Recently voted Europe’s best national park, the New Forest is one of the UK’s most magical realms, with ancient woodlands and heaths grazed by ponies, plus some of England’s loveliest villages, inns and hotels. Here’s how to plan an unforgettable forest foray…
Why go to the New Forest?
Despite its name, Hampshire’s New Forest is almost 1,000 years old: William The Conqueror sequestered the ‘Nova Foresta’ as a royal hunting ground in 1079. It’s now a national park, home to heaths, salt marshes and old-growth woodlands and, famously, roamed by beautiful New Forest ponies.
It’s a vast area, covering 219 square miles (567sq km) between Southampton and Bournemouth, with more than 40 miles (64km) of coastline offering views across the Solent to the Isle of Wight.
So, there’s quite a lot to explore, which is probably why it was named the number one national park in Europe, according to the 2022 TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice Awards. Follow nature trails and learn about native wildlife from badgers to bats; stay in former hunting lodges that have been transformed into gorgeous country hotels; and potter down pretty village high streets lined with boutiques, cosy cafés and craft shops.
Where to stay: New Forest camping, hotels and more
You’ll find pretty much every type of accommodation in the New Forest, from camping and self-catering cottages to high-end luxury hotels.
Cast aside your holiday-park preconceptions: New Forest favourite Sandy Balls has much that’s marvellously memorable (aside from its name). Nestled in a pine forest near the small town of Fordingbridge, it offers classic caravan accommodation plus a range of self-catering cabins with private decks, hot tubs and forest views.
Sleeping eight to 10, the Indulgent Lodges are ideal for multigenerational escapes, with large kitchens and dining rooms. The Esme (pictured above) is perfect for couples or smaller families, with two bedrooms, Scandi furniture and wonderfully retro tropical décor.
Once a favourite hunting lodge of King Charles II, New Park Manor – between the villages of Brockenhurst and Lyndhurst – has a country club feel with a café and luxurious Elemis spa, which includes an adults-only hot tub on a terrace with sofas and forest views.
New Park Manor Hotel/Facebook
It’s the perfect place for families in the New Forest, with daily supervised time in the kids’ club included, nightly film screenings, a football pitch and swimming pool. Add to that some of the cosiest, country-style rooms in the forest and two excellent, regionally-focused restaurants and you have a perfect base.
Nearby Bartley Lodge is another classic country house hotel in an 18th-century building that was the childhood home of eminent geologist (and friend of Charles Darwin) Sir Charles Lyell. Letters and memorabilia from both men are displayed in the bar, while the 40-room hotel remains suitably homely with open fires, comfy sofas and an AA Rosette-awarded restaurant serving contemporary British dishes made with sustainable, local produce.
READ MORE: Unusual places to stay in the UK
If you want to really explore the New Forest, camper rental company Yescapa has a range of campervans and motorhomes in the area. Wild camping isn’t permitted but there are some lovely campsites, and this is a great option if you fancy combining long, lazy days at the beach with hiking through the forest and visiting the area’s cute villages.
Or, for something completely different, hop aboard one of Fairview Sailing’s charter yachts from their base in Hamble and journey along the Beaulieu River, or set sail along the coast on the Solent.
Whether you’re a beginner or a salty sea dog, Fairview can match you with a suitable vessel – or you can join a skippered yacht and learn as you go. Look out for the ice cream boat that plies its trade along the river in summer.
Where to eat: New Forest pubs, restaurants and more
There’s a real community spirit in the New Forest and it’s palpable in the region’s restaurants, country inns, tea rooms, breweries, farmers’ markets and food festivals, which strive to promote sustainable, local produce and makers.
Championing seasonal and locally-sourced food is the ethos at The Drift, a gorgeously rustic dog-friendly pub and restaurant between Beaulieu and Lyndhurst. Ponies and donkeys roam the surrounding heathland while inside it’s all roaring fires, innovative takes on pub classics and drinks from local breweries and wineries.
We recommend going on a very long walk before heading to The Huntsman of Brockenhurst for a Sunday roast, because it serves truly belt-busting feasts. The mushroom and Camembert Wellington is an epic vegetarian option, served with all the trimmings plus unusual sides like charred hispi cabbage and cauliflower and mature Cheddar rarebit.
