September holiday at Bluestone National Park Resort

Back in September we went on a long-anticipated holiday to west Wales. I say long-anticipated, because we actually hadn’t been on a holiday by ourselves for more than two years. As much as we love going on holiday with parents/grandparents, we do love and need time with just our little family. We normally go to a cottage, preferably in the middle of nowhere, but this time we decided to try something a little different and booked a four-night break at Bluestone National Park Resort in Pembrokeshire.

To be honest, we really weren’t sure what to expect of the holiday, having never been to this kind of resort before. I had wanted to go to Center Parcs which is much closer to Bristol, but Bluestone was half the price for the same dates in early September, which was a no-brainer really. It still cost £240 for four nights.

We had heard loads of good reports from friends who had taken their little people there at varying stages from 2 months to 4+ years. We were excited by the promise of unrestricted access to the swimming and splash pool, the activity centre, and the woodland walks. We were apprehensive about staying in such close proximity to other holidaymakers.

The lodge we stayed in (Caldey Lodge) was clean and inviting. It had two bedrooms: twin and double. Matthew and Sophie shared a room for the first time ever which worked really well for the most part. However, aside from being clean and inviting, we found that the lodge wasn’t terribly well equipped. Don’t get me wrong, it had everything you could need (including the eponymous toast rack), but it was little things such as plates which didn’t fit in the dishwasher, a heated towel rail that only worked when the central heating was on (should be electric, no?), almost no cosy features like blankets or cushions, and the teeniest bottle of washing up liquid I have ever seen. Minor grievances but not really what I want to be wasting my energies lamenting whilst on holiday.

The lodge had a wetroom only, no bath, which I hadn’t realised on booking. Probably if I had realised we would have opted for a different type of accommodation, but in the end it wasn’t really a problem as we used the swimming pool every single day and washed the children in the showers there.

Above: Torrential rain overnight = loads of mud / Looking for wildlife through the patio doors / Blurry boy in the ballpit / Happy and tired after swimming

The Blue Lagoon pool itself was great fun and one bonus for us was that our dear friends the Dysons could come as day visitors and enjoy it with us. While the adult to child ratio was bumped up, we took it in turns to relax in the spa pool (a little chilly, I found), and try the water slides. Sophie absolutely adored the ‘lazy river’ which takes you outside with a gentle current and back in again, the pirate ship area with fountains and sprays and waterfalls, and the wave machine. Actually, we all loved the wave machine. The fountains were also a big hit and Matthew quite enjoyed the baby pool, though I think he was a bit bemused by the whole thing. All of us would have liked the pool to be a degree or two warmer. Perhaps it feels better in summer when the air is warmer. Fortunately I had brought along wetsuits for both the children. I think they would have struggled without them.

Elsewhere in the resort there was a ‘treehouse’ play area which Sophie loved. Plenty of rope bridges, tunnels, and platforms to explore for younger children. There was also a small playground with a slide and a swing – only one swing though which meant there was always a queue and tantruming toddlers.

Above: Fun in the ‘treehouse’

The resort is centred around a ‘village’ with shops and places to eat located around ‘Village Central’ where you can book restaurants, babysitting and activities, get information, or tell them your friends are coming to visit for the day (we did one of these three things, can you guess which one?!). There is a toy shop, bakery, general store, gift shop and a couple of others which I can’t remember. The ‘village store’ was surprisingly well-stocked and not outrageously expensive. There was a nice range of local produce and plenty of treats to tempt unsuspecting holidaymakers. The few things we wanted – toothbrush, felt-tip pens, ice-cream – were all readily found. We brought almost all the food we needed for the week because we didn’t want to pay over the odds at the on-site store. The resort doesn’t allow Tesco vans to deliver anywhere except the carpark, which is located away from all the lodges at the top of a rather steep hill. We got round this by having our shopping delivered to our home the day before, and packing it into the car before setting off.

On the subject of the hill. Oh my, it is steep. Everything about our stay at Bluestone was exasperated by Nick being unable to walk much due to having run a half-marathon the weekend before. As you can imagine, the walk up the hill to the Blue Lagoon every day was something of a challenge. Bluestone has golf buggies which can be hired but we found it really expensive – £120 for four days. That’s half the cost of what we paid for the holiday! There is a resort bus but it only runs every half an hour, which I guess is to encourage more people to hire the overpriced but more convenient buggies. Well, guess what: we are cheapskates. So we walked. Fortunately we had the foresight to borrow an Ergobaby carrier to use in addition to our Boba carrier, so both Matthew and Sophie could be easily carted up the hill (I say easily, but actually it was jolly hard work).

