The holy grail of school holiday entertainment is something affordable that lasts ages, is undercover so you can go there on cold and rainy days, encourages engagement with other kids, is a huge amount of fun and allows children to run off enough energy that you can get home, plonk them in front of food and have them passed out for the next twelve hours within 15 minutes.
It’s been under my nose for close to a decade, and it’s on the edge of one of my favourite autumnal places – Mote Park. The big, ugly grey cube that I’ve dismissed as a load of trad sports halls and bog-standard lane swimming (Maidstone Leisure Centre) is, it turns out, also home to some of the best multi-age wet and dry adventure fun in the region.
The Polar Adventure is an array of five short, fast sledging-style slide runs you speed down in a sack. It’s kids only (1.1m to 1.62m in height), and the runs range from tortoise to hare pace. The slides are fibreglass, shaped and coloured to look like icy mountain tunnels. They’re on a par with the best of seaside slides, but unlike many of those, these are pay once, slide as much as you want.
Next door, the fun continues with the cleanest soft play I’ve found in North-West Kent. Navigate past the giant purple octopus and you will find three storeys of cargo nets, tunnels, portholes, helter-skelters, giant foam obstacles and even a mini zip wire. The cleanliness may have something to do with the lack of ball pond balls on which to accumulate bodily matter on – there’s a measly single layer of balls restricted to one zone. It’s a good compromise. It means it doesn’t have that all too familiar smell. There’s also an under 5s area with a selection of foam rockers – my favourite was the seagull.
The only (pretty substantial) drawback with the whole Polar Adventure area is that it is, conversely, hot. Sauna hot. So hot you want to go topless (and some kids very sensibly do), so dress light and take plenty to drink.
The pool complex is really impressive: three teaching pools, one diving pool, a main 25m pool and a truly fabulous Penguin Pool featuring giant, pre-school water table style fountains, wheels, sprinklers and tippers which can dump a bucket of water on your head without warning. There are cascades and waterfalls, a jacuzzi which doubles as a deep, safe mini swimming pool, and half hourly waves. The large floats are all in good nick, and they have denser foam boats to paddle around on. There’s also a pretty fast tube flume. It’s magnificent and satisfying for all ages. It still has that strong salt tang you associate with a children’s pool (that would be human particulates), but some children’s fun pools sting your eyes like napalm. This one doesn’t. The changing areas are clean and spacious and have both shared and private spaces for changing.
The Centre has a pretty decent cafe serving an above average selection of refreshments, including ice creams and slushies (necessary after three sweaty hours in the Polar Adventure). And school holidays feature different, free, daily bonus activities. We went near Halloween and got up close and personal with lizards, tarantulas and scorpions.
For older kids, strong swimmers aged 6+ can attack the brand new Aqua Challenge inflatable assault course in the main pool (the only other one of these I can find in the South East is at the Olympic Aquatics Centre in London), and the weekly Wave Rave aquatic discos are great for teens. Check the website for booking details (the Aqua Challenge must be pre-booked for safety reasons.)
Opening hours, booking details, session times and prices: http://www.maidstoneleisure.com/
Photo: Anna Morell