The rise of the British boutique holiday village – and the ones to book this summer
Last week, I watched Dirty Dancing again, for about the thousandth time. Over the past three decades, that languorous, sun-hazy, Catskills-country summer of ’63 has come to induce something like nostalgia, as though Baby’s coming-of-age holiday romance had been my own. Imagine if we had such a place in Britain, I thought.
What a blissful set-up for a post-lockdown family holiday! A rustic wooden cabin by the lake, with bicycles and boats, and restaurants so nobody has to cook, and woods in which to make new friends without the fear of anyone getting lost. We would have the time of our lives!
Then it struck me: we do, and it’s called Center Parcs. In essence, Center Parcs has all the same elements as Kellerman’s. So why do I, and so many British parents, abhor the idea of the holiday village?
School-gate hearsay has painted a picture to put me off for life: “code brown in the subtropical swimming paradise”, seven shades of chlorine-scented hell with all the exoticism of a municipal leisure centre, little devils screaming while their parents drink lager in the bar. The Sherwood Forest site has 900 lodges accommodating about 4,000 people. That’s not a -country retreat – it’s a suburb.
The idea of sharing a pool with 4,000 others was always unappealing, but with the pandemic it’s unthinkable.
Cabu is more Kellerman’s than Center Parcs
Then there’s the business of food – a sort of catering retail park diluting international cuisines to uniform -blandness, rendering Tex-Mex nachos -practically indistinguishable from the “authentic dishes inspired by the Far East” at a restaurant which, curiously, has an Indian name. (At least the reviews are consistent: “Give it a miss.”) People don’t suddenly lose their sense of taste when they have children. The days of embarrassing English food are over – pubs and street-food vendors nationwide are forging innovative -modern cuisine using quality, seasonal produce. In this era, to draft in fast-food chains to countryside locations, rather than embrace local businesses, is not just lazy but irresponsible.
What’s more – and this is the really baffling part – it’s not cheap. Three nights for a family of four in a two–bedroom Sherwood Forest lodge costs about GBP1,000 in August (not including washing-up liquid and other essential basics, which are another GBP26), bike hire will set you back GBP116, plus you should allow another couple of hundred for activities. Even a nature walk costs GBP7.75 a head.
Here’s a thought: stay -anywhere else in the UK and go for a walk in nature absolutely free. Sure, I have never actually been. No doubt there is some fun to be had at some point.
But I know I will never love a holiday village with bilious 1980s plastic signage that screams: “Organised fun!” Even people who go there don’t actually seem to like it. “It’s just really easy,” one mum friend sighed, wrestling her two-year-old into a coat, when she admitted they were returning to Center Parcs for yet another multigen get-together this spring. “Plus, my parents pay for it.”
Soho Farmhouse was one of the original posh holiday villagesCredit: VEERLE EVENS
The concept is an excellent one – from Billy Butlin’s founding Skegness site in 1936, with its poolside beauty contests and knobbly-knees competitions, to All Tomorrow’s Parties’ 1990s shake-up of Pontins – and this summer it has never been better for family-and-friends get-togethers. Staycation demand is at a record high, every rental cottage is snapped up, and many of us are seeking a post–lockdown escape into nature. And right now, the holiday village is due for another reinvention, to bring it up to date with our new reality.
In the Lancashire countryside near Morecambe Bay, a new GBP50 million resort in the offing claims to be rethinking the genre. Ellel Holiday -Village intends to be an “eco holiday park”, committing to initiatives such as -rewilding, planting wildflower meadows and 30,000 trees to increase the area’s biodiversity, incorporating energy-efficiencies in its construction, and supporting small businesses. The food hall concept has been reimagined: “Marketplace” will host independent outfits serving homemade food, farm produce, artisan breads and freshly roasted coffee. Activities embrace the outdoors: treetop assault course, stables, skate park, wildlife learning centre.
Designs for lodges – all 450 of them – look fantastic: minimal, timber, glass-walled. There is lots to admire about Ellel (top). But is it enough to convince me to go? For me, that kind of scale still feels daunting.
And anywhere with higher-than-average rainfall has to have truly sensational scenery, pubs or cultural scenes for it to appeal.
Fforest is a pioneer of this new type of family-friendly accommodation
Yet despite the bad-weather potential of west Wales, there’s a place I dream of frequently. It, too, has a collection of rustic woodland cabins, and there are family-friendly activities and communal places to swim and eat. Children go feral, swim in rivers and learn to fire bow and arrows, and at night sleep deeply with woodsmoke in their hair.
The community spirit endures, but there’s a shift away from organised fun en masse towards something more intimate and considered. Fforest is a pioneer of this new breed of resort emerging in Britain: the boutique holiday village. These personal passion projects embrace sustainable design and natural materials, artisanal furnishings, top-notch local food and drink, and simple pleasures in unspoilt surroundings.
Cabu is another – a homespun -hideaway for liberal-elite parents and creative millennials. Cabu by the Sea opened in Kent, a handful of architecturally reimagined timber beach huts on a stark stretch of Romney Marsh – think Derek Jarman’s Garden for the Kinfolk generation. The brand’s Cabu by the Lakes in Ireland has a woodsy midcentury vibe that’s more Catskills than County Cavan, only with -forest-bathing sessions rather than ballroom-dancing lessons.
