Christmas at Center Parcs - how much it costs, how to book - and our reviewer's verdict of Whinfell Forest
THERE'S a view in the Higgins household that once The X-Factor hits TV screens, Christmas is pretty much around the corner.
No matter that October and November lie in between. With weekends characterised by auditions and live shows - there are no wild nights out these days - the tinsel is out before you know it.
As Simon Cowell bared his chest to all last December, it was on a different screen, at the end of a busy day, that we became settee judges for the night.
For we were at Center Parcs in Penrith to enjoy the venue's Winter Wonderland, which this year opens on November 6.
We had happy memories of the festive season at the resort; back in 2010 we enjoyed a long weekend characterised by steaming mulled wine and the thickest snowfall seen in December for many a year.
The weather for our most recent visit was by no means as seasonal - but the wow factor of Whinfell Forest's various attractions, and the many festive activities on offer, had stepped up a gear.
Our accommodation for the break was a woodland cottage which had three bedrooms and a large kitchen, dining and living area.
Once we had dealt with the inevitable battle of of the beds (which child would be sleeping where), the big explore was on.
Dark skies and walkways illuminated with fairy lights dancing in a mild December breeze made for enchanting evenings.
By day, the allure of the tropical swimming paradise, complete with its slides, multiple pools and tiki cabanas (private huts with seating areas, huge TVs and a drink-packed fridge), meant we spent much of our time in temperatures more befitting of a Caribbean destination.
Outside of the cocoon though, there was plenty to keep the Higgins troop entertained.
The girls delighted in an early morning session with Santa's elves, during which the man in red himself made an appearance via video call from the North Pole.
Elsewhere, the Higgins youngsters took part in festive wreath making and a roller disco, while as a family, we clambered on board a festive horse-drawn carriage for a private ride about the complex.
Of course there was the obligatory visit to Santa's woodland workshop where the children got the chance to meet Father Christmas.
The workshop is set in a forest where the (synthetic) snow never stops. Quaint displays line a path through the fairy-lit wonderland, as singing reindeer bid to entertain families as they make their way towards Mr Christmas.
Our mode of transport for the weekend was bike and we used them well as we navigated the many twists and turns of Centre Parc's winding roads.
A little extra effort was required on hills, of course, mainly consisting of me riding a few metres, getting off, giving our youngest a push start, before repeating the process. It was good exercise if nothing else.
Anybody with children will know that keeping them entertained can be challenging to say the least.
But here, we the fun never stopped and it was an exhausted trio we took back to our woodland cabin on most evenings.
- The Higgins family stayed in a three-bedroomed Woodland Lodge.
- Winter Wonderland returns to Whinfell Forest in Penrith from November 6.
- Three night breaks run from Friday to Monday, while mid-week breaks run from Monday to Friday.
- Full weeks are also available. Prices for a mid-week break during the Winter Wonderland period for two adults and two children up to the age of 16 start at £499. Prices for a weekend break during the same period start at £529.
- Once on the complex, entry to the sub-tropical swimming paradise is free, but extra charges apply for many of the activities. Guests can order a food pack to be in their accommodation on arrival. Alternatively there is a supermarket on site.
- Visit www.centerparcs.co.uk for more information.
Beyond the Winter Wonderland attractions, are the staples of any Center Parcs stay. Restaurants, pubs and cafe abound and are strategically placed about the sprawling complex.
There are gifts shops, food shops, dare I say sweet shops and many in between.
Far nature lovers there are woodland walks and hides from which to watch the many species of bird - not to mention the red squirrels which inhabit Whinfell Forest.
In fact it was during our trip, at the age of 38, that I saw my first red squirrel in the wild.
As the sun slipped beneath the trees each dusk, we turned our attention to food. Some nights it would be dad at the stove cooking up a family treat, others we stepped out into the village centre, a cavernous indoor area which housed many of the restaurants and cafes.
The choice was huge, and so we tripped from Indian to French to American as we made our choices.
And choices were the joy of the trip. At every corner, there were decision to make. They were only ever good ones - and ones which made memories which will last a lifetime.