It doesn't seem long ago when my husband Tim and I were flicking through holiday brochures searching for secluded beaches and fine dining. All that changed when the children arrived and our holidays of choice changed to action-packed resorts with never-ending water slides and family-friendly restaurants galore. If the kids are happy, so are we. Right?
But I've found a gem of a place that suits all of us down to the ground. Hello PortAventura World, Spain's biggest theme park and home to Europe's fastest and highest roller coaster, the pulse-racing Red Force. I've never been a huge fan of rides but my children seem hooked on the stomach-churning adrenalin rush they experience being flung from heights and around bends or tipped upside down, all at top speed.
Max and Harvey in Ferrari Land at PortAventura World
So while Red Force and PortAventura's other mega rides tick their boxes, Tim and I were impressed by the quality and variety of its restaurants, the relaxing hotel resort, the surprisingly leisurely pace and of course the beautiful Spanish sunshine. I shocked myself at how much I could enjoy a short break at a theme park. PortAventura World consists of three parks and lies on the edge of the coastal resort of Salou on Spain's Costa Dorada, an hour south of Barcelona. First stop for us was the newest park Ferrari Land, added last year and backed by the Italian racing giant. Costing £90million, it's spacious and chilled, with wide boulevards, a replica of the legendary founder Enzo Ferrari's home and an Italian trattoria based on the one in Maranello, where the Prancing Horse brand is based.
The mighty Red Force dominates thanks to a near-vertical horseshoe-shaped loop that climbs up an eye-watering 112m into the sky. Accelerating from 0-180km/h in just five seconds, it aims to give you a taste of what a racing car driver feels. I felt dizzy just watching it and was verging on queasy as I boarded it with our three oldest children Harvey, 17, Max, 15, and Rosie, 12. Much to his fury, our nine-year-old Freddie was a few centimetres short of the 1.4m minimum height required and had to sit it out in the viewing area.
The children pay a visit to Ferrari Land's Pit Stop
As we were catapulted out of the starting tunnel, my stomach spun and I could barely keep my eyes open. There's a YouTube film doing the rounds of a passenger who was hit in the neck by a bird as he soared around the loop. But by the time I realised how terrified I should be we'd come to a shuddering halt; fortunately, perhaps, Europe's highest and fastest roller coaster is over in 23 seconds. It's definitely one for the bucket list although my legs were shaking too much for me to follow the kids for a second go.
Thankfully, there are several other fun activities to do. Rosie's favourite was the family-friendly Maranello Grand Race Circuit, where you drive a scale reproduction of a Ferrari over a 500 metre long track. Freddie loved the two 55 metres-tall Thrill Towers, designed to resemble Ferrari pistons. One gives you a stomach-wrenching free-fall drop, the other bounces you up and down as it descends. Three novel family activities take place indoors in a bright red Ferrari Experience building. The 5D Flying Dreams theatre took us on a thrilling ride through the sky across Europe's great cities. On Racing Legends, another 5D experience, we felt ourselves whizzing along race tracks in Ferraris from different eras. Coolest of all, perhaps, was the chance to sit in an actual Ferrari racing car and sports car. I was impressed that staff allowed you to take your own photos, despite official pictures being on sale.
Rosie and Freddie make friends in PortAventura Park
Elsewhere the children were able to change tyres on a real racing car and there are smaller rides for youngsters. A new kids' play area is due to open this spring. For lunch we veered away from the fast food outlets and sat down at the pretty Ristorante Cavallino trattoria. I've had lousy, over-priced meals at theme parks (I'm thinking Disneyland Paris here In particular) but this was neither. The restaurant was lovely and airy with tasty pizzas or pasta dishes starting at a reasonable 13€. The sea bass with a tomato confit and olive oil caviar was delectable and well worth the 23,50€ price tag. Children's menus start at 10€. If you're lucky you'll be tucking in on the terrace as one of the park's vibrant dance troupes passes by. Later we popped into the Ferrari store to browse the huge selection of beautiful branded clothes and souvenirs. The kids fancied T-shirts; we left with just notepads and pens as the prices are ludicrous.
You probably won't need a full day in Ferrari Land so it's worth buying a combined ticket that adds in one or both of the other two PortAventura World parks. PortAventura Park is the biggie and boasts a string of record breaking rides in its own right. It's split into six zones each with a different vibe and theme. The Mediterrània area, built to emulate a laid-back fishing village, is brimming with cafes, ice cream shops, outdoor terraces and a pretty lake but there's nothing laid-back about its main roller coaster, Furius Baco. Passengers are strapped in with legs dangling beneath them then launched from 0-135kh/h in just three seconds.
The family on Grand Canyon Rapids
After Harvey and Max had braved it we took a leisurely boat over to the China zone for the brilliant Angkor, a family rafting adventure where you shoot water pistols at targets. Near the end the river loops round allowing you to fire at other visitors. Simple, daft fun, guaranteed to bring out the competitive side in everyone – including me.
The two teenagers were itching to try out China's two most iconic attractions, Shambhala and Dragon Khan. Shambhala's claim to fame is its five hump-shaped camelbacks up to 76 metres high, making it the tallest ride after Red Force. It intertwines with Dragon Khan's eight twisting loops to form an impressive spectacle on the horizon. While they took on the biggies, Tim and I took Rosie and Freddie to nearby SésamoAventura, an area devoted to younger children. I was impressed with the novelty of the rides there, our favourite being Magic Fish where you skid round a pool in a fish-shaped tub. Other areas for smaller visitors were doted throughout the park; we loved the Chupa Chupa flying balloons in China.
