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Imagine floating on your back in the warmth of the open-air pool at the centre of the spa complex, looking at the stars, relaxing from your facial and herbal steam session, idly choosing which restaurant to visit tonight and wondering whether you can be bothered to go to the gym tomorrow. You could be at one of the choicest health farms in the country. In fact OutUK correspondent Steve Bustin and his boyfriend were just off the M1 near Nottingham....at Center Parcs.

Center Parcs have an image problem. Glorified holiday camp overrun by screaming children, all inside a big glass dome, right? Wrong, wrong, wrong. Last place the queen about town would choose to go? Wrong again. Mention in queer company that you’re going to Center Parcs, and lots of people assume slightly guilty expressions. “Oh god, you’ll LOVE it” they secretly admit. “We had a blast and want to go back!”

It’s an attractive and addictive proposition, and one that would make an estate agent envious. “Well appointed villa or apartment set in acres of natural woodland. Shops, restaurants and leisure facilities provided. Just perfect for couples, families or groups of homosexuals.” From your window you can’t see another villa.

GAY MEN WELCOMED

Yes, this is a company that doesn’t accept same-sex group bookings of the straight variety (stag and hen parties do tend to ruin the atmosphere), but is more than happy to welcome group bookings of the pink variety (who of course behave impeccably). A party of gay guys barely raise an eyebrow among staff or visitors.

In fact the Parcs themselves confound expectations as much as their pro-gay booking policies. At the Sherwood Forest ‘village’ 400 acres of pine woodland house almost a thousand villas and apartments, yet they are laid out in such a way that from your living room window you can’t see another villa. Instead you see the forest and lakes, teeming with wildlife; expect to see ducks, swans, rabbits and deer for starters.

One of the reasons that wildlife thrives is the car-free policy on site. Arrive, drop your luggage at your villa, then park your car and wave goodbye to it for the duration of your stay. Take or hire a bike and suddenly Center Parcs’ Dutch heritage becomes obvious, as everyone cycles in safety and in remarkably large numbers. Finding your bike in a cycle-park of several hundred bikes can be a problem. Ask a bunch of slightly worse-for-wear queens to find them and you’re asking for trouble.

Water plays a big part in the offering at Sherwood Forest. Lakes and streams divide up the park, and it’s hard to tell if they’re natural or man-made. Outside, the lake plays host to the type of water sports not normally associated with gay men holidaying en masse. Activities on the lake present an ideal way to try something new, with beginners lessons in windsurfing, canoeing and sailing.

HUGE RANGE OF ACTIVITIES

An even bigger problem is deciding where to start and what to do. The range of activities is huge. We chose from an aerobics class, an art class or a guided nature trail one morning and from falconry, canoeing or a facial one afternoon.

An archery lesson was an opportunity to try something totally new. Visions of Robin Hood ran through our minds as we were given a bow, and introduced to the business end of an arrow. We were told to forget trying to hit the bullseye and try and hit the target first. Arrows went flying; over the top, straight into the protective hay bales and even into the target next door.

Standing sideways on to the target, sighting the arrow, you couldn’t help but start to feel ‘swashbuckling’. However some cracking shots into the bullseye were more a matter of luck than accuracy, and I’m not sure we’ll need our new skills on the streets of London!


A Robin Hood moment.
Probably the signature feature of the park is the swimming dome, or the Subtropical Swimming Paradise as it is grandly called. One of the free facilities on site, the warm humid atmosphere inside is suggestive of warmer climes, even in mid-winter.
Wave machines, whirlpool baths, flumes & slides and the outside ‘river rapids’ are all great fun allow you to rediscover your inner child, with children safely kept away in their own pool.
The Subtropical Swimming Paradise

JOAN COLLINS EAT YOUR HEART OUT

The jewel in the crown for most gay men will be the Aqua Sana, a newly built spa complex, set slightly away from the bustle of the village. You can lose yourself in 15 multi-sensory experiences, from an Indian blossom steamroom or a Japanese Zen Garden to a Tyrolean sauna with ice fountain for the brave, or an experience shower where tropical rain fall is accompanied by thunder, coloured lights and even the scent of the rainforest. With its own outdoor pool and a full range of beauty treatments and massages, it’s a child-free taste of luxury with "pampered poof" written all over it.

Center Parcs have managed the neat trick of creating a year round destination despite the best efforts of the climate. Open fires in the winter and patios for the summer make the villas ideal. Smart restaurants or al fresco drinking makes for the perfect mix of social environments for couples or larger groups. You can have as child-friendly or child-free break as you want.

We went expecting to mock, were hugely surprised and came back praising. We had a blast and want to go back!

Center Parcs have villages in Sherwood Forest, Elvenden Forest in Suffolk, Longleat in Wiltshire and Whinfell in the Lake District. Bookings can be made Fri-Mon or Mon-Fri. Apartments for 2 people start from £199 for a mid-week break, a 3 bedroom villa (sleeps 6) starts from £279. Contact 03448 267 723 or see www.centerparcs.co.uk

Revised February 2015.

 

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