Written by Eva Howlings
When I started planning our weekend in Liberec I thought we’d stay at Hotel Ještěd, that spectacular looking cone atop Ještěd hill, and do a bit of hiking around with our two small children. As it happened, they didn’t have rooms, so I got us one at the Babylon center instead. Once we pulled into their parking lot, we didn’t leave the building for three days!
The brochure for Babylon center claims it is the largest indoor entertainment complex in the Czech Republic. If you have children of any age, it is a great way to spend a weekend together, doing all kinds of activities. With two small kids to think about, it’s brilliant to not have the stress of driving, getting lost, finding places to eat, nurse, etc. and still manage to keep the kids amused. After a several hour-long drive, you arrive at the center, find the lift to the hotel reception, check in and then that’s the end of driving or figuring out what to do for three days. You are given two key cards that double as entry tickets to the three most popular attractions at the center: Aquapark, the new iQ science center and the Lunapark.
There are three hotels in the complex – Classic, Family and Wellness. The Wellness hotel includes entry to the Wellness center, which is modeled after ancient communal baths. There is a Turkish Hamam, a Roman steamroom and some new-age things – like the oxygen and light meditation room. Our pass didn’t include entry to this, and that’s just as well, since my kids won’t spend five minutes in a steam room or sauna, let alone half an hour in a salt-iodine inhalation chamber. I’m sure if you’re an adult in need of some rejuvenation it’s very nice.
We woke up to a breakfast that was “better than average” (compared to other Czech hotels not of the 5-star variety). The usual bread, cheese and cold cuts were there, plus sausages, scrambled eggs, and some mysterious looking salads, heavy on the mayo. As is often the case, breakfast boiled down to muesli-granola and yogurt. There was a lot of fruit, which is good, but I’m not sure what the excuse was for all those green bananas. I imagine the selection and quality of fresh produce is even worse in winter, so all things considered, we were lucky. It’s not the Hilton, after all; there will be no waffles.
After breakfast we made for Aquapark – though it was slow going with a 2-year old who had to stop and examine every coin-operated ride, arcade game and balloon vendor on the way. I had to keep reminding her that where we were trying to get to was even more fun. After a quick change in the family style locker rooms (with private dressing rooms for those who want) and the obligatory pre-pool shower, we drove our double-stroller right through the foot pool to the other side and then her eyes popped right out of her head.
The first room has a large pool with a fountain island in the middle, and off to the left is a waterfall you pass through to get the cave chambers. These have different colored underwater lights and tanks of tropical fish. Had this had been all there was to it, she still would still have been thrilled. As you come out the back, you can go down three cascading slides (nothing scary – they empty into shallow pools) and then you’re in the big pool again. Steps lead to a hot tub that seats about 12. Back in the pool there are water-jet benches for relaxing and massage – none of which hold any attraction for a toddler.
You swim through the connecting canal to the other pool, where there’s a circular current “wild river” thing that’s lots of fun, and a wave chamber that – when used properly by big people – is a bit too much for a wee one. There’s a slide you can go down with your kids, either sit with them on your lap or hold hands. An igloo-looking structure, a rope to hang from and of course the water slides. There are four of these – but they’re only allowed for 10 years of age and over, so I waited till the kids were with Papa to try them.
The slides were oodles of fun. Three of them were easy – nothing a child couldn’t handle, as long as they can swim and hold their breath. Then there’s a more extreme slide called the “Tornado” which goes steeply, then shoots you into a funnel where you go round and round until you finally dump into the 2 meter deep water below. After watching many people come out – and hearing them hit their heads on the plastic – I gave it a miss.
The next pool over is a shallow one just for kiddies, with some underwater fountains, a “live tile” wall that had a moving, 3-D effect (if you looked very closely), some wall fountains, a couple of concrete bicycles (no one was quite sure how to have fun with those) and two tiny slides. And a piece of soggy poop off to the side. I’m sure this isn’t a regular feature – but it’s interesting that no one rushed over to clean it up – it got to sit there all afternoon. Other than the obvious lack of designated cleaners, the staff was friendly and capable. The lifeguards were very vigilant, forever blowing their whistles and reprimanding guests for going down the slides together or head first
Most people followed regulations and still had lots of fun. I’m just glad there was no rule against using floatation devices in the water. Otherwise we’d have been swimming around with our kids at our peril and theirs. Then again, I didn’t actually read the rules – though I commend them on posting them in every relevant language, including English. In fact, almost all the important signs throughout the complex were posted in Czech first, and English second, so “Good job, Babylon!” Not that I noticed any other English speakers during our stay. Mostly there were Czechs, Germans, Poles and some Russians. And Danes! The center gets a lot of tourists from Denmark; some of them don’t even visit Prague, preferring to spend their time in Liberec. And while Liberec has a lovely Zoo and gardens, they all come here for Babylon.
