Disney goes eco: the new holiday resort near Disneyland Paris
‘I keep forgetting we’re in France,” says Evie, my 14-year-old, sitting outside our apartment enjoying the view. I don’t blame her: everything around us is distinctly un-Gallic. From our terrace we can see a wooden pagoda in the middle of a lake fringed with maples. There are palm trees, rockeries and exotic foliage to our left, glass lakeside apartments and rural woodland ahead of us. If we’d been kidnapped and dropped here, I’d struggle to guess between a resort in east Asia or a campus university in Surrey.
Welcome to the strangely disconcerting world of Villages Nature, 20 miles east of Paris and less than three hours on Eurostar direct from London St Pancras. All of this was once disused farmland until Disney and its partner, Pierre et Vacances (which owns Center Parcs Europe), transformed it into a 300-acre eco-resort; a “haven where guests can disconnect and feel at one with nature”. In other words, the polar opposite of the offering up the road – Disneyland Paris. Their hope is that families will be curious to try both these different worlds. It’s easy to see the appeal: when the children are done with Hyperspace Mountain and Pirates of the Caribbean, you can escape back here to the serenity of your Scandi-chic apartment, a gloriously Disney princess-free zone.
Although it depends how you define escape. The Disney vision still lurks in the DNA of Villages Nature, partly because it all still feels so brand new and not quite real, but also because the look of it is largely down to Joe Rohde, lead designer and “imagineer” behind Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida. He has helped to create five “immersive” worlds, including the Extraordinary Gardens behind our apartment – a sprawling expanse of wooden walkways, trailing plants and grasses that, once they’ve matured, could easily give Kew Gardens a run for its money.
Nearby is faux-rustic Bellvie Farm, suspiciously gleaming and mud-free, but it does offer plenty of ingenious ways to keep the children occupied, from a kids’ club and crèche to stroking donkeys and riding ponies, beekeeping and breadmaking classes. Just like Center Parcs, the idea is scheduled fun with a dizzying number of classes and activities.
We start with a guided group run through the woodland that frames Villages Nature, all ancient French oaks and winding mossy paths. After that it’s Aqualagon, the star attraction overlooking the lake, with indoor-outdoor pools, waterfalls, slides and a spa. Even though it’s a chilly autumn afternoon, the water outside is sublimely hot (30C all year round thanks to geothermal energy that heats the whole site), and we swoosh and glide through tubes of frothy azure water. As befits an eco-resort, more than a third of the water in Aqualagon is purified naturally, then used to water the plants and fill the lake. Rainwater is also collected from the holiday cottages’ inverted roofs.
You can’t fault the design, especially when it comes to the state-of-the-art changing rooms – gleaming and cavernous, and not a soggy plaster or stray hair in sight. You can access all areas with one electronic wristband, from your apartment to the restaurants and cafés, and even your locker – so no fumbling for spare coins.
Our first potential disaster is discovering that Evie has forgotten to pack a swimsuit, but we needn’t have worried. There is a vending machine in reception selling 50 different types in dinky plastic pouches. Yours for £20. Nothing is left to chance here, especially if you can pay for it. We walk back along Lakeside Promenade, lined with restaurants and shops and even a local estate agent – guests invest in a profit-sharing property scheme; places here start at around €250,000. Ours, I suspect, might cost a little more: we’re in the Cocoon VIP apartment – a cosy and insulated capsule with two double bedrooms, an ensuite bathroom and Jacuzzi bath, an open-plan kitchen and sitting room.
Afterwards we stroll along the waterfront until we find Vapiano, an Italian-style restaurant where our dish is cooked in front of us in a large wok; shallots, garlic, cream and mushrooms bubble away and take an age to cook – that’s risotto for you. There is a long queue of people behind us, but no one seems to mind and it tastes delicious. Our meal the following evening is less successful; a takeaway pizza with chewy dough covered with chunks of sweaty pepperoni as pink as kitten’s tongues, as Nigella might say.
However, the next day we’re in luck. In search of something more authentic, we venture out of our “cocoon” and find a nearby café. There we sit in the autumn sun sharing a plate of classic charcuterie, oozing cheese and cornichon, fig jam and jambon, and we feel we’ve arrived. Close our eyes and we could almost be in France.
Way to go
A cottage for four starts at £62pp pn. The Cocoon VIP apartment costs £139pp pn based on two sharing. For more details, visit villagesnatureparis.co.uk.
Eurostar.com from London St Pancras to Disneyland Paris starts from £38 one-way (£27 for children)
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