A few years ago I went to Robin Hood’s hangout, Sherwood Forest, to the secret hideaway in the woods known as Center Parcs. I hadn’t been back since I contracted veganism but last week, I found myself back among the geese and the pines.
I’m pleased to say that on the whole, it’s pretty welcoming for those following a plant-based diet. These are my tips for having a vegantastic time at Center Parcs.
Bring the essentials
The good thing about Center Parcs is that each bungalow / lodge / tree house has a full kitchen, so unlike a hotel, you can at least cook to a good standard at ‘home’.
If you’ve travelled light and not brought food with you, head to the onsite supermarket, Parc Market. It’s pretty basic but they’ve got a good Free-From section, fantastic hummus, and a nice range of alternative milks too.
The selection of fruit and vegetables is a bit limited but has enough to get you by. Availability is something to keep an eye on though, I bought six avocados on my first day and unknowingly must have bought the whole week’s worth of stock because they were out of stock every day afterwards.
Basically, if you want to eat like the king of vegans, bring your nutritional yeast and your silken tofu with you. If you’re fine without your jackfruit tacos, Parc Market will be just fine.
‘But what about eating out?’, I hear you say, ‘I go on holiday to get away from cooking and really don’t want to spend my break slaving over a hob.’ Well, Center Parcs have got you covered here too.
Good food at the big chains
Bella Italia have some fantastic meat-free options. They might want to work on their customer service though. I mentioned I was vegan to our waiter and was dismissively told this wasn’t a dietary restriction.
We ordered our mains and a bunch of sides for the table and about 45 minutes later everything arrived, at varying levels of temperature. I was lucky enough to have one of the meals that hadn’t gone cold, but my Lenticchie, a rich, mushroomy bolognese, did arrive with our waiter’s thumb nestled comfortably in my spaghetti.
Despite having to eat around a big, manly, tomatoey thumbprint, the pasta was absolutely delicious. After I’d smashed through that, I got stuck into the fries we’d ordered for the table.
I was happily mopping up the last of my bolognese sauce with a few of the crunchier ones when I noticed our waiter grinning at me from the other side of the restaurant. I was slightly confused, but the service had been so terrible up to that point that I assumed he was hoping to get a tip based exclusively on having a winning smile.
He slowly made his way to our table, beaming from ear to ear, leaned in, and happily advised that I probably shouldn’t have eaten the chips because they’d been fried in the same oil as meat. What. A. Dickhead.
For a less infuriating lunch, check out Café Rouge. It was pretty good for a brand I was convinced went out of business a few years ago. Some good options on the menu but I couldn’t fault the spicy chickpea burger which was pretty tasty. Add extra avocado for £2? Yes please. A portobello mushroom for another £2? Go on then. Ironically the mushroom was about the size of a £2 so they lost marks there but all in all, it was a good lunch.
Take a packed lunch
Part of the Parcs experience is playing sports, going swimming, riding bikes, and generally being active. A lot of these activities are away from where the main restaurants are so your options are generally limited to the activity-themed bars and cafés.
Foresters’ Inn is lovely for a quiet, picturesque coffee by the lake after you’re done playing tennis, but if you want vegan food, you’re shit out of luck.
In a huge menu with over 50 options on it, the vegan choice was Fries, or Sweet Potato Fries, both of which were both cooked in the same oil as meat, so as our helpful Bella Italia Waiter had taught us, this made them technically not vegan. To be fair to them, the staff said they were getting a new menu soon which included actual vegan options so hopefully next time it’ll be a little better.
It’s a similar story with the Sports Café in the indoor sports arena and the pool-side Canopy Café, both of which offer zero plant-based food beyond Technically Not Vegan Chips. My advice is if you’re doing something active, pack a lunch.
Book your table in advance
On our last night we ate at Hucks, an American-Mexican Diner. Everywhere else was fully booked and luckily we got the last space available by showing up and begging for a table. If you’re planning on eating out in the evening, particularly your last evening, be sure to book in advance.
Hucks may not have a huge selection of vegan options, but the veg fajitas were tasty AF. My wife, Meegan, had the Mexican Salad which she said was great too.
Had we known about the booking situation a bit earlier we’d have also checked out the Indian restaurant, Rajinda Pradesh. A quick glance at their menu and we were gutted we’d missed it; a lot of their curries could be made vegan by opting for the wheat-based meat substitute, seitan. I obviously can’t comment on taste but for options, this place gets a big thumbs up.
On a separate but related note, I’d like to make a plea on behalf of all vegans – please, restaurant owners and head chefs of the UK, can you add vegan dessert options to your menus beyond just sorbet. I like sorbet but when you’ve got a dozen indulgent, deliciously gooey, cakey options on the menu and your vegan option is basically cold, flavoured water, it’s a bit demoralising.
Enjoy the wildlife, but avoid the Village pond
You’ll no doubt be ecstatic to see that wildlife is abundant at Center Parcs. Squirrels, ducks, geese, swans, pheasants, rabbits, and an army of road-crossing nocturnal toads roam freely, and often arrogantly, around the site. As I sat making notes for this post, a squirrel came knocking on my patio window in what I assumed was her way of asking for food. Then an angry crow chased her away. Needless to say it’s very far removed from the wildlife wastelands of East London.
On the other end of the ‘animals living free and happy’ scale is the koi pond. Right near the middle of the Village, where the main restaurants are, is a very small body of water containing some very big fish.
They seem well fed and the water is clean enough but seeing these beautiful fish cramped into this tiny pond was pretty upsetting. It would be similar to being kept in a tennis court-sized cage for your whole life. If we can get angry at SeaWorld, can we apply the same logic here?
I couldn’t find any information from Center Parcs on the welfare of their koi but I can’t assume that this is a healthy sized pond for fish that size, especially when there are so many crammed into a small space. Any koi experts want to help me out here?
All in all, Center Parcs is definitely survivable if you’re following a vegan diet and there’s a lot to love about this Nottinghamshire mini paradise. The carp pond left a bit of a sour taste in the mouth but with all the lakes around the site, this seems like an easy problem to fix. At least it does in my not-at-all-educated opinion.
Centre Parcs isn’t the perfect vegan destination but they’re making improvements constantly and for a traditional British holiday park in rural middle England, I think they’re doing a pretty good job.
All info correct at date of original posting. Images by Peter de Vink, Ben Neale, Ella Olsson, & meeganwith2es