Now, Bluestone do offer the option to choose the area of the resort you would like to stay in at a cost of (if I recall correctly) £50, but again, this just added to the cost which wasn’t really what we were after. So, we ended up in the area called Bartholomew Rise which was nice enough, but pretty much as far away from everything else as it could be. If we were to go again, I think we’d opt for an area in between the pool and the village, to have easier access to everything (and less need of a buggy).

We tried out the activity centre on the last day. There were loads of big indoor activities such as a climbing wall, big Lego area, crazy golf and a large woodland-style playground. For little children, the activities were limited to a small soft play and ball-pit area, and a bouncy castle. Now the bouncy castle was probably the highlight of Sophie’s week. As for me, I felt seasick the instant I stepped on it. I’m going to really struggle with some aspects of this motherhood malarky.

Bluestone offers a large programme of additional activities which you can pre-book online or reserve when you get there. There is a huge range to choose from, including outdoor-type activities, fitness activities, sessions for babies and toddlers such as sensory and messy play, and I can’t remember what else. The trouble is, they are all horribly expensive! (Are you sensing a theme, here?) We didn’t do any of them. I expect we would have enjoyed them if we had. I also would have enjoyed the Spa if it wasn’t so… Well.

The huge benefit of going in September when we did: no school-age children. The preschoolers and babies had the run of the place. It was perfect for us in that way but I don’t think I would ever go there in school holiday time. Already it felt busy on the resort, I cannot imagine what a bucketload of primary school age children would do to the place. (Shudders.)

The lack of tranquility was an issue for us. Although the site itself is located in some lovely old woodland, and west Wales is not exactly what you’d call a hub of activity, the fact remains that at Bluestone you are surrounded by other people. Surrounded. Everywhere you go there are happy holidaymakers having a good time, or at least pretending to. To be honest, being in a place where everyone around you is also on holiday felt a little weird. I almost felt cheated out of being on holiday, which is somehow something of a comparative state (I’m on holiday, you’re not). Also, the fake village thing – not really my cup of tea. It was all a bit too far removed from real life. You see, what I want on holiday is to be away from real life but to know that others are carrying on as normal. Bluestone felt like happyland and it was all a bit too smiley-smiley for me.

Another niggle about Bluestone which probably speaks more about us than the resort: we missed having our car. At Bluestone, you have to park in the main carpark after unloading your luggage, and you can’t take your car back onsite until the end of the stay. For us, being located in a hole at the bottom of the hill, this was a long way, and it wasn’t even as if one of us could walk up and then drive back down to get the others. That’s not allowed. The trouble is, when you don’t have a car and you’re in the middle of west Wales, that being spontaneous is pretty difficult. You see, when we’re on holiday we like to think, ‘The weather’s bad, let’s go to have a pub lunch today and see what happens’ or, ‘The kids are getting bored, let’s go to the nearest attraction which has animals to pet and a decent cafe’. When you don’t have a car, you can’t just jump in and off you go. Nope. Even trying to be spontaneous while onsite seemed to be a bit tricky. We tried to go to a restaurant on a whim one afternoon, about 5pm, but they were all fully booked, even though they looked like they had spaces. We just can’t plan that far ahead when we’re on holiday. We did make it to Tenby for two days, which was brilliant, but involved military-style planning for the walk up the hill, naps in the car, and selective bag-packing.

Above: Sandy and happy at Tenby beach

I feel as if I’ve got more and more negative as this review’s gone on. Don’t get me wrong: Bluestone is a well-run resort with good facilities and plenty to do and see, both onsite and nearby (there are beaches in near vicinity – we spent two days at Tenby – and other places such as Folly Farm). If you like chatting to random strangers who are staying in the lodge next to you and trying out new activities, and if on-site shops, spa and restaurants, short walks from your front door, and lots of rain are your thing, it could be the perfect choice for you. I think it’s just not the right kind of holiday for us (though I would be willing to try Center Parcs to compare it). In brief, we didn’t hate Bluestone but we didn’t love it. The best days we had while we were there were the ones we spent offsite. And I think that in itself speaks volumes.

