Family: Back to nature in Paris

An unlikely new partnership between Disneyland and Center Parcs scores high for a wholesome outdoors holiday where new skills can be acquired, and teens placated

By Sarah Merson
Published 10 May 2018, 16:00 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 12:55 BST

Bread-making at Villages Nature

Photograph by Sarah Merson

My son isn't going to thank me for this. Wearing a hairnet and apron while being taught how to make bread with his younger siblings isn't what this image-conscious teenager had in mind when I told him we were going to Paris. In fact, we're about 20 miles east of the French capital in Marne-la-Vallée, in what was not so long ago a forgotten, boggy backwater, but is now Villages Nature Paris: a smart, eco-resort collaboration between Disneyland Paris and Center Parcs. In a nutshell, it's a contained way to get your kids closer to nature and have lots of fun doing it.

But Louis (15) is going to need more convincing as to the virtues of the natural world. Olivia (12) and Jude (10) are chattering freely with the animated young French woman running the workshop, learning details about bread making and the evolution of the wheat grain. All three of them come away clutching their own freshly baked loaf — Jude has made his into a hedgehog, Olivia went for a plait. Louis has gone for a rudimentary baguette. "Well, we are in France," he mutters.

The class is held at BelleVie Farm (one of the park's five recreational 'worlds'), which, while rather too clean and mud-free to sensibly be called a farm, does have family activities including pony trekking, egg collecting and even the chance to be a farmhand for the day. Other worlds include Forest of Legends, an enchanting adventure playground in the woods, and Extraordinary Gardens, where plants are atmospherically arranged into earth, fire, air, and water sections. The Lakeside Promenade area, meanwhile, is home to a good choice of restaurants, shops and cafes, as well as the kids' club, but the resort's pièce de résistance is Aqualagon, an impressive indoor-outdoor swimming pool complete with giant waterslides. Teen territory, surely?

After floating around the lazy river in the outdoor lagoon (heated geothermally to a delightful 30C), Louis locks himself into a clear plastic booth at the top of The Rocket. With a thumbs-up from the lifeguard and a press of a button, the floor drops out from underneath him and he's gone in a whoosh of water, leaving only the echoes of his exhilarated scream. "That was awesome," he booms when I catch up with him at the bottom (via the stairs). "I'm going again."

Adrenalin sufficiently charged, we return to our accommodation: a premium cottage, sleeping six, complete with outdoor decking overlooking the lakeside. With only half the resort's 618 acres currently developed, plans are afoot to almost double the 868 cottages and apartments by 2019… which may well be a cottage (or 100) too far. But with a strong environmental ethos, including ecological roofs that help recycle rainwater, living walls and lots of tree planting, Villages Nature Paris should still be every bit as green.

We head off to dinner along car-free paths on our two-wheeled transport (an impressive array of bikes in all sizes and some wonderful shapes are available to hire), and set up camp outside Cépages restaurant and wine bar, one of three on-site dining options including Italian chain Vapiano, and an organic cafe. Here, we share a plate of classic charcuterie, complete with oozing cheese and cornichons, as well as fig jam and jambon, accompanied by a Gallic singer and her band playing an impromptu set from the promenade. It's incongruous in the woodland setting, but we all sit back happily and take it in. Even Louis is embracing the laissez-faire attitude.

"Can we go to the honey workshop tomorrow?" he pipes up, seemingly forgetting a hairnet might be required.


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