The school holidays – it's a tricky time for parents. Managing your children's boredom levels while adhering to a budget is no mean feat. But enjoying some quality family time together doesn't have to mean travelling abroad; the UK has an abundance of beautiful areas that make for perfect getaways. The New Forest is one such location. It stretches over 193,000 acres, including 40 miles of beautiful coastline, and is perfect for families looking for an outdoor adventure.
For my five-year-old son, the excitement began as soon as we started to drive through the heathland on the morning of our arrival. The New Forest is home to some 5,000 ponies, not to mention pigs, cattle and sheep, and the chance to see these animals brazenly lying in the road, or running along next to us, provided a tantalising first taste of forest life.
A lot of people choose to camp in the New Forest, and there's an array of picturesque sites and picnic spots to cater to those families. I'm less of a camping enthusiast (!) and so we checked into the 4-star Balmer Lawn Hotel and Spa for a two-night stay. A former hunting lodge, it has a rich heritage and history – and more importantly, at least for my son, two swimming pools. Located just 90 minutes from Waterloo, the 54-room Balmer Lawn Hotel is perfectly situated, with direct access to the forest for walks or bike rides, a Nordic spa, an all-weather tennis court and a squash court. It is dog and child-friendly too, and the staff are always on hand to help with any enquiries. The hotel also houses the award-winning Beresford's Restaurant – and dinner there is a must! Double rooms at the hotel start from £139 a night, while family rooms are priced at £249. Go to www.balmerlawnhotel.com for more details.
For those who prefer the flexibility of self-catering but also enjoy sleeping in a bed (!), there's also New Forest Cottages, which has over 130 properties in the New Forest to suit every taste and budget. Check out www.newforestcottages.co.uk for more details.
On day one of our stay, we fully embraced the New Forest experience by signing up with outdoor activity specialist New Forest Activities. First up – a 90 minute canoe tour. Needless to say, this was a new one on me – and my son – but we absolutely loved it. We received such a warm welcome from the instructors on the day – thank you Jake, Callum and Steve – before heading out in a three-seat canoe on the privately-owned Beaulieu Estate. It's such a beautiful river setting, and the guides were able to point out local wildlife – we even saw jellyfish! – and other points of interest, including some seriously impressive houses. The 90 minutes flew by, which is a real testament to how much we enjoyed the excursion. Go to www.newforestactivites.co.uk for more details.
Next up, a 90 minute bike ride. Armed with a map, we set off from the beautiful Beaulieu village headed for Buckler's Hard, a hamlet situated on the banks of the river. The bike ride itself was really enjoyable – although it should be noted I wasn't the one riding in tandem with a five-year-old – and we sat down for an ice cream break in the sunshine before cycling the same route back. Buckler's Hard itself is steeped in history, having served as an 18 century shipbuilding village where ships for Nelson's Navy – including HMS Agamemnon – were built. Definitely worth a visit. The river tours, cycling and outdoor activities are available all year round.
We had just one mission on day two - to ride the rollercoasters at Paultons Park (www.paultonspark.co.uk). It was only a short drive from our hotel, around 20 minutes, so we arrived just after the park opened. It was our second visit; the first trip in 2015 had been all about Peppa Pig world (coincidentally, also the scene of my son's most epic meltdown to date), but this time it was the 'Lost Kingdom' that was top of his hit list. Paultons Park has something for everyone; the little ones love Peppa Pig, while for school children there are plenty of age-appropriate rides to try out, not to mention bumper cars, trampolines and play areas. And so, six hours after our arrival, we made our way back to the hotel, one very tired little boy fast asleep in the back seat.