SHERWOOD FOREST, ENGLAND
THE pine forest pathways leading to the bubble were covered in six inches of snow. Inside the geodesic dome, bikini-clad girls skipped through the Subtropical Swimming Paradise, tossing beach balls as their mothers read romances under palm trees.
Nobody sunbathed in this artificial atmosphere - except a few desperate souls trying to turn a shade darker under the harsh glare of solarium-style sun beds. The scent of suntan oil had been replaced by an unmistakable smell of chlorine. Potato chips and French fries littered the tiled "beach." But it was, so we thought, too cold to brave the world outside.
Mustering up both our courage and our swimsuits, we decided to take the plunge. The Jungle Water Rapids, a series of water slides and tunnels, looked uninviting. But we jumped into the large swimming pool and ducked underneath a plastic curtain, emerging outside the futuristic bubble in the snow-covered world.
Steam rose in clouds from the pool's surface. We swam headfirst down a concrete slide, entering a series of downward-spiraling inclines before reentering the dome. Bliss.
Sherwood Forest was never supposed to be like this, we thought, swimming back inside for another go. What would Robin Hood have thought? And why were we having so much fun in this obviously fake environment? Had we lost all sense of reality?
The answer, it seemed, was no. For better or for worse, we had signed up for four days inside the climate-controlled bubble of a Center Parc, an all-season holiday village built among 400 wooded acres in the middle of Sherwood Forest. Outside, it was winter and cold. But inside - despite all initial warnings to the contrary - we were having quite a wacky, and decidedly tropical, experience.
"As far as Britain is concerned, this is excellent," engineer Ian Walker told me. He has been coming to the Sherwood Forest Parc, about a 90-minute train ride north of London, once yearly during the heart of winter with a group of family and friends. "It's just the ticket for our climate."
Britain's blustery weather and drizzly overcast days force many Britons to look outside their borders when it comes to vacations. The country's relative proximity to the sunny beaches of France and Spain make choosing a vacation abroad an affordable - and considerably warmer - option for many.
But with their year-round bubbles offering inside activities such as swimming, bowling, tennis, squash, and roller-skating, Center Parcs are gaining in popularity. England now has three of them, located in the pine forests of Sherwood, Longleat, and Elveden.
We arrived at Sherwood, which opened in 1987 and is the oldest one, not knowing what to expect. British holiday camps have a reputation for being institutional and regimented, a stereotype perpetuated by Butlin's, the best-known camp, which this year is celebrating its 60th anniversary.
But at Sherwood, we were given a spacious two-bedroom "villa" with a working fireplace and fully equipped kitchen. It was a brisk walk from the bubble and accessible only by foot or by bicycle in an attempt by management to keep the Parc environmentally friendly.
Our four days were completely unregimented, leaving us free to partake, or not, in as many activities as we liked. We cycled through the snow every day and bowled and roller-skated inside.
One day we spent the whole afternoon on the Jungle Water Rapids. One morning we did nothing but read the Sunday newspapers. Another evening we spent inside the bubble at the spa - enjoying the Finnish sauna, eucalyptus-scented steam room, and cold plunge pools.
While we must admit we felt a bit restless at times, for families with children the Parc seemed ideal. A variety of children's activities are available, including Robin Hood-style archery lessons, miniature golf, and pony rides during the warmer months. And reasonably priced baby-sitters allow overworked parents that much-needed evening off.
Perfect as it may sound for Britain, however, the Parcs were not originally British. In late 1967, an enterprising Dutchman named Piet Derksen built 30 family-style villas around an outdoor swimming pool in De Lommerbergen, Holland, hoping to entice tired city folk to the countryside for a sunny, relaxing weekend.
So successful was his setup that the following year he added a heated indoor pool, restaurant, and well-stocked supermarket. His aim: to transform his summer holiday village into a year-round affair.
The plan worked. Mr. Derksen's camps eventually spread into Belgium, France, and Britain. Fifteen (including one that opened last year in Germany) Center Parcs built after his prototype are now in operation, all enjoying a 95 percent occupancy rate year-round.
"We came here mainly because if the weather is bad, we can keep indoors and there are lots of things to keep the children happy," says full-time mother-of-four Viv Lippmann, standing outside the Parc's mood-lit bowling alley, decorated with plastic palms in a jungle motif.
Were they happy? "We liked the country club and we liked the park. James liked the tree in it," says five-year-old Jenny Lippmann of her younger brother. "We loved the swimming and we loved the house. It was because the beds were nice and it was warm. And me and [older brother] Mark ate sugar in the restaurants."
Their father, Patrick Lippmann, was even more euphoric about the Parc - especially after a "dreadful" trip to an older and less flexible British holiday camp a few years earlier. "It was cheaper, but we didn't like anything. It was shoddy. It wasn't very clean. It smelled," he says. "To give you an idea of the people who go there, the 14-inch TV set was padlocked to the wall with a chain."