Center Parcs' first Irish resort opened earlier this year. Gillian Nelis visited it with two children in tow for a Christmas-themed break
In Aqua Sana, the spa at Center Parcs in Longford Forest, a member of staff is busily cleaning a wooden countertop. They’re on a hiding to nothing, I reckon, because there isn’t so much as a speck of dust, dirt or anything untoward to be seen anywhere.
All is calm and serene in this 2,500 square metre spa, which is set in its own building within the much larger Longord Forest site - including me, which is unusual.
While I love a facial or massage as much as the next person, I’m not the best at sitting still and switching my brain off. And because I forgot to book a treatment in advance, before all the slots booked up, I’m just here to spend time in the thermal suite.
I say ‘just’ because in most spas, that would involve a sauna and a steam, and maybe a quick flick through a magazine in a relaxation room. Here, it involves wandering through 21 ‘hot, cold, sensory and meditative experiences’ across four zones.
One of those zones, Hot Springs, is both indoor and outdoor, and I start my session in the latter, switching between the two hot tubs and the heated pool. I’m still there half an hour later, at the end of the pool, gazing at the forest in front of me.
Eventually I jolt myself back to life and start to explore the rest of the spa: the salt steam room, the large Nordic sauna overlooking the gardens, the ‘Scandinavian snug’ outside where you can wrap yourself in a blanket and get comfy on a sofa.
I was only sorry I hadn’t brought a book, but I couldn’t dawdle, because I had a date with Santa. Or rather, my son and his friend had a date with Santa, on the launch weekend of Longford Forest’s ‘Winter Wonderland’ Christmas programme.
We had arrived the day before, and having visited a Center Parcs in England earlier this year, I had a good idea of what to expect. Check-in involves driving up to a hatch, giving your details, and getting a wristband for each adult in your group that lets you open the door of your accommodation, and secure lockers in the swimming complex.
A short spin will bring you to your lodge, where you unpack your car and then take it back to the car park, not to be brought on-site again until you’re checking out. This car-free site policy has made Center Parcs hugely popular with families, most of who whizz around on their bikes – you can bring your own, or hire them when you get there.
We were staying in a three-bedroom executive lodge – there are 466 lodges and 30 apartments of various sizes and specifications – and it was extremely comfortable, with a well-equipped kitchen, en suites of all the bedrooms, an open fireplace and flat screen TVs.
Those TVs are handy for the early evening, when you and any children you’ve got with you are likely to be dog-tired after a day of swimming, activities and fresh air. The two children in our group were chomping at the bit to get to the pool, or the sub-tropical swimming paradise to give it its full title, and for large periods of the time we spent in there, we barely saw them.
They spent hours going from the wave pool, to the lazy river (perfect for cowards like me), to the river rapids (where you will leave your dignity behind as you are propelled forward like a cork from a bottle), to the three water slides. Tempting them out of their togs for lunch was impossible, so we ate at the Canopy Café in the complex, where the cheeseburgers and hot dogs were pretty good.
It was a little easier to get them moving from the pool the next day, because I was dangling the prospect of a festive carriage ride in front of them. This is one of the seasonal activities that are currently on offer at Longford Forest - others include pony rides, Christmas-themed roller discos, a festive chocolate chef's academy and a willowcraft session where you can make decorations for your tree.
The carriage ride was pleasingly old school: a friendly horse, a Little House on the Prairie-style carriage covered in tinsel and decorations, and a very enjoyable canter through the forest. And the forest is very - for want of a better word - foresty: you really feel like you are away from it all, and the fact that a deer ran past our patio door while we were having breakfast one morning only added to that feeling.
Seasonal vibes, meanwhile, are on offer in spades at the Woodland Workshop, where Santa is in situ along with several elves, a 10 metre high Christmas tree decorated with 19,000 lights and 4,450 baubles, and some animatronic reindeer with a nifty line in barber shop quartet-style carols.
The man in red himself was excellent, and all the more impressive when you consider that the kids in our group are at that difficult, transitionary age. All doubts disappeared after their session with Santa, and hearing them analyse their visit on the walk back to the lodge would have melted even the biggest grinch's heart.
On the day you're due to leave the resort you need to be out of your lodge by 10am, but can stay on site for the rest of the day enjoying the facilities. For us, and for most people I suspect, that involved another few hours of transforming ourselves into human prunes in the pool.
Tiring, yes, but also very handy for ensuring a peaceful drive home as the youngsters snoozed in the back. It seemed I wasn't the only one who achieved unprecedented levels of Zen in the Irish midlands that weekend.
Gillian Nelis was a guest of Center Parcs
Getting there: located close to Longford town, Longford Forest is easily accessible by road from most parts of the country.
What it costs: festive short breaks start from €459 for a family of four, with prices varying depending on dates and the style of accommodation you book. The resort is staying open over Christmas, with prices for two-bedroom lodges starting at €999 for check-in on December 23 and check-out on December 27.
Activities are extra, with the cost depending on what you choose. But entry to the swimming complex is free, and if you spend a lot of time there - as you inevitably will - and cook in your lodge, you won't break the bank.
Day and overnight spa breaks at Aqua Sana start from €55, with a full breakdown of packages available at aquasana.ie.
What to buy: the gift shop at Aqua Sana has an impressive range of gift sets from brands like Voya and Elemis, while the sweet shop in the swimming pool complex is a good place to pick up inexpensive souvenirs like chocolate bars.
Where to eat: the Pancake House overlooking the lake is a good spot for breakfast, offering a mix of pancakes, waffles and omelettes, along with decent coffee. Vitalé, the cafe/bar in the spa, is a lovely bright space where you can try salads, flatbreads and sharing platters.