Rosie rides the Chupa Chupa flying balloons
Next came the wet stuff. In the jungle-inspired Polynesia zone we endured a massive soaking on the Tutuki Splash flume then headed to the cowboy-themed Far West area for the Grand Canyon Rapids and the Silver River Flume. Back on dry land, adrenalin junkie Freddie's favourite attraction was the fast and furious Stampida roller coaster. It features two carriages racing along different tracks and, unlike many of the main biggies, is suitable for slightly smaller guests.
The big ride in the México area is the drop tower Hurakan Condor. My stomach lurched just watching the older boys as they plunged 86 metres at more than 160 km/h but somehow they emerged looking fresh and grinning like mad. For a calmer experience we all tried the El Secreto de Los Mayas, an all-age indoor maze of mirrored tunnels.
The Hurakan Condor ride in the México area
To make the most of the sheer number and range of rides it's best to spend at least one-and-a-half days in PortAventura Park. Queues for the popular ones can top an hour although signs around the park and the PortAventura World app give you live waiting times. A day at a theme park is tiring so to make it as stress-free as possible I'd recommend staying at an onsite hotels.
We opted for the lovely Callaghan's, one of the more upmarket ones in the quaint Wild West-themed Gold River resort. Rooms are spacious with two double beds and included is a hearty breakfast, with bacon, sausage, omelettes and pancakes plus platters of fruit, cheese and meats and a whole range of pastries and breads.
The family stayed at the Wild West-themed Gold River resort
You also get unlimited access to PortAventura park, a day at Ferrari Land, discounts on the third park Caribe and free WiFi. The Gold River resort is accessed directly from the park via a guest-only entrance and being so close made it easier to get up and ready to beat the queues at opening time. Cactus plants line the walkways but my favourite bit were the luxurious outdoor swimming pools. We enjoyed returning late afternoon for a relaxing dip before heading back to the attractions re-energised (on certain dates the main park stays open until 1am).
Food-wise there's a fantastic variety of good quality and well-priced choices. In the hotel resort you can eat at the vast buffet or for a grander experience try the plush Victorian theatre-style a la carte Restaurante Grand Opera. In PortAventura itself I loved the delicious Mediterranean-inspired food at pretty Raco de Mar. Sitting on its large shady terrace, we shared starters including a carpaccio of beef with rocket and parmesan shavings (12,50€) and what must be the largest mussels ever (11€). Tim and I then went for beautifully-prepared seafood paella at 18,50€ a head while the children had pizzas or pasta (10-12€ each). If you like wine, do try the local Catalonian white Viña Esmeralda which is light and crisp and costs a very reasonable 17€ a bottle.
You'll love the food at Raco de Mar
Elsewhere, the tapas at Vinosfera was mouth-watering and inventive. We shared several plates including tuna marinated in soy sauce, mushroom croquettes and spicy sausage with brie. The children in particular also loved the burgers, ribs and tacos at the old fashioned American-themed Iron Horse. For a quick fix you can grab a hot dog or similar from kiosks throughout the park for around 5€, adding chips and a drink for 4€ more.
If you're able to spend longer than a couple of days you should also visit Caribe Aquatic Park. Harvey and Max rushed straight over to King Khajuna, the tallest water slide in Europe at a whopping 31 metres high. The initial drop is virtually free fall and you end up hurtling down at six metres a second. Daredevils will also want to tick off the 100 metre long Ciclón Tropical next to it.
Racing on the slides at Carive Aquatic Park
All the family had adrenalin-pumping fun on El Torrente, where you're thrown down a twisting chute complete with sudden drops in an inflatable raft. The kids laughed their heads off – I nearly cried. We also enjoyed competing on the six-lane Rapid Race slides, lying on mats face-down, head-first. To recover we seized some giant two-man rubber rings and gently floated our way along the 1.5 km lazy river.
Tim and I left the children to explore the raft of other slides and pools and headed for sun-loungers (there are plenty around) for a doze in the warmth. I'd never realised just how relaxing a theme park break could be.
FAMILY TRIED AND TESTED CHEAT SHEET
When to go: PortAventura World is open from late March until just after New Year.
Where to stay: Two adults and two children can stay at Callaghan's at the Hotel Gold River from £296.30 a night room only, including unlimited access to PortAventura park on all the days you're there plus one day in Ferrari Land. Premium Express passes are also included. They allow you to skip queues on the big attractions and would otherwise cost 53 € each.
What not to miss: Some of the shows are superb - our favourite featured incredible acrobatics. Pick up a park guide at the entrance for times and venues.This also includes a handy map and height restrictions for all the rides.
What to avoid:The park is busiest – and hottest, of course – in July and August so if possible visit outside of these months. Themed decorations, shows and activities at special times of the year such as Easter, Halloween and Christmas add a fun touch.
Top Tip: For ease, take flights to Reus Airport just 15 minutes' drive away. TUI, easyJet, Ryanair, Jet2 and Thomas Cook Airlines fly there from various UK airports. Alternatively Barcelona is just an hour away.