From the Magic Faraway Tree to Grimm's fairy tales, our imaginations are fed from a young age with tales of mysterious and otherworldly woods and forests. Add to these arboreal legends a rich supply of wildlife, and restorative, primeval calm and it's not surprising that, when we want to escape from the daily routine as adults, we often yearn to escape to the trees.
For many, the appeal runs even deeper. Arguably the world's first tree-hugger was the Scots conservationist John Muir. He likened his passion for trees to religious devotion, writing in 1896, "Few are altogether deaf to the preaching of pine trees. Their sermons on the mountains go to our hearts; and if people in general could be got into the woods, even for once, to hear the trees speak for themselves, all difficulties in the way of forest preservation would vanish." He would be delighted with the new South Loch Ness Trail which opens in his homeland next Thursday, 11 August (see Tree Trails, below).
However, a large proportion of Europe's breathing spaces has been felled over the centuries, or endangered by development. This year saw the coalition government's plans to sell off England's publicly owned forest estate revoked in the face of public protest.
Leading the call for the greater protection of our trees are the Woodland Trust and Woodland Trust Scotland. According to the latter's recently launched "Feel Good Woods" campaign, spending time in forests isn't just good for the soul, it's good for the body, too: you can download the free Woodland Workout detailing exercises and walks in a handful of woods ( www.ind.pn/qZcGjQ).
According to the Trees For Life charity, the Caledonian Forest in Muir's home country now covers just one per cent of its original area. The organisation offers volunteers the chance to help reverse that trend through a programme of conservation holidays. New for this year are Nursery Weeks at Plodda Lodge in Corrimony, which are designed for those who want to make a less physically demanding contribution to the restoration of the forest than on the regular conservation projects. There's a sliding scale of fees dependent on personal circumstances; unsubsidised holidays cost £300 per person, including food and accommodation and also transfers from Inverness (01309 691444; treesforlife.org.uk).
Forgotten Forests is an initiative led by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, to encourage people to champion their favourite woodlands. This will see a programme of events and activities at the Garden between September and January 2012 (rbge.org.uk/forgottenforests).
The average visitor, though, just wants to get out and enjoy the forest and there is an increasing number of ways to do so. Characterful accommodation specialists, Sawday's, has built a business around founder Alastair Sawday's childhood fondness for climbing trees and building treehouses. The result, Canopy & Stars (01275 395447; canopyandstars.co.uk), offers a range of treehouse and luxury camping options in the woods. For example, The Wood Life offers guests the chance to sleep in a luxuriously equipped two-bedroom cabin in a clearing of eight acres of private Devon woodland. Prices start at £450 for four nights in September. For more treehouse ideas, see "Nocturnal Activity", below.
You need not sleep under the branches to enjoy an enriching forest experience, either. Kielder Water and Forest Park in Northumberland has made a name for itself with its trail of striking art and architectural attractions (01434 220616; visitkielder.com). One of these, a bold red shelter known as '55/02', which overlooks the reservoir, was given an award for architectural excellence by the Royal Institute of British Architects in May.
The Royal Forest of Dean, straddling the Anglo-Welsh border, is also home to a Sculpture Trail, which gives free access to 17 permanent artworks (0845 838 8799; forestofdean-sculpture.org.uk). Highlights include Cornelia Parker's Hanging Fire and Neville Gabie's Raw. Look out too for the latest work, Hill33 by David Cotterrell: a 1,300-tonne earthwork that draws on his time as a war artist at Camp Bastion.
For an unadulterated forest experience, take a jaunt north to "Big Tree Country" as Perthshire now calls itself. Though there are great forests across the whole of Scotland, Perthshire is home to the oldest known tree in Europe (the Fortingall Yew), as well as the tallest hedge in the world (a line of beech trees at Meikleour) and a gnarled oak at the village of Birnam that is said to be the last survivor of the wood made famous in Shakespeare's Macbeth. To promote and protect this rich arboreal heritage, the Big Tree Country project has been established. Its website (perthshirebigtreecountry.co.uk) gives a good introduction to the area for visitors and useful information about local activities, events and attractions.
Forests also offer the chance for miles of mountain bike exploration, be it a gentle woodland ride to an exhilarating downhill adventure. The 7stanes mountain biking centres (01387 860247; stanesmountainbiking.com) are strung out on Forestry Commission land across the south of Scotland and offer advice on local trails. A new centre opened at Glentress, outside Peebles, last month, giving visitors access to showers, toilets, a bike hire centre, bike shop, café and osprey viewing facility.
Another beacon of woodland adventure is set to be the South Loch Ness Trail, a 28-mile route along the south side of Loch Ness. It takes walkers and cyclists through prime woodland and wilderness terrain, with views over the water ( visitlochness.com/south-loch-ness-trail).
Further south, riders have new tracks to explore courtesy of the Hicks Lodge National Forest Cycle Centre (01530 274533, purplemountain.co.uk/hicks-lodge). This new £1.5 million centre opened in June near Ashby de la Zouch in Leicestershire, and offers a café, bike hire shop, showers and eight miles of graded off-road trails, as well as a programme of evening trail rides and forest feast barbecues.
Attractions for young riders include another new initiative from Forest Holidays (0845 130 8224; forestholidays.co.uk). Guests at two New Forest sites can sign up for a Tour de Forest trip. Inspired by the French cycle race, the three-hour tours are slightly less ambitious – there's no Col du Tourmalet to tackle here, just a chance to spot deer and ponies from the saddle, with a ranger on hand to guide. Prices £10 per child and £12 per adult.
