It’s an autumnal Sunday morning in France – couples sit on deckchairs in the sunshine drinking coffee while their kids run around, steam rises from an outdoor pool in front of a glass dome, a swan swims across the lake as a rowing boat splashes past. It’s hard to imagine that just a few years back this whole site was just a patch of muddy farmland in north-east France. Since then lakes have been created, trees and gardens have been planted, restaurants, shops and 868 apartments and cottages have been built. That empty patch of land has been transformed into a whole new, village-style eco resort – Villages Nature Paris.
Located in Marne-la-Vallée, 32km outside of Paris and 6km from Disneyland Paris, Villages Nature is a partnership between French accommodation company Pierre et Vacances and Disney. Disney had preferential development rights over the site as it’s so close to their European park. But that doesn’t mean you’ll be bumping into Mickey Mouse or watching cartoon character parades. Instead it’s a family-focused resort with a more sophisticated eco-friendly theme. Think Center Parks with a dash of Disney magic – and a few French touches. The smell of baking croissants drifts out of the on-site bakery, there’s a boules pitch alongside the lake and a wine bar where you can tuck into plates of local meats and cheeses.
The site was designed in collaboration with Disney and is built around the idea of five different immersive ‘worlds’. At the heart of the site is the lake and the Lakeside Promenade, where you’ll find the welcome centre, restaurants, shops and kids’ clubs. Then there’s the Extraordinary Gardens, which are split into earth, fire, air and water sections with games and info panels where you can learn more about the plants and wildlife. The Forest of Legends is an adventure playground set in the woods. and BelleVie Farm is a working farm with resident cows, sheep, pigs and goats, as well as pony rides and classes in beekeeping and breadmaking. Then finally the Aqualagon is the site’s big star. It’s one of Europe’s largest covered water parks with an indoor/outdoor pool with wave machine, jacuzzis, lazy river and waterslides.
As we arrived our first impressions were that it’s an undeniably impressive-looking place. As well as the angular-domed Aqualagon with its spiralling water slides there are asymmetric apartment buildings with vertical gardens growing up the walls and plant-covered terraces, treehouse playgrounds built into the forest, and the centre of it all a huge lake and boathouse with rowing boats and kayak for hire. But is it enough the convince people to swap the full-on Disney experience for something a bit more low-key and natural? (and how were we going to get on for a weekend at a family resort without any kids?).
After checking in at the welcome centre, our first stop was our apartment. There’s a mix of apartments and cottages (sleeping two–12) spread around the different worlds. We were in one-bed Country Premium apartment overlooking the Extraordinary Gardens. It had a bit of an English countryside theme with woodland wallpaper, twig coat hooks and lots of natural fabrics and earthy colours. The site’s not long opened so everything was shiny and new, from the bathroom to the mini kitchen which came with a fridge/freezer, hob and dishwasher. But one of the nicest features is that all the accommodation has some outside space, either a terrace or a balcony. Ours looked over the gardens and was the perfect spot for a sunset glass of wine (though beware that in the apartments you’re not far from your neighbours).
We also took a peek at the site’s most luxurious accommodation – Cocoon VIP. These have prime lakefront spots, with luxe fabrics, soft lighting and a wow-factor jacuzzi bath with lake view. The third option is the Clan Comfort cottages, further out in the woods. Each of the apartment and cottages blocks look different, so you don’t get that uniform, square block look and they blend into the landscape better. The eco angle runs through the site too. The heating and hot water uses geothermal energy, rainwater is collected from the Aqualagon roof to use in its showers and toilets. Sustainable building materials were used, there are plenty of recycling points and the site is car-free. You can get around by bike or buggy, and buses connect it to Disneyland and the Eurostar terminal, so you could do the whole trip without flying or driving.
One thing that distinguishes Villages Nature from similar places in the UK is the food – the French take what they eat a bit more seriously, so it’s not just burgers and chips. More restaurants are due to open on the site, but we tried out the current crop. Vapiano is the Italian option, with food cooked freshly in front of you (though as you order from different stations you can end up getting your food at different times). PUR Etc is the healthy option, featuring local, seasonal produce and a good selection of vegetarian and gluten-free options (always an unexpected bonus in the land of baguettes!). There’s also the more sophisticated Cépages wine bar and restaurant. And if you’re looking to save money and cook for yourself, there’s an on-site Franprix supermarket which didn’t seem to have too much of a premium put on the prices.
Pool access is included in your stay – you’re given a wristband which gives you entry as well as acting as a room and locker key – and there are also free play areas, sports facilities and entertainment. But there are also other activities in each of the worlds which you pay extra for – everything from pony rides at the farm to Segway tours and wine-tasting sessions. There are also kids clubs for four to 12-year-olds and a baby club for littler ones from four months old if parents want a break. We tried out a few of the activities – a beekeeping and honey tasting session at the farm, a guided morning run around the lake, and the hilarious aqua jump – an exercise class using an underwater mini trampoline that had me aching from laughing as much as from jumping. But we also spent a lot of time just walking around or soaking in the pool.
This is just the start for Villages Nature – only half of its 250 hectares have been developed so far, and accommodation will double to 1600 apartments and cottages by 2019, with a million visitors targeted each year. The site’s clearly been designed for families with loads for kids to do, but it still has plenty of style and a grown up side too. You could have a few different types of holiday in the one place. It could be a base for day trips to Disneyland and Paris or a destination in itself. You can try out the outdoor activities and swim in the lake in summer or stay in the 30° Aqualagon in winter. There’s a mix of adventurous and educational activities – and good food and wine and a soon-to-open spa for the adults. Disney meets eco meets France turned out to be a surprisingly good combination – whether you’ve got kids or just still are one.
A two-night self-catering stay at Villages Nature Paris for four people starts from €244/£216 for a Clan Comfort cottage, €279/£247 for a Country Premium cottage or apartment, or €349/£309 for a Cocoon VIP cottage or apartment. It’s easy to get to by Eurostar, with direct trains from London St Pancras to Disneyland (via Ashford and Ebbsfleet International) from £38 one way for adults and £27 one-way for children aged between four and 11, based on a return journey. Children under four travel for free.
Many thanks to Villages Nature and Eurostar for hosting me. All views and opinions are, as always, my own.