Now they’re creating a third site on -Holywell Bay in Cornwall, Cabu on the Rocks, opening next summer.
Fforest, a holiday village like no other
For me, these are the kind of holiday villages that appeal. Off-grid, offbeat, rough-around-the-edges bolt-holes that are small, beautiful, authentic, and encourage discovery and risk–taking. Where the water may be cursedly cold, and everyone may get gloriously lost, but you come home with new skills and experiences to talk about.
Because the romance of Dirty Dancing lies not in its holiday resort, but in Frances Houseman’s cutting loose from its confines and conventions and finding her own way, immersing -herself in something real and a little bit wild, and emerging anew, triumphant. That’s what makes the kind of holiday nostalgia that stays with us.
Seven holiday villages that are getting it right
Cabu by the Sea is a collection of 17 beach huts on the Kent coast. It has an appealing bleak beauty – the wildflowers in the shingle, the wide open skies.
The outdoor communal space has a kitchen with barbecue, pizza oven and cocktails, next to a heated pool. On-site shop Cabu Corner sells quinoa crisps, traditional kites, hand-carved chopping boards and posh ice cream. Meanwhile, Cabu by the Lakes in Ireland’s Killykeen Forest (below) has 28 minimal, raw-timber cabins, and Cabu on the Rocks in Cornwall opens next summer. Cabu by the Sea cabins from GBP125; Cabu by the Lakes from EUR175, both two-night min.
Children welcome. holidays.cabu.co.uk
Cabu by the Lake in Ireland
A beautiful back-to-nature retreat. The community of onsen domes and artist-designed, handmade cabins offers authentic outdoor living with none of the disagreeableness of camping. Kids are encouraged to build fires, make dens, whittle tools and use a bow and arrow, and there’s sporting fun from yoga to coasteering in nearby Cardigan Bay.
Everything’s hyperlocal, from the food on the barbecue to the blankets – designed by co-owner Sian and made in the nearby mill from wool spun from the local flock. They’ve also restored the estate’s old stone one-room pub – tiny in size, big on atmosphere. Domes sleeping four from GBP525 for four nights; coldatnight.co.uk
Fforest, in Wales, offers authentic outdoor living with none of the disagreeableness of camping
The privately owned Scilly isle offers an exclusive beachside setting. And what beaches they are – unspoilt stretches of silvery sand, a limpid turquoise lagoon perfect for mucking about in boats, on a well-groomed little island that’s like old-school Cornwall, riven with rhododendron-flanked, car-free lanes to cycle around.
Travellers stay in New England-style boathouses with steps down to the sand, or traditional stone cottages spruced up with nautical interiors and quality Cornish art. There’s an indoor pool, two restaurants, a shop and deli that’s like an Atlantic outpost of Fortnum & Mason, and a proper pub serving local gins and Cornish ales. From GBP865 per cottage per week; tresco.co.uk
Three Mile Beach
On a knockout stretch of north Cornwall coast outside St Ives, this lo-fi luxury resort opening in June is a collection of 15 chic beach houses, created by the founder of Audley Travel Craig Burkinshaw and partner Joanne Le Bon, and decorated with souvenir artworks from their travels.
It’s family- and dog-friendly, and promises a return to childhood seaside holidays, but the kit is tastefully 21st century. Supper comes from a street-food truck or the resort can draft in private chefs, should guests need a break from chores. Three-bedroom beach house from GBP1,200 per week; threemilebeach.co.uk
Three Mile Beach is on a knockout stretch of the North Cornish Coast
A family apple farm in Suffolk has been transformed into Blyth Rise, a new escape with 12 lakeside cabins and armadillo-like “igluhuts”. Pam and Mark Grinsted have spent three years planting and landscaping their land into a boutique retreat that’s all about rest and rejuvenation – there’s yoga and cabin saunas, serene green meadows and woodland to roam, and the beaches of Aldeburgh and Southwold are nearby. Igluhuts sleeping two from GBP106 a night; canopyand stars.co.uk/blythrise
Blyth Rise, run by Canopy & Stars, has 12 lakeside ‘igluhuts’
What must be the world’s grandest holiday park is a collection of 15-odd country houses on an 8,000-acre estate in Suffolk.
They range from 14-bedroom Sibton Park manor house (where even the hand-painted wallpaper is listed) to the more humble, electricity-free cottage-for-two. Guests can ride Pashley bicycles around the landscaped estate where sheep and cows graze, row boats on the lake, or seek lordly pursuits, including tennis, axe-throwing, archery, clay-pigeon shooting, wilderness survival skills, spa treatments and wine tasting. Hex Cottage sleeping two from GBP445 a night; wildernessreserve.com
One of the houses on the Wilderness Estate
Soho Farmhouse, the brand’s countryside Cotswold resort, is sometimes dubbed (rather harshly) a “posh Center Parcs”. Sure, it has log cabins, and a boating lake and communal swimming pool, and winding pathways for bicycles.
But it has Soho House spirit running through it, from its beautifully furnished cabins to its excellent restaurants, which include an artisan bakery, a Japanese restaurant and Little Bell, an outpost of an ace local pub dishing up kick-arse whole roast joints.
Like most of the group’s properties, it’s open to members only, but this has become more accessible with a new Friends membership option, which grants access to bedrooms and other facilities from just GBP10 a month. Rooms from GBP350; sohohouse.com
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