The Huntsman of Brockenhurst
The stylish pub with rooms also has a large garden with fire pits and pergolas where you can relax with a craft beer, wine or seasonal cocktail.
READ MORE: Our guide to the Lake District
Also in Brockenhurst, Balmer Lawn Hotel & Spa is a New Forest icon: a grande dame from the 1800s, surrounded by lawns used for cricket and seasonal festivals, and grounds grazed by ponies. This is the place for afternoon tea which is served on charmingly mismatched china and pretty cake stands.
Expect elegant finger sandwiches, scones and an array of cakes and cream-filled pastries. Don’t miss the fascinating memorabilia in the hall, which details the role of the hotel as an army hospital and Canadian infantry HQ during the Second World War.
If you’re planning on exploring the forest for the day, or heading to one of the many beautiful beaches along the coast for a walk or a swim, pre-order a feast from Noohn in the cute – and notoriously witchy – village of Burley. The eco-friendly picnic bags include sandwiches, crisps, dips and brownies, with vegetarian, vegan and kids’ options.
The best things to do in the New Forest
1. Hone your archery skills
New Forest Activities can make all your archery dreams come true with lessons in the heart of the New Forest for adults and children over eight. Whatever your experience level, you’ll soon be handling your bow and hitting the target like a pro thanks to expert tuition and the chance to take part in fun challenges with other members of the group.
The company also offers rope adventures, bushcraft workshops, BattleZone laser tag games and canoeing and kayaking on the Beaulieu River, an important habitat for birds.
2. Explore one of the world’s best motor museums
You’ll find one of the world’s biggest and best collections of cars, motorcycles and motoring memorabilia at Beaulieu’s National Motor Museum, set in the vast grounds of Palace House.
Explore the gardens, abbey ruins and historic house (home to the Montagu family since 1538), take a ride on England’s oldest monorail, then head to the museum to see 285 vehicles dating from 1875, including Land Speed Record legend the Bluebird CN7, a stunning Rolls-Royce Phantom II and the eponymous car from classic 1968 film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (pictured above).
The Bond in Motion – No Time To Die exhibition, on until November 2022, displays gadgets, costumes and nine vehicles from the movies.
3. Take a chocolate workshop
What could possibly be better than making your own, delicious chocolate truffles in a gorgeous Georgian hotel in the New Forest? Eating them, perhaps. The New Forest Chocolate Company has workshops with its founder, astounding chocolatier Maya Palmer, in the lush surroundings of Lyndhurst’s Forest Lodge hotel.
Learn about different types of cacao and the chocolate-making process, then make, fill and decorate your own truffles. Maya is an excellent teacher, especially as she encourages eating in class. You can take home anything you make that isn’t devoured on the day.
4. Go wild for rewilding
Nature and adventure retreat company The Wild Times offers the opportunity to ‘rewild yourself’ with weekend escapes in a secluded country house in the forest.
Founder, yoga teacher and stand-up paddle board (SUP) instructor Jenny Clark leads daily vinyasa, yin and meditation sessions in the studio at the house in Tiptoe, while wild swimming and SUP lessons take place at the company’s beach hut HQ in Milford-on-Sea.
The Wild Times
The retreats offer guests the opportunity to reconnect with nature and themselves, learn about the benefits of rewilding our landscapes and enjoy some delicious home-cooked vegetarian meals.
READ MORE: What to see and do in Exmoor National Park
Getting to the New Forest
The New Forest is around a two-hour drive from London, and the nearest international airports are Bournemouth, Southampton and Heathrow. South Western Railway has trains from London Waterloo, Basingstoke, Winchester, Southampton, Bournemouth, Poole and Weymouth, while National Express coaches run from London Victoria and Heathrow to Lyndhurst, Lymington and Ringwood.
Yellow Buses has introduced Buster’s New Forest Explorer sightseeing bus, which runs between Christchurch, Highcliffe, Bransgore, Burley and Ringwood in the summer.
The Go New Forest Card has money-saving offers on attractions, accommodation, dining and services.
Main photo: Helen Hotson/Shutterstock
Use this map to explore all of our favourite spots in the New Forest: