Babe in the woods – a magical family time at Center Parcs Ireland

Words are my currency so it’s not too often I’m stuck for them. However, I’m struggling to find the right adjectives to describe our three days spent at the newly opened Center Parcs in Longford Forest. We’ve made memories for life and it’s so special to share time as a family in such a magical place. Set in over 400 acres of willowy trees and lush landscapes, Center Parcs offers a wonderful woodland retreat. It has to be seen to be believed. As a permatired mum of a tenacious one-year-old, I’ve been daydreaming about our trip for ages. The danger with that, of course is that nothing can ever possibly measure up to your imagination but in this case, it did. Center Parcs is about a three-hour drive from Belfast, so makes the perfect stay-cay for families, couples and friends.

We live here now…
A room with a view.

I was like a giddy kid at Christmas when I saw the Center Parcs sign on the way into the resort. We picked up our wristbands that double as a lock for your accommodation and lockers – what a brilliant idea as I am terrible for misplacing key cards. One of the most exciting things about going away – for me at least – is where you are staying. I love opening the door, running my hand over the crisp white bed linen, admiring the gleaming surfaces of the bathroom and enjoying an invigorating power shower. I was not disappointed, the decor is muted with a relaxing forest scene as a feature wall. We stayed in an Executive Lodge which had ample space for a family of three. There were two bedrooms with en suite bathrooms, one with a bath and the other with a wet room. Our fluffy towels were beautifully rolled up on the bed which was a good size and passed the bounce test – that’s not just me, right? We had the most amazing view from our lovely, inviting lodge. There is nothing better than waking up to birdsong and forty shades of green. Sonny, who has taken a few tentative steps prefer crawling like a clockwork toy as his means of (rather effective) transport. He went about inspecting the lodge, stopping to vigorously tap various surfaces (it’s his thing), and he particularly enjoyed a luxurious bubble bath. The showers are amazing too and ladies, even the hairdryer works like a dream. There is even a vanity mirror with a shelf for makeup. I’d have been quite happy to spend the entire weekend in our lodge but I was also keen to experience the best of what Center Parcs had to offer and give Sonny the best time ever.

Life is a playground.

Everywhere in the resort is walking distance but you can hire bicycles with trailers for nippers so you can be where you want to be in a matter of minutes. Andrew and I had target archery booked so I could channel my inner Katniss Everdeen and Andrew, his inner Robin Hood. We dropped our little darling off in the amazing creche in the Sports Plaza. He immediately got distracted with a piano mat and didn’t even bother giving us a sideways glance as we wished him an emphatic goodbye. This was somewhat reassuring as we made our way to the Outdoor Activity Centre. I have never tried archery before but I fancied trying something new. We were given excellent instructions and it was time to try our hand at it. When you see archers in the movies, they make it look so effortless, it takes quite a lot of effort but it is very exhilarating when you release the arrow. I hit red on my first go, followed by the arrow missing the target completely. I soon got the hang of it and even managed to hit gold – not quite bullseye but I felt very accomplished. Meanwhile, my hubby, who has a competitive streak, did much better than me and even got a certificate for third place, which is going to take pride of place in his study. There are so many things to do, the difficulty is choosing what. You can try Laser Combat, Aerial Tree Trekking, and Stand-Up Paddle Board Tuition. For little ones, there is a Pirate and Princess Adventure, a Wizard Academy and a Chocolate Chef’s Academy – and so much more.

Can anyone hear Bryan Adams?

The weather was balmy too. I almost didn’t pack any sunscreen as the forecast was for heavy rain. The sun shone for the majority of our stay and even if I forgot anything, it wouldn’t matter as there is a brilliant ParcMarket in the village where you can buy groceries, baby essentials and mummy essentials, like wine and chocolate. There are great restaurants to cater for every taste too. I absolutely love that there are Ella’s Kitchen feeding stations in them – with free grub for hungry little infants and toddlers. We dined at Bella Italia which has a delicious array of food including thin and crispy pizzas, lasagne and risotto. It was so tasty and the waiting staff were so friendly. There is a play area for kiddies so you can eat your meal in relative peace. I got all dressed up as I rarely get the chance to anymore. So, I felt pretty damn good. My lovely bubble was burst when I glanced up from my menu and saw another mum wearing exactly the same dress. We studiously avoided each other’s gaze, even though we kept running into each other for the rest of the weekend. Thankfully, we weren’t twinning in The Pancake House the next morning. The pancakes, by the way, were absolutely unreal.

Meet The New Yorker.
Yum.