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Bristol Zoo

Bristol Zoo. Somewhere I had never been prior to moving to Bristol, even though I grew up less than an hour from here. My brother and sister both went on school trips there, but I never did. Now, we live less than 10 minutes’ drive from the Zoo and we go all. the. time.

Bristol Zoo is a large space in the heart of Bristol city, run by Bristol Zoological Society, a conservation and education charity. It’s the fifth-oldest zoo in the world.

I’ll lay my cards on the table straight away. We love Bristol Zoo. We have membership, so it’s a great value trip out and even if we only stay for half an hour, it doesn’t matter. There are loads of things to do and see: animals (obviously), an activity centre ( bead making, face painting and so on), a great children’s play area, a splash area, lovely herbaceous and floral borders to admire, a high-ropes course… You can feed lorikeets, walk through the butterfly and moth enclosure, and watch animal feeding times. We’ve been around ten times and there are still parts that we have yet to explore. It’s great for little people, especially in term-time when weekdays are really quiet and there are no bigger children around to knock your preschooler over!

Sophie always wants to go to the penguin enclosure, which is fine because Matthew loves them too and they’re really funny when they waddle down to the water to have a swim. My favourite animals are the lemurs. On our first visit, both the ring-tailed and crowned lemurs had both had offspring, which were only a few weeks old: it’s been brilliant taking Sophie and Matthew back again and again to show them how the baby lemurs have grown and that they are almost as big as their mummies now.

Penguin enclosure
Penguin enclosure

There are big animals too, including lions, gorillas and other monkeys, and pygmy hippos. There are things that make your skin crawl, like spiders, beetles, and snakes. And there are meerkats. Who doesn’t love a meerkat?

The Zoo’s facilities are pretty good, with toilets located throughout and generally found in presentable condition. There is a baby feeding room too. There are loads of vending machines (we have yet to succumb to getting Sophie a Ben and Jerry’s!), and a big cafe with indoor and outdoor (covered) seating which serves a good range of hot and cold food, cakes and drinks. You can also bring your own food as there are plenty of benches and lots of grass to sit on.

Food can be expensive so we bring our own snacks
Food can be expensive so we bring our own snacks

The special events calendar is really busy and vibrant – think Christmas evenings, conservation lectures, and spider-phobia courses {shiver}. We went to a fireworks evening in early November which was really lovely. The fireworks were low-noise and set to fun music, so perfect for children (and animals!). Sophie wasn’t too keen but was very brave and lasted all the way to the end. Matthew was entranced. Nick and I both enjoyed it although we wished we had worn wellies!

As with all visitor attractions, there is a gift shop, and some kind of trail which you can follow with your kids, though mine are too little for that so we haven’t tried it.

A day trip to the Zoo for a family of four (two adults and two children aged 2-14) would cost about £52 (November 2015) which means it’s quite expensive if, like us, your visit is shortened by naps, tantrums, or other child-related circumstances. However, as I’ve mentioned, membership is good value: for the same family group would cost about £164, meaning if you visit more than three times in a year you’ve got a good deal. There are also discounts for members on the special events and on bringing guests with you. I’ve also heard a rumour that there are discounts on entry to Wild Place, the sister project on the outskirts of Bristol, for members.

So, to summarise:

What I love:

Good facilities, special events, lovely place to walk around, good on wet or dry days, lots of places to stop and rest or eat, loads for little people to see and do, especially the play area and splash park.

What I don’t love:

Quite expensive, but better value if you buy membership. Food is expensive too. I don’t really like the gimmicky parts such as the merry-go-round and the car/bus/boat rides in the cafe area. They’re just not necessary and I feel bad for saying no to my children when they want me to pay for them to have a go.

My top tip:

If you only have preschool children, go on a weekday in term-time when it’s beautifully quiet and your children can have the run of the place.

To find out more about Bristol Zoo, Wild Place, and the Bristol Zoological Society, visit the website.

Have you visited Bristol Zoo? What was your favourite thing about it? Where else would you recommend for a family day out in Bristol?

The views expressed in this review post are entirely my own. I have not been sponsored or paid to write this review.