Spending quality time with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins is high on many family wish lists. But with relations spread across the country the only chance for many people to do this is on epic family holidays - preferably in spacious accommodation and well-located so no one grumbles about how far they have to travel.
For our clan that meant a week in the New Forest. Large swathes of countryside for outdoorsy aunts and uncles, not too long in the car for impatient toddlers, and a touch of luxury at the holiday house to keep grandma and grandpa happy.
Taking two small children on a week-long family holiday does not mean you can skimp on luggage. ‘Small’ is not an adjective you want to hear when you’re loading the car boot. We test drove Vauxhall’s New Insignia Sports Tourer, a sizeable estate car which offered lots of room in the back for our stuff. We fitted a bulky double pushchair, three suitcases, a balance bike, high chair, booster seat, toys, books, wellies, boots, coats and a week’s supply of nappies and still managed to hide everything from view under the parcel shelf.
The Bend retreat in the little village of Neacroft was our home for the week - five star accommodation with six double bedrooms, three bathrooms, a 33ft living room, games room with full size table tennis and large garden. Luxurious, but not imposing. The five cousins, aged seven months to six years, made themselves at home as their teddy bears and Duplo bricks gradually crept through the building.We didn’t need to worry about rambunctious toddlers damaging inappropriate decor because The Bend is sensibly practical.
The kitchen was well-equipped too. With a waffle maker, slow cooker, food processors, blenders, two ovens, two fridges and two microwaves it felt like being on the set of the Great British Bake Off. My personal favourite was the bread maker. Paul Hollywood might not have approved, but we certainly enjoyed freshly baked bread for zero effort.
Walking & cycling
The New Forest is something of a misnomer - it’s not new, and it’s not really a forest. William the Conqueror granted it royal forest status in about 1079, giving him hunting rights over the land. The unenclosed pastureland and wild open heathland has altered very little since.
We found some child-friendly walking routes right on our doorstep in the southwest corner of the New Forest. The terrain is not too demanding, with few steep hills for little legs. Our two-and-a-half year old was thrilled to make friends with the New Forest ponies that roam free. There are around 3,000 living in the forest and we enjoyed games of ‘spot the horse’. Cycling is big in the forest too - good for families looking for safe off-road cycle routes. We zipped along paths gentle enough for our toddler’s balance bike and saw some other quite young children on ‘real’ bikes with pedals. It was a great mountain biking experience for little ones who wouldn’t normally be big enough to tackle off-road trails.
Places to go
We spent an afternoon in the New Forest Centre in Lyndhurst. The museum offered an introduction to New Forest ‘newbies’ like us, with its exhibitions on the history of the area. There was also a dressing up corner, a book nook full of New Forest-themed stories, and crayons and colouring sheets. We all enjoyed Poo Corner, with its life-size Poo bear models and 'match the animal' game.
Our car-mad six-year-old was excited to visit the Beaulieu National Motor Museum, which is packed to the rafters with more than 250 historic cars and motorcycles.We loved riding the mile-long monorail, which winds its way through the grounds - even through the museum roofspace - and offers a bird’s eye view of what’s on offer: museum, palace, abbey, gardens, go-karts, a motor-themed playground...
Peace and tranquility of a different sort was on offer just three miles from our holiday house - the beach. I was pleased with my decision to hire a beach hut for the week in Boscombe, east of Bournemouth. On day one we deposited our car-load: beach towels, spare clothes, nappies, kettle, teabags, coffee, biscuits, footballs, kites... Then we got the gas stove fired up, put out the deckchairs and settled down for a very civilised afternoon cuppa as we watched the children close by. It was a cosy way to enjoy the blustery beach off-season and definitely worth the £36-a-week price tag when you factor in how many brews were made free of charge compared with shop-bought refreshments!
What to eat
Large family gatherings inevitably mean mass catering events and we decided to delegate on a spectacular scale... bringing in the services of a local catering company for a Sunday roast. Let Us Cater is run by Teresa and Garry Elcock, a local Christchurch couple who promise a ‘Rolls Royce’ service to hungry clients. Food packages include family meals delivered to self-catering properties ready to pop in the oven or more hands-on dinner parties prepared and delivered, then served in your home.
We felt very spoiled arriving home from a walk in the woods and embarking on plates of delicious canapes before we tucked into a fabulous roast pork dinner, huge platters of vegetables and roast potatoes and then a substantial range of intricate desserts. All the grown ups were thoroughly impressed and it was a very child-friendly option too. The children could happily play with their toys away from the table up until the moment the food was ready so they weren’t waiting impatiently. And at home they could nip to the loo in between courses without an escort, and we weren’t worried about noise levels or upsetting other diners.
It made a really pleasant change for all the adults to languish at the table and savour dessert. That’s what a holiday needs to be about: enjoying every last mouthful.
Prices at The Bend start from £980 for short breaks, Monday to Friday. The accommodation sleeps 12 and can be booked through Premier Cottages.
Vauxhall’s New Insignia Elite Nav 2.0CDTi 16v (163PS) ecoFLEX Start/Stop costs £25,689 on the road. Admission to the museum at the New Forest Centre in Lyndhurst costs £4 and children under 16 are freeA family ticket to Beaulieu costs £55 for two adults and three children and covers admission to the National Motor Museum, Bond In Motion, Palace House and Gardens, Beaulieu Abbey and World of Top Gear.
A beach hut on Bournemouth seafront costs £36 per week in winter.
Let Us Cater can deliver a four-course dinner party to your holiday home from £18.50 per head.
For more UK travel ideas see...
Family adventures on the Isle of Wight Visit this wild and windswept isle for a series of exciting challenges
The best beaches for children in Britain The unflattering image of a grubby British seaside is now a thing of the past
The best places in the UK for royalty fans Discover the shining jewels of her Majesty's dominion, from majestic mountains to ancient woodlands and sandy beaches