It is so difficult to condense our experience into a blog but I can’t not gush about the Aqua Sana spa. It is quite simply the best spa I have ever been too. Andrew, not one to dole out praise too often said it was “amazing”. Aqua Sana is inspired by the natural world and offers 21 hot, cold, herbal and meditative experiences across four zones: the Nordic Forest, Hot Springs, Volcanic Forest, and Treetop Nesting. Oh yea, and there are outdoor hot tubs, rain forest showers and reflexology foot spas. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a smiling lady who offered us a shot of Prosecco or orange juice. You can probably guess which one I chose. We were given luxurious robes and towels and we padded into this paradise of unparalleled relaxation. We bathed in the outside infinity pool and then enjoyed the views of the forest from the hot tub. I’d recommend the waterbeds. You could easily spend an entire day here, or life.

To infinity and beyond.
Living my best life…

So, more fun stuff. The Subtropical Swimming Paradise is a jewel is Center Parc’s crown. It is Ireland’s largest water park and features an awesome family wave pool and rides for adrenaline junkies. I am a bit of a wuss when it comes to anything which could be deemed adventurous but recently, I’m developing an appetite for things I would not have previously considered. I knew I had to do something and wasn’t brave enough for the Tropical Cyclone – which Andrew tried and loved. I thought the Wild Water Rapids looked quite fun and something I could handle at a push. With Andrew on Sonny duty, I cautiously teetered over to the slide, the frothy waves waiting to engulf me. I ignored the ‘you can’t do this!’ voice, held my breath and pinched my nose, one down, I survived. About five to go. I saw the next slide. I can’t do it. An attendant saw my sorry plight. I really wanted to get out but I couldn’t. Meanwhile, youngsters a quarter of my age greeted me looking slightly bemused and threw themselves down the steep slide. I was half mortified, half terrified, looking like a stranded sea lion. The lovely attendant spoke to a lifeguard who told me I just had to go for it. I had to swallow my fears and swallow some water as it turns out. He offered to hold my hand, I reckoned that was way too pathetic, even for me. I went for it and it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It was even quite enjoyable. There’s a life lesson in there somewhere. Sonny, meanwhile, adored the water, splashing and kicking, so happy he made lots of high-pitched squeaks. Memories of that sound and his toothy grin will stay with me forever.

On Saturday night, we dined at Rajinda Pradesh. Sonny was pretty zonked from the day’s activities so while he slept in his buggy, our taste buds were treated to mouthwatering Asian cuisine. Some menu highlights are satay-style chicken wings and Malaysian beef rendang. The service was impeccable and the food was superb. We rounded off the night at Huck’s American Bar and Grill with a few gins for me and Guinness for him. Sunday morning dawned and it was time to pack up, or rather, chuck things into bags. I (over)cooked a fry-up in the spotless kitchen, feeling a bit bad for using the gleaming oven. We had a little time before home so we took a rowing boat out on the lake. Sonny was not a fan of his life-jacket, even though he looked utterly adorable in it. Despite Andrew’s protestations that he could row, we hugged the banks for about half the time we were allotted. Thankfully, we were towed out into the middle of the lake and soon we were gliding, Andrew doing all the work while I tried my best to keep Master Sonny calm. Back on dry land, Sonny had a well-earned nap while we had frothy lattes at The Coffee House overlooking the lake. It was nice to reflect on our incredible time, in between batting away wasps. Meanwhile, Sonny enjoyed eating jam directly from the jar. Before hitting the road, we bought Sonny a little memento of his visit – a dragon soft toy from Just Kids.

Happiness is…
Having a barrel of fun.

As we made our way back to our car, my heart hurt a little. I really didn’t want to leave this magical place. I didn’t want to return to reality. But, all good things must come to an end and we made our way back to Belfast. We made some amazing memories which are safely banked. There is nothing better than seeing your little one smile and he did that a lot at Center Parcs. As my hubby said, “We’ll be back.” I will certainly hold him to that. I highly recommend a trip to Center Parcs whether you are a family, couple or bunch of mates. It’s special – you’ll never want to leave.

Row, row the boat.

Our Italian getaway, a lost bunny, a drenched sun hat and almost getting thrown off a train…

There’s no place like home. But, sometimes you can imagine yourself living elsewhere. For me, that place is Italy. My husband and I visited Florence and Tuscany a few years ago and I fell in love with the place, the delicious food, the beautiful architecture, the musical language, the chic style, and of course, the climate. We spent our days wandering cobbled streets, basking in the warm sunshine, cooling down with gelato, sipping on Chianti and gorging on pizza and pasta. We made a promise to return so instead of buying presents for each other last Christmas we booked flights to Venice. It would also be Sonny’s first foreign trip. I was quite nervous of how he’d deal with the flight and just being in new surroundings. The flight to Venice, which I imagined I’d be pacing the aisle the entire way, was almost without incident. We ended up chatting to an American bar owner called Ben and the two and a half hours flew in, so to speak. Sonny got a little grouchy when he got tired, and it isn’t easy to get comfortable on a budget airline, but eventually, he fell asleep cradled in my arms.

