While the New Forest might be known for ponies, it’s a certain celebrity pig that’s pulling in the younger crowds, as Richard Mulligan discovers.
Deep in the forest, the sense of excitement was palpable – and it wasn’t the thought of ambling through the trees and exploring the playground of ancient kings of England.
The wide eyes, wonder and waves of irrepressible anticipation breaking across the breakfast table pointed us in only one direction. These days, for four-year-olds at least, it’s all about Peppa Pig.
Young Peppa had always seemed rather flat to me – the cartoon itself doesn’t even attempt three dimensions. However, all that changes at Peppa Pig World where, a few times a day, lucky kids are actually able to meet, cuddle and chat with their porcine hero – or, at least, a 6ft version of the cartoon character.
Set in 140 acres on the edge of the New Forest National Park near Southampton, it is the undisputed and rapidly-acclaimed Daddy Pig of UK theme parks for young children, and perfect for my four-year-old Isabel and two-year-old Charlie.
There are no age restrictions on the seven magical rides on offer. Isabel and Charlie have a great time, twirling around in the sky on Peppa’s Big Balloon Ride and Windy Castle, and hopping onto mini cars, tractors and dinosaurs, and the park is spotlessly clean.
There are also some really good outdoor play facilities, plus an indoor soft play area, for when the skies cloud over.
We made our visit to Peppa Pig World during a short break in the fabulous – and fabulously named – Sandy Balls, in Hampshire’s New Forest.
Stop sniggering at the back. The resort’s name actually references Sandyballas, after the local area was handed that moniker some 600 years ago due to its dome-shaped sand outcrops.
While it might sound like something from a Carry On film, you’ll be surprised – Sandy Balls is well and truly in the 21st century. It’s a great, safe, place to stay for families seeking relaxation and adventure.
There are lots of outdoor activities on offer, including horse riding, climbing and archery, besides the usual football and rounders, as well as some great walking routes, which we sampled with our dog, Bob (canine friends are very welcome at Sandy Balls).
We’re keen to try canoeing, but are concerned that it’s not suitable for a toddler.
However, guides Tom and James at New Forest Activities, assure us he’ll be fine, so we enrol on a two-hour trip to Beaulieu River Nature Reserve.
We’re kitted out with life jackets and a guide accompanies us in each of our two boats.
Charlie has no qualms clambering in with me and sits happily at my feet as we bob along, before drifting asleep as I row.
Later on, back at Sandy Balls, we take a dip in the leisure club’s indoor pool. Isabel puts her swimming lessons to use in the big pool, while Charlie splashes around in one of the heated mini pools.
Meanwhile, my wife Lynne takes the opportunity to sneak off for a pampering session at the Leisure Club’s Spa. After a luxurious hot stone massage, she returns to our timber cabin looking relaxed and revived.
While Sandy Balls also caters for caravans and camping, we’re staying in the plush Sycamore Lodge.
Boasting a big widescreen TV, wall-mounted fire, comfy sofas and a whirlpool bath, it’s just the ticket after a gruelling day of outdoor pursuits.
As well as two generous bedrooms and a large open-plan living room and kitchen, we also have our own large enclosed decking area with barbecue and seating.
Although we packed for a self-catering holiday, it should be noted that the resort’s supermarket is reasonably priced and the on-site restaurants are excellent.
Pizza In The Piazza is as child-friendly as they come, with the customary crayons for the kids and an area where restless little ones can watch a film between courses.
While Isabel and Charlie tucked into pizzas, Lynne and I enjoy salmon and a delicious rib-eye steak.
The Woodside Inn puts on a cracking fried breakfast, too.
This is also where Sandy Balls’ on-site evening entertainment takes place, with quizzes and music available as well as decent ales for the adults and traditional pub grub.
Although you could happily while away your New Forest stay-cation at Sandy Balls, I recommend spending some quality time out in the fresh air and beauty of one of England’s most picturesque areas.
This was our first trip to the New Forest and we were amazed by the solitude and tranquillity of the area. The wild ponies grazing at the roadsides, and pigs and cows dotted around the place, add to the ambience.
For family days out, The National Motor Museum at Beaulieu Gardens houses a stunning collection of vintage, modern cars and Formula 1 machines.
Exbury Gardens, nearby, is also worth a visit – not least for the 20-minute steam railway ride which includes bridges and tunnels that will impress the youngsters.
Longdown Activity Farm is great fun, too, where after enjoying our lunch, we were able to give the goats theirs. Although there’s plenty to learn and cute animals to meet, those seeking rough and tumble will enjoy the mini tractors and trucks and trampolines.
At the end of our stay, we return home with heads full of happy memories. An all-round winner for anybody looking for an action-packed family break in the UK.
Richard Mulligan was a guest of the New Forest Tourism Association. For full details of where to stay, what to do and see in the New Forest log on to their website www.thenewforest.co.uk or call the Visitor Information Centre on 0238 028 2269.
Richard stayed at Sandy Balls Holiday Centre, where midweek four-night breaks in 2012 for four in a pine lodge start at £149 with weekend three-night stays from £199, including use of communal facilities.
Sandy Balls reservations: 0844 693 1050 or www.sandyballs.co.uk
Details of Paultons Family Theme Park at www.paultonpark.co.uk