The opportunity to sleep surrounded by towering trees as far as the eye can see offers a real contrast to everyday life. In the UK, Forest Holidays (0845 130 8223; forestholidays.co.uk) offers cabin and camping holidays on Forestry Commission land, for example in smart new wooden self-catering cabins in Keldy, North Yorkshire. Adding to the appeal, a local forest ranger leads night time bat- and badger-watching tours here for £6 per person. Cabin rental prices start from £464 for a three-night stay for up to four people in August.
Of course if you really want to stay overnight surrounded by trees, the best way to do it is in a treehouse. A shining example is in the Treehotel (00 46 9281 0403; treehotel.se) in the forests of Swedish Lapland, which has six designer treehouses – including a "Birds Nest" and a "UFO" – with rates from SEK3,500 (£330) for two, including breakfast.
Chêne Perché (00 33 324 533 562; lecheneperche.com) in the French Ardennes offers the chance to sleep in a treehouse or trappers' hut. The treehouse cabins, which sleep between two and four, are poised between the branches in an adventure park laced with zipwires, rope bridges and woodland bike trails. Treehouse prices start from €85 per night for two. The trapper's hut sleeps up to four and costs from €130 per night.
If you prefer to be down at ground level, Huttopia (00 33 4 75 54 63 94; huttopia.com) offers family-friendly huts, cabins, Canadian-style tents and gypsy caravans in a number of forested sites in France. A new site is Dieulefit in the Drôme where prices start at €32 per night for two people in a tent to €130 per night for up to six guests in a cabin.
Similarly, Center Parcs offers accommodation in 14 forest villages across the Netherlands, France, Belgium and Germany (00 31 10 498 97 54; centerparcs.com).
The UK operation (0844 826 7723; centerparcs.co.uk) is a separate company operating at four forest sites – Cumbria, Suffolk, Wiltshire and Nottinghamshire (where treehouses were recently introduced).
All four sites still have availability for August and September. At Sherwood in Nottinghamshire, a three-night stay in a two-bedroom villa costs from £399.
Family forest holidays
New on The Adventure Company's (0845 287 5028; adventurecompany.co.uk) programme is an eight-day trip, "Montenegro Magic", which packs in a range of activities, as well as a bit of culture. Kayaking, walking and swimming off the beaches at Budva and Sveti Stefan are highlights, as is the chance to let the children (over-eights only) bring out their inner Tarzan on a forest obstacle course in Ivanova Korita. August trips cost £899 per adult, £799 per child, including flights, activities, accommodation and some meals.
Meanwhile, Families Worldwide (0845 051 4567; familiesworldwide.co.uk) has spaces on its August trip to Transylvania, "The Land of Dracula". Departing on 13 August, it takes in walking in the Carpathian Mountains, zip-wiring, walks and rope adventures in the Transylvanian forest, a visit to a bear sanctuary and Dracula's castle. The price of £999 per adult and £899 per child includes flights from Heathrow, transfers, B&B, some meals and guided activities.
Finally, The Steadings is a collection of family-friendly gîtes in Brittany, next to Camors National Forest. A path from the property gives access straight onto forest trails. The Camors Adventure Forest Park, with zip wires and rope bridges and a play area for younger children, is also within walking distance. Rental rates start at £485 per week for a two-bed cottage (0845 269 4126; totstotravel.co.uk).
One of the key attractions of forest holidays is getting up close to wildlife. Several tour operators run specialist nature-based forest tours in Europe, including Naturetrek (01962 733051; naturetrek.co.uk), which has launched one in and around Spain's Cantabrian mountains, aimed at spotting the "Big Three": whales, wolves and bears. The 10-day trip costs from £1,295 per person, including ferry crossings, accommodation, guiding and most meals.
In Germany's Black Forest, World Walks (01242 254353; worldwalks.com) runs trips to its quieter, northern corners. Starting and finishing in Freudenstadt, these take in lakes, forest and moorland, not to mention plenty of wildlife – and delicious local produce. Prices start at £550 per person for seven-night trips including B&B, maps and luggage transportation, but not flights.
If you'd rather be in the saddle, the Riding Company (01534 745795; theridingcompany.com) runs one-week trips to Triglav National Park in Slovenia where guests stay in cosy forest chalets and go out on day-long trail rides on Lipizzaner horses across rivers, up mountains, through forests and across meadows. Prices start at £548 per person, half board, excluding flights.
If you go down to the woods...
The National Forest covers 200 square miles across Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire. Its long-term plans include a 75-mile National Forest Long Distance Trail. In the meantime, one of the most popular visitor events is an annual Wood Fair, with woodcraft, storytelling, lumberjack shows and local food and drink. This year's event takes place on Monday, 29 August, at Beacon Hill Country Park (01283 551211; £8 adults/£5 children).
Since Europe's first Dark Sky Park opened in Galloway Forest Park (01671 402420; forestry.gov.uk) in 2009, the area has drawn a steady stream of stargazers, but the real sky-watching season starts in October. Until then, head north to the area around South Laggan, where Wild West Safaris (0333 123 2820; wildwestsafari.co.uk) has launched a "Searchlit Safari" tour through the forest to spot nocturnal wildlife, including pine martens (three hours, £30).