As with all trips away, organisation is key and something which doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m the kind of person who loves having a diary but rarely uses it. Although we were away for just under a week, we ended up with two large suitcases, a rucksack, and a small sports bag. I wrote a list which looked like I was moving abroad. As well as all the obligatory cute outfits for Sonny (and sun hats he never wore), there was a zillion nappies, formula, wet wipes, a sleeping bag, bodysuits, soothers, teething gel, teethers, Calpol, snacks. The list goes on. Then there was my case full of new purchases from ASOS, Topshop and Boden. I love having new clothes for holiday, it’s part of the enjoyment. For a week or so, you can be someone who eats out every day, has a Mimosa for breakfast, Chianti every night and two changes of clothes every day. Or is that just me?! Something I wasn’t expecting was to sail through security. We were ushered to fast track both in Belfast and Venice. Me and my husband shared a smug moment, there are perks to having a baby after all. Heh.

We stayed in a simple, bright and clean apartment in Padua. The location was key as we wanted to take day trips to Venice and Verona. I’ve always dreamed of taking a gondola trip and visiting Juliet’s balcony. After a day acclimatising in Padua and paying for an expensive lunch because we were tired and went into the first restaurant we saw, we went on a day trip to Venice. It’s another world. You step off the train and a few steps away and you’re on Grand Canal – a bustling waterway with working boats, vaporettos and the more garish of the gondolas. We walked a little, stopping for a gelato on the way of course (which Sonny devoured), taking in the sights, joking at how much a tall, broad man wearing a Breton top looked a lot like a Bond villain. I spotted an empty, slightly less cheesy gondola and approached to get a price for the three of us. “Ciao!”, I said cheerily to the gondolier, who turned out to be said Bond villain. Some 80 euros later and we were being rowed under the most beautiful bridges feeling (at least me) amazing. Although I couldn’t help myself capturing the moment on my phone, I felt completely in the moment. I loved it. I clutched Sonny tight, while he clutched his new bunny (as I left his beloved Jelly Cat bunny in our car in Belfast). After our trip, we had a glass of vino frizzante by the canal and realised we were one down. The bunny was gone. We retraced our steps but bunny was nowhere to be seen. I still wonder what became of the little toy. I hope it found a good home and didn’t end up in the canal…

Pit stop in Venice

Our journey home was memorable for all the wrong reasons. My dear hubby forgot to validate our tickets but we boarded our train, hoping we wouldn’t get caught. We were approached by a sullen, po-faced jobsworth, who delighted in pointing out that we hadn’t validated our ticket and were therefore subject to a 60 euro fine. My husband, stubborn at the best of times, refused to pay, citing that we were foreigners with a screaming baby. Sonny, as if picking up on the tension, proceeded to have a meltdown. The ticket man stood beside us, refusing to budge until we paid the penalty, while hubby stood his ground. Eventually, he got back up in the form of a formidable, extremely brusque manager (who was annoyingly attractive). I slipped on my sunglasses to hide my rabbit in the headlights eyes and politely explained the situation. We got no sympathy. Our options were to pay, give up our passports or get arrested. I didn’t fancy any of the options but I knew I just wanted to get off that train. We were left with no choice but pay the fine. While hubby was raging, I was determined not to let this spoil our trip. It didn’t. But, at least we’ll have something to talk (and laugh) about for years to come.

Boy on a train…

On the third day, we braved the train again to go to fair Verona. Sonny, it turns out, loves the train and spent much of his time waving at other passengers, especially the female ones. It’s a short walk from the train station to the historic part of the city. As well as being beautiful, it’s a shopping mecca, although you’d need credit cards with no limits to buy anything. We followed the throngs to Juliet’s House, the gothic-style setting said to have inspired Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It felt very surreal to watch tourists take selfies on the balcony. My heart fluttered, the kind I get when I’m shopping. It was just 6 Euro to wander around Juliet’s house and get the perfect Insta pic. My poor hubby was left with instructions and I joined the queue of people all wanting the perfect shot. The girl in front of me was pulling silly poses for what seemed like an eternity while I patiently waited for my chance. Finally, the balcony was mine. I walked out and scoured the crowd for my husband, camera ready. All of the poses I had in mind went out the window and I ended up leaning on the balcony grinning, feeling a little silly. But, I checked another thing off my bucket list – and got evidence.

