A black swan floats languidly on a small canal just outside the window. My husband, Peter, and I are enjoying the view from our comfortable bungalow in a vacation village near Reims, France. As we lunch on creamy French cheese, savory olives, a fresh baguette, and healthy salad, a light rain falls. But in our cute-as-a-button bungalow, we’re content to relax and experience a slower, more mindful style of travel.
Le Lac d’Aillette is the first of three CenterParcs vacation villages we’ll visit on our two-week vacation abroad. Peter and I discovered vacation villages years ago when our kids were little and love their European ambiance and affordability. Like upscale campgrounds in the U.S., these villages are perfect for families and have amazing amenities: indoor swimming pools, playgrounds, mini-golf, and planned activities, to name a few. Unlike campgrounds, however, you stay in a fully furnished—think Ikea—spacious home of your own.
Le Lac d’Aillette is about an hour outside Reims in a pastoral area, where forests and meadows offer hiking and biking opportunities. The village itself is on a lake, and you can enjoy water sports in summer. During our autumn visit, cool temps prevail, but not to worry. A signature amenity at CenterParcs is the Aqua Mundo, or Water World: a huge swimming pool with slides and rushing water under a giant dome. One evening after a lovely bike ride to nearby ruins, Peter and I relax in the infinity pool outside, where warm water wards off the evening chill. We watch the sun sink over the lake as birds serenade us with their cheerful song.
After a few days exploring Reims and the Champagne region, we head north to the Netherlands, where we rent a bungalow in De Eemhof, another CenterParcs village. It’s located about an hour from Amsterdam and borders Lake Eemmeer. We opt for a spacious apartment right beside the marina. The private terrace overlooking the lake is ideal for dining al fresco—weather permitting, of course. Yet even when the rain falls, we happily sit inside our cozy apartment, watching the gray clouds shift and roll. In time the sun’s rays sprinkle through.
De Eemhof is an excellent home base if you want to spend a day in Amsterdam. Catch the train in a nearby town and enjoy the historic ambience and eclectic character of the Dutch capital city. World-class museums, charming cafés, and the floating flower market are just a few ways to pass the time in Amsterdam. At day’s end, simply take the train back to your comfy home in the quiet countryside.
One morning we board a ferry to Spakenberg, an historic fishing village across the lake from De Eemhof. It’s market day, and the streets of this compact city are lined with vendors selling everything from leather goods to cheese to licorice drops (our favorite!). Don’t be surprised to see local women in traditional costumes ambling by, wearing plaid aprons, wide flowery collars, long skirts, and beaming smiles.
Our third vacation village, Bispinger Heide, is in Germany about an hour south of Hamburg. We rent bikes and explore country lanes around the village. Two noteworthy attractions in the area include the Upside-Down House. Yes, it literally stands on its pointy roof! The other is Heidekastell Iserhatsche, part castle-part museum-part hunting lodge, featuring a toy collection and kitschy surprises around ever corner.
Our one-story bungalow nestles in a wooded setting, where colorful fall leaves blanket the ground. A swim at the Aqua Mundo and a stroll around the huge domed interior, dotted with inviting cafes, is the perfect activity for a rainy afternoon—as is the sauna back in our bungalow. Bispinger Heide also features popular houseboat and treehouse accommodations for those with a sense of adventure.
Besides wonderful amenities, vacation villages offer on-site restaurants, so you don’t have to cook. As for me, I love having a fully equipped kitchen when I’m traveling. It gives me the chance to experiment with ingredients that are hard to find at home.
The villages are usually open year ‘round with summer and holidays the busiest times. Rates vary depending on the time of year, but are quite reasonable in the off-season. In fall, you can book a 4-person bungalow at De Eemhof for less than $100 a night—a real value when compared with costly European hotel rooms that sleep only two people. Rental periods range from 3 to 7 nights, and cars are only allowed in the village on days guests arrive and depart, making it a safe environment for children.
When our kids were young, they relished the sense of freedom and adventure they found in the villages—making new friends, playing soccer, and riding bikes. As a family we enjoyed hikes on quiet trails, where pretty-as-a-picture scenes unfolded around each bend.
It’s hard to say what I love best about staying in vacation villages: the European ambiance, affordable lodgings, or the peaceful settings. Then again maybe it’s the opportunity to savor the little things—like watching a swan or a sunset or biking through the charming landscape. You can choose to do as much or as little as you like, and when the day is done, you can relax in your own little bungalow.
Check out CenterParcs’ website to learn more about their 21 vacation villages spread throughout France, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands. www.centerparcs.com/gb-en