The New Forest is famous for its wild ponies, wildlife and ancient trees, but it also has a thriving restaurant scene and some fantastic local producers – perfect for a weekend getaway!
This stunning national park has the highest concentration of heathland and ancient trees in Western Europe, and here, in 220 square miles, animals are free to roam and wander. There are over 9,000 native ponies, donkeys, cattle, pigs and sheep pootling around the forest and its chocolate box villages – the cheeky ones peering over cottage gates and through shop doorways, in the hope of a carrot or two. Spring breaks are particularly magical in the forest with beautiful blue bells and stunning colours filling the woodland floor.
WHERE TO STAY…
Balmer Lawn Hotel balmerlawnhotel.co.uk is a four-star former hunting lodge, recently refurbished, right in the middle of the forest. A perfect bolt hole if you want to leave the car at home, as it’s only a 10-minute walk to the mainline train station at Brockenhurst. The Balmer Lawn has a spa, two pools, tennis and squash courts, plus walks and cycle trails, and is home to the Beresford’s Restaurant – which serves up wonderful local food and supplies fresh from the kitchen garden and was recently awarded a second AA Rosette. Chef Chris Wheeldon has created an impressive fine dining menu in a welcoming and friendly dining room, with friendly and knowledgable staff always on hand. The New Forest venison is delicious, as is the ash rolled beef, served with garlic and thyme potatoes, kohl rabi, wilted greens and cherry tomatoes. The banana, peanut and white chocolate bread and butter pudding with salted caramel ice-cream tastes as good as it sounds, and there is an excellent selection of local cheeses too.
If you prefer to self-cater newforestcottages.co.uk has a portfolio of over 130 properties in the New Forest and along the region’s coastline sleeping 2–15 people. Many cottages have ponies grazing outside the window, direct forest access and opportunities for star spotting in the inky black skies. Beck Cottage, which sleeps 12 is a period thatched cottage in pretty Woodgreen. The village has an award-winning community shop, great pub and forest walks from your doorstep.
WHERE TO EAT…
Keats restaurant keatsrestaurant.co.uk is an Italian inspired bistro in the north of the forest near Romsey with ever changing seasonal menus. Chef proprietor Martin Aslin both cooks and welcomes guests, working in the kitchen on some nights and hosting at front of house on others. It serves excellent seafood and pasta dishes in a relaxed atmosphere. Diners will always find a selection of succulent meat, treats from the grill, enticing vegetarian dishes, vibrant fresh fish and a scrumptious array of desserts. There’s also a nod to the restaurant’s 40-year heritage as an Italian eatery, with a repertoire of heavenly home-made pasta dishes. Try the linguine al nero with scallops, mussels, clams, prawns and a lobster sauce. Or try pannage pork, a local speciality from pigs allowed to roam free and feast on acorns from the forest floor.
A half hour drive away is the maritime cruise ship city of Southampton if you fancy a bit of metropolitan charm to break up the rural scenery. Head to the old town and The Olive Tree on Oxford Street olivetree.co.uk where new chef Todd Higgs is introducing a local menu with an emphasis on excellent ingredients served simply. Higgs has recently returned to his home city after many years in London refining his skills at restaurants including Corrigan’s in Mayfair and 10 Greek Street in Soho.
WHAT TO DO…
To see the beauty of the forest from the water, jump aboard a canoe or kayak for an escorted 2-hour tour of the privately owned Beaulieu River. It costs £32 per person and family tickets are available from newforestactivities.co.uk
The same firm also offers bike hire, which is the perfect Sunday morning activity after a leisurely breakfast. The New Forest has over 130 miles of trails through the forest, with a choice of mapped cycle routes. Child seats, tag-a-longs and trailers are all available and there are plenty of places to stop and admire the ponies and pigs.
Stop by Setley Ridge vineyard and winery, which also has an excellent farm shop where you can stock up for a delicious picnic. It’s bursting with local produce from The New Forest, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. Try the excellent bread and home-made pate, and stock up on award-winning local cheeses from Lyburn and Loosehanger, and local handmade chocolates, biscotti, and fresh cream fudge.
If magnificent architecture is your thing, head to highcliffecastle.co.uk which overlooks Christchurch Bay, and appears in the popular ITV’s television series Mr Selfridge. The castle was home to the famous retailer Harry Selfridge and family and is one of the best examples of 18th and 19th century Romantic architecture.