Above the main hall is a snack terrace, with a pool of fountains for children. And next to the biggest hot-tub Jacuzzi pool ever built, is an elevator to the outdoor sun deck, with an Astroturf play area with cheap plastic playthings. Two small above ground pools are filled with water much colder compared to the 30° C pools indoors. We stayed just long enough to take in the impressive views of the surrounding hills – erm, mountains.
Stairs lead to the top area with another snack stand and the Auyerveda Center, where you can have an hour long massage for just under 500.-. There is also the “Afrikana Sauna Club” where you pay to sit in saunas (and I assume this means you can be naked). But why bother when the sauna right downstairs is free and very nice? There’s a shower “grotto” next to that and a plunge pool still in the cave theme – painted white to appear more arctic. If I didn’t have these kids, I’d have been spending a lot more time there.
The shop nextdoor sells swimsuits, goggles and floaties, so we picked up a pair of water wings for the daughter. The baby, just 4 months old, was safe and happy in his baby-float that we brought along. It was priceless, just seeing his fat little face bobbing around and looking at all the smiling people who swam by, often times smiling back at them and their cries of “aww – roztomily!” or “ein baby!” or some Russian equivalent. Ours was the youngest baby there, but it’s the perfect place to bring an infant. Where else can you have fun with a baby and their older sibling at the same time?
Waterlogged to our bones we decided to leave. Suddenly – the daughter throws her first full-blown tantrum. It’s nice to know she enjoyed herself! She didn’t quite believe we were staying in the building and would be back later. She wouldn’t stop crying “Fwimming Pool!” and only promises of Bouncy Castle would appease her. So it was off the Lunapark and more fun. The hotel card got us in free, and once inside the rides were all free. All the rides are meant for smaller children, and even on a weekend there were no lines. She had the carousel all to herself, in fact. Not that this is necessarily more fun. But it was great to not have to say “You’re too little to go on that ride.” The coffee, sadly, was not great.
Off we went, to find a proper lunch and iced coffee. The Mexican place looked good, but was only open for dinner. The King’s Garden was full of people smoking, there was a self-serve canteen we didn’t go in, and an all-you-can-eat buffet which we chose, mainly because it was empty and therefore no smoke. The food was typical Czech hotel buffet food, the limitless ice cream making it better a special treat.
We tried the Mexican place for dinner but it was small and there were smokers so we left for “Luxor” the upscale restaurant, just for the fact they had a salonka where we would be the only ones. So we had a white table service and candelabra dinner in a private room, just so the kids didn’t have to inhale. And this in a family entertainment complex. Hmmm. I’d be upset as well if I were a guest at the Wellness hotel, paying for restorative treatments all day and for my dinner had to go inhale other people´s cigarettes and eat greasy meat and potatoes. Mind you, the food at Luxor was quite OK. But only just OK.
The other attraction included with our room, the iQ Science Park, was well worth the visit. It was nowhere near the quality of, say the Exploratorium or the Boston Science Museum, but we weren’t expecting that anyway, so we were quite pleased with the interactive water displays, optical illusions, bubble making exhibit, and the light effect room. There is no other learning center like it in the country, so if you live here, you pretty much have to go and have fun (and try not to notice the displays that aren’t working that day). Most of the signs explaining the exhibits are written in Czech AND English, so that alone is worth a trip.
Not included in the iQ center, and costing 80 CZK, but definitely worth a visit, was the Labyrinth. Billed as the biggest labyrinth in Europe, it’s more like three mazes next to each other: blacklight, crystal, and a haunted house with spooky church bells and screaming. I skipped that one… not because I’m scared, but because I was carrying the baby in a front-carrier, and any mirrors or people I walked into, meant he got hit in the face.
Other goodies, from our kid’s point of view: the fish fountain in the hotel lobby, the kids’ play room with a slide and “pool of balls”, (though you can’t really be a pool of balls if the balls are just rolling around on the floor). And she loved the atriums. One had lots of turtles lounging on logs and swimming around, and three gorgeous Thai carved wood houses. The other atrium, “Snake Temple”, had snakes, an iguana and some bunnies in a temple-of-doom style terrarium. That, and the fact you walked through the mouth of a giant stone face to get out, made the whole “Babylonian” decorating scheme more authentic. It could easily have been too tacky. But for a family hotel with a historical intrigue angle, they did a great job.
Notes: When I tried to book a room online the system told me no rooms were available, but then I called and got a room right away. It didn’t seem to me like the hotel was even close to reaching its 1000 bed capacity. So be careful when booking online. A double bed means two single beds pushed together – so it’s not ideal for sleeping with a kid between you. Just a shower, not a bath, so a bit harder to wash kids. Baby crib was free and came with nice linen. Rooms are not “family rooms” in the sense of being bigger, child-proofed or having a potty or step stool. Checkout is 11:00 but they let us stay till 12:00 and they let us hang on to our keycards after that, so we could enjoy the facilities all day. When we finally turned our cards in at 5 pm, we had lost one of them – and they didn’t give us a hard time about it. Parking is 100 CZK a day for hotel guests.