use of the ‘subtropical swimming paradise’, which is found under a heated glass dome in the sports centre, is completely free and you can spend all day there if you like. There’s even the option to hire a ‘cabana’ for the day in which you can create your own little world by the side of the pool.
The best way to get around the village is by bicycle. You can hire one for around £25 or take your own. Use of cars is prohibited to help families enjoy a completely traffic-free environment and it’s also the best way to let the nature in the village spread its wings and put on a show.
A Center Parcs holiday is what you make it. The options are there to allow you to spend the whole week being active and sporty, but it’s just as easy to spend the week relaxing and doing as little as possible.
The spa, which is known across all the villages as ‘Aqua Sana’, is the best place to relax and unwind and it has a beautiful feel inside, whether you just go in to while away the hours in the serene atmosphere, or whether you choose to opt for one of the many treatments on offer.
Eating out should also be part of your budget when planning a break at a Center Parcs. Italian, Indian, French, American, pub grub or even pancakes is all on offer and usually very well-priced.
Cafe Rouge, with its outdoor seating that overlooks the babbling streams in the village square, is well worth a visit for a light lunch or a nice evening meal but my personal favourite is Bella Italia - their pizzas are unforgettable.
When you’re choosing your ideal Center Parcs village it’s easy to select one based on its proximity to where you live, but each one has its own character and there are subtle differences to be found once you start to explore.
And it’s when you start to explore that you begin to realise how close to nature you really are. Elveden, for example, backs on to a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), which is one of the reasons its wildlife is so diverse.
Its forest is managed carefully to create the perfect home for the flora and fauna and, in doing so, it has become the perfect retreat for families after a touch of escapism.
And that’s what Center Parcs is all about. From the moment you drive through the security lodge, you might as well be in another world. A world where traffic is banished and the sight of deer and stoats running across your path becomes an every day occurence.
It’s a world where plans aren’t important, you can go with the flow and spend your days relaxing or you can cram as many activities in and there’s never a dull moment.
It’s a world I’ve been back to a few times now because, once you’ve been you’ll see what all the fuss is about.
•Short breaks at Elveden Forest in 2013 currently start from £319 based on a midweek break in a two bedroom Woodland Lodge (sleeping four)
•For more information or to book a short break at Center Parcs call 08448 267723 or visit www.centerparcs.co.uk.
•Overnight breaks in a Spa Suite currently start from £199 per person. To find out more visit http://www.aquasana.co.uk/sana/spabreaks/spa_suites.jsp