THE Christmas countdown has commenced, the decorations are up (well, in shopping centres) and if you haven’t already started buying gifts, now is the time.

The temptation for many will be to do all gift shopping online. It’s easy, I get it. You can sit at home on your sofa with a cup of tea in one hand, scrolling through Amazon on your phone with the other, mindlessly adding items to your cart which will effortlessly arrive at your door a short time later.

Basingstoke Gazette: Christmas has arrived in Festival PlaceBut if we stop visiting our high streets and shopping centres, we will lose them for good. There is plenty of evidence showing they are already in decline. The multiple empty units in Basingstoke along with the retailers that have been forced to close this year are a sad reminder of this.

Christmas officially arrived in Basingstoke’s shopping centre Festival Place on Saturday, November 18, so I headed there to see what is on offer to tempt potential customers away from their homes.

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Festival Place has pulled out all the stops this year to attract people in. The official launch was full of fun with various acts roaming the centre to entertain shoppers, a free craft room for the kids, a Santa’s Grotto, and an uplifting and joyous performance from the fabulous Basingstoke Rock Choir.

Basingstoke Gazette: Rock Choir entertain the crowdsAccompanied by my six-year-old son, we certainly had a fun day out. However, the free fun isn’t just for one day. Festival Place will have festive characters inspired by the 12 Days of Christmas visiting every weekend in the run-up to Christmas.

The craft room is also open every Saturday between 11am and 4pm, with Christmas-themed crafts for little ones to enjoy. And the 12 Days of Christmas Trail is a permanent festive feature, offering youngsters the chance to pick up a map and follow it around Festival Place to find all 12 hidden clues, with the letters spelling out a musical word.

In the upper level of the centre, the train has been given a festive makeover offering rides around the shopping centre for £3 a go, or £10 for four people, running every day until Christmas Eve.

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My son thoroughly enjoyed waving to shoppers as we sat on board and chugged past the shops in a loop past Iceland.

Basingstoke Gazette: The Festive Express

Next stop was Santa’s Grotto, where a delightfully jolly Santa chatted to my son before posing for a photo. The grotto is beautifully decorated with snow, cute reindeer, fluffy polar bears and twinkling lights, with elves on the door to meet and greet families.

Children are invited to choose their own toy from a sack full of gifts. Despite my son’s lengthy decision making and a last-minute change of mind, Santa was, of course, very patient and we didn’t feel rushed.

The festive offerings in the shopping centre are a great compromise for busy parents hoping to buy some gifts with kids in tow. It’s not always easy browsing the shops accompanied by children but breaking up a shopping trip with a ride on the train or a visit to the free craft room keeps everyone happy.

My son loved the craft room where there were instructions and materials laid out on mini wooden picnic benches for children to make bird headdresses. However, he decided to do his own thing and happily spent 45 minutes creating a Christmas-themed book.

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After a fun and busy morning, including my son having his face painted as an elf, we headed to Las Iguanas for lunch. Festival Place has a whole range of options when it comes to food and drink with a good selection of restaurants offering cuisine from around the world. There are also numerous coffee shops dotted inside, making it easy to stop for a drink.

The restaurant was busy being a Saturday, but we were served quickly, choosing a couple of delicious tapas dishes of prawns and calamari to share for a starter followed by a sizzling mushroom fajita stack for me and chicken burger with curly fries for my son, who happily demolished the lot.

He even had space for a chocolate brownie with ice cream, which our waitress delivered to the table with a lit candle to celebrate my son’s seventh birthday. I enjoyed a Brazilian-style coconut pannacotta accompanied by delightfully refreshing Tea Joy strawberry popping boba and a sticky pineapple compote.

Four hours after arriving in Festival Place, we headed home feeling festive and fulfilled. So, while you might be inclined to stay put to do your gift shopping this year, you won't have as much fun. Honestly, you can’t get yourself more in the Christmas spirit than browsing shops with the crowds and treating yourself to lunch out.