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore are thou Andrew?

The next day, we made a perhaps ill-advised trip to Lido de Venezia, it was a train journey and a trip on a ferry. It took a while to get there, but I was optimistic that it would be worth it. Husband got a little grumpy as he hates boats, but I was absorbing the experience like a sponge. A kind Italian woman approached me with a ribbon to attach Sonny’s soother, as he kept throwing it away. I’d forgotten the Baby & More Pacigrip we take everywhere with us. In fact, I was quite struck with the kindness of the Italian people. They just love babies. Some stopped to offer us directions, others offered their seat to me. Aside, from the nasty train man, I was really touched by all the little acts of kindness shown to us. Eventually, we reached Lido and there wasn’t a beach in sight. Husband and I bickered, having made quite a long journey and facing the prospect of yet another bus or taxi. However, the beach was a short walk away, thankfully. The ocean breeze beckoned and we walked barefoot in the warm sand towards the sea. Sonny had his very first paddle. It was a little too nippy for him but it was so amazing for him to have his first experience at the beach. On the way back, we stopped off the most gorgeous little restaurant called Parco delle Rose. It was perfect because while we needed shade from the sun, we were still outside in a lush, verdant space. One of the older male waiters was particularly taken with Sonny and the two played peek-a-boo while husband and I indulged in incredible food and a tipple. Fed and watered, and a nappy change and we headed back to the ferry terminal. We were feeling a little sleepy from being in the sun and day drinking and figured we could probably get a disco nap in. As the ferry left the terminal, the sea was pretty rough. I wasn’t bothered and with Sonny haven drifted off already, I closed my eyes, the motion of the vessel lulling me to sleep. The next thing I knew, I took in a mouthful of salt water, I spluttered, gasping for breath as a huge wave came through a small window, that hadn’t been shut. Me and husband were drenched, as was Sonny who squealed. The next thing we knew, towels were being ushered our way and I quickly wrapped our screaming bundle in about three large white towels. He was soon chattering and smiling while I resembled a drowned rat, my lovely sun hat destroyed. We somehow managed to see the funny side. We alighted and got Sonny changed into dry clothes – for some reason I’d packed another outfit that day. We made our way to our apartment, picked off the seaweed (true story), showered, dressed and headed out for supper at Ham Holy Burger. They were heavenly.

Me, Sonny and the sea.

Italy wasn’t without its hiccups but overall, it was an incredible trip. I got to do things I’d dreamed about and most of all, we shared the experience with our little son. It’s pretty magical sharing new experiences with a little human you have created. We certainly plan to see more of the world with our boy. I loved everything about Italy. It wasn’t perfect, more perfectly imperfect. Of all the places in the world I’ve visited, I feel compelled to return. Aside from the climate, it’s the beautiful buildings, the morning cappuccinos in the sun, the older women wearing silk scarves around their neck, young women with perfect red lipstick and DM boots. The rich food, the incredible wine. Italy owns a little piece of my heart. Grazie, Italy. Life is a rich tapestry, made up of the memories you make with the people you love. At the end, that is all that matters, not the clothes you wore, or how many likes you got on social media. Memories with people that matter. Italy… arrivederci.

mumofsonny was here!

Life is like a theme park – scream if you want to go faster…

I’m no adrenaline junkie. I’m the annoying one with a nervous disposition that is advised against going on high speed, boisterous rides at theme parks. I’m a self-diagnosed hypochondriac too, being anxious is part of my DNA. I guess you could say that it terrifies me to not be in control of my surroundings. That’s not to say I haven’t surprised myself. Giving birth is definitely my greatest physical achievement. Other than that, I’ve clung desperately to my much braver husband on a jet ski while he cruelly delighted in chasing wakes in San Diego. Against my better judgement, I’ve also paraglided, water-skied and floated in the salty sea in Spain (as a non-swimmer) and even went on a rollercoaster at Euro Disney. I had my eyes closed the entire time but at least I did it.

Like many other children, I loved ‘the amusements’ as they were so called in those halcyon days of childhood. I’d giddily jump from ride to ride with flushed cheeks, weak knees and a churning tummy. I threw up, of course, but that didn’t stop me. There were times I’d stagger of the ‘big’ rides and need to sit down, the colour drained from my face, and I’d have to wait until my heart stopped pounding and the world stopped spinning. This was all incredibly uncool, so I made a decision back then that fun fairs were probably not for me, not if I wanted to have any street cred at any rate.

However, at the weekend, I headed to Planet Fun with my husband, son and my brother, his wife and their little ones, one five months, one three and a half. I watched in awe as the older girl gleefully went from one ride to another with her dad. “Again!” she cried when she hopped off a ridiculously fast one, while her poor father was ashen-faced. As for me, I went on the Dodgems. For those three minutes, I felt like a child again and enjoyed the rush of simply just having fun. My adrenaline-junkie husband, who has jumped out of planes and bungee jumped decided to go on what could only be described as an instrument of torture. This monstrosity not only went upside down, but the car revolved manically whilst completing revolutions. Watching it was enough to make my insides churn. When he finally got off, my poor, green husband whispered, “that was not fun”. Will it stop him from getting on another terrifying ride in the future? Probably not.

In some ways, as you grow older, you feel less burdened by things that might have got to you a decade or two earlier. But in other ways, at least for me, you become more anxious about certain things. It’s good to know your limits, but like my little niece, it’s also brilliant to throw yourself at scary rides, and come out the other side, exhilarated and ready for more. In life, it’s OK to stick within your comfort zone, but it’s better to push yourself, go on the big scary ride. It might not be for you, but it will do your confidence the world of good. Adopt a child-like approach to life, feel the fear and do it anyway. I want my son to take chances, even if they don’t work out.  It’s the things you don’t do in life that you regret the most.

 

 

 

 

 

We are family… on holiday

There was a time when going away on holiday required me to plan my outfits in meticulous detail, pairing shoes and bags with jumpsuits and dresses was the biggest stressor. On a girl’s trip to Spain, I was almost charged for excess baggage – before the trip. Yes, as a woman, you have a lot of stuff. When you’re a mum, there’s a heck of a lot more stuff and none of it yours. Last week, our little family headed off to Ballycastle for a short break. Being organised is not an gift that comes easily to me. I have to work at it. So, naturally, I left packing for myself and Sonny until the morning of the trip, despite ridiculous ideas that we’d be set off ‘first thing’. Sigh. Aside from nappies, nappy sacks, bibs, soothers, steraliser, bottles, formula, there’s the outfits. At a tender three-months-of-age, Sonny has a better wardrobe than me. Cute dungarees, cardigans with ears (obviously) and dinosaur-emblazoned tops and trousers were packed, along with night suits, plus extras should he vomit or pee (or worse) during the night. As for me, my priority was my comfy Stan Smith’s, along with my favourite jeans – a reliable pair of boot- cut Levi’s and a few ‘dressy’ tops. Before Sonny, the thought of wearing trainers out to dinner was a major faux pas. Now, the thought of heels is frankly hilarious, why put yourself through it? It’s not to say I’ll never wear them again, obviously, I’ll dust off the Louboutin’s for a fancy shin dig, should I be invited to such an affair ever again. Another unthinkable thing is not having your hair done for going away. I haven’t had my unruly mane coloured in almost a year. In the last month, my ancient straighteners have given up the ghost and haven’t been replaced. These days, my hairstyle of choice is scraped back into a chignon, because it’s less boring than a bun, or if I can be bothered, a French plait. I’m not completely slumming it though, I did make an effort with my makeup. In my eyes, you can go from washed out to respectable with a good red lipstick.

While Sonny is still too little to properly engage with the world around him, he is certainly showing us glimpses of his sunny personality. It’s pretty intoxicating for your baby to squeal in delight when he sees you. Well that or the fact he was writhing on a sheepskin rug. The wee man is certainly taking after his parent when it comes to comfort!

Our holiday was lovely. As well as eating out, a fairly rare treat these days, we also took the ferry to Rathlin island. I’m not great on boats (not a surprise if you’ve read my previous post on theme parks) but I didn’t vomit despite the ferry being tossed about in pretty scary swells. I’m probably exaggerating but it wasn’t pleasant. Sonny, of course, slept through the entire 25-minute journey. However, on the way back, I have to say, I enjoyed it. My poor husband sat inside with the buggy while I sat on a seat, separated from the freezing Irish sea by a just a bar, squealing as the ferry rode the waves. OK, I had a glass of wine to calm my nerves, but I certainly surprised myself.

We made some special memories in Ballycastle. No longer are holidays about getting blocked. They are about making our little man smile as much as possible. My heart swells when I see my husband smile and blow raspberries at our son. Those are the things I’ll remember now, whereas pre-Sonny, most of the holiday would have been spent recovering from the night before.

I can’t wait for our next one…

 

Dx