One of the biggest appeals the New Forest has to both locals and visitors is its charming villages. Spend a happy day discovering the delights of Brockenhurst in the heart of the national park, with its pretty streets lined with thatched cottages and delightful shops, and wild ponies and deer roaming in the surrounding pasture land. Despite its peaceful, bucolic feel, Brockenhurst is well served by roads and rail (just an hour and three quarters from London) making it the perfect base for your New Forest holiday.
Burley is another New Forest gem. Less well known than Brockenhurst and Lymington, you should not pass up the opportunity to sample the local cider at the historic Queen's Head on Chapel Lane. Now a comfortable pub with a sprawling outdoor terrace for summer drinking and a cosy fireplace for winter suppers, it was once a favourite hangout for smugglers who hid weapons and booty in a secret cellar.
Driving around the village, you are as likely to give way to a pony as you are a pedestrian. Nowhere will you feel the magical appeal of the New Forest more strongly than in Burley which boasts an impressive history of witchcraft and a fantastic witchcraft inspired gift shop.
Lymington and Yarmouth
Lymington is a thriving Georgian port town overlooking the Solent towards Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight. It is worth visiting at any time of year but is particularly vibrant on Saturday when the local market - which dates back to the 1300s - is held. Lymington is well known and loved by sailing enthusiasts who flock to the town's two sailing clubs. Surrounded by ancient forests and heaths, and full of quirky boutiques and excellent pubs and restaurants, you could easily spend your entire New Forest holiday in Lymington and not get bored, but it would be a shame not to take a day trip to the Isle of Wight which is only thirty minutes by ferry away.
The Isle of Wight is like something from an Enid Blyton book with picturesque villages separated by swathes of rolling countryside and fringed with golden sandy beaches. Regular foot and car ferry services go between Lymington and Yarmouth, so jump aboard and add another memorable dimension to your stay in the New Forest. You will find some of the oldest buildings on the island around Yarmouth including the George Hotel which was once home to Sir Robert Holmes, the man responsible for the capture and punishment of pirates in the late 1600s.
As well as wonderful woods and forests, the New Forest has easy access to great beaches such as Barton-on-Sea. It is the starting point for the Solent Way - a fantastic coastal footpath which rewards walkers with breathtaking views across the water. The town itself is well equipped with shops and cafes where you can rest your feet and enjoy delicious meals made from local Hampshire produce.
Barton Clay is renowned for the number and age of its fossils. There aren't many places where you can decorate your sandcastle with gastropods, sea snails and sharks' teeth that are millions of years old, so take the kids there for a unique bucket-and-spade day out. For the safest fossil hunting, make sure you go at low tide as the beach can almost disappear under water at high tide.
Bucklers Hard graces the bank of the Beaulieu River and makes up part of the Beaulieu Estate. Its name changed from Montagu Town to represent the shipbuilding industry which was so important to Nelson's fleet, producing 43 Royal Naval ships in the 1700s. The village also played a significant role in WWII by being one of the key landing sites for the invasion of Normandy.
The village is now a living museum, and you can get a great feel for what it was like in its heydey by visiting the Maritime Museum, Shipwright's Cottage, and St Mary's Chapel. Stretch your legs by walking the woodland trail, or venture further afield by following the riverside path for two miles to Beaulieu.
While there are many pretty picnic spots in the area, one of the best is Hatchet Pond. It's around a mile from Beaulieu and has a gentle circular two-mile walking path around the pond which you may find yourself sharing with some local ponies. There are toilets and usually an ice-cream van in the summer months. Linking Buckler's Hard to Hatchet Pond via Beaulieu is around a 5-mile walk, though most of it is relatively easy going.