With fairy glades among gnarled oaks, springy heathland manicured by wild ponies, streams made for paddling and the coast a stone's throw away, the New Forest is a magical place to visit in summer. Its name is perhaps misleading. William the Conqueror's 11th-century royal hunting ground and Britain's smallest National Park has some of the country's last remaining ancient forest, plus picturesque Hampshire villages, nature reserves and its very own warm microclimate.
The central hub comprises a trio of villages – Brockenhurst, Lyndhurst and Burley – along with Beaulieu, the New Forest's most-visited attraction. To the south, along 26 miles of coastline, is the old seaport of Lymington just outside the national park border; in the north-west lies largely unspoilt forest around the market town of Fordingbridge, also just outside the national park boundary.
Once in the Forest proper, ditch the car and take in the views on the open-topped New Forest tour bus (023 8028 2269; thenewforesttour.info; £10). The route from the centre to the coast covers many of the main towns and attractions, and new this summer is a route up into the lesser-visited Avon Valley. Alternatively, use pedal power to travel along 100 miles of cycle track. Bikes can be hired from Country Lanes Cycle Hire (01590 622627; countrylanes.co.uk) at Brockenhurst station, which has excellent train links from across England. A popular ride is past giant redwoods on the Ornamental Drive to the deer sanctuary at Bolderwood (feeding times 1pm and 2pm), with a detour for a creamy New Forest ice cream in the village of Burley.
Bustling Lyndhurst is the "capital" of the New Forest, stuffed with toy and tea shops. It was once the home of the Alice who inspired Alice in Wonderland. Alice Liddell's grave lies in its parish churchyard. From here, go north to Fordingbridge to walk from Telegraph Hill (the highest point in the forest at 550ft) through three miles of spectacular views and unspoilt countryside to join the crowd at the 17th-century Royal Oak at Fritham (023 8081 2606) for an award-winning pie and some real ale.
The village of Beaulieu (pronounced Bewley) boasts the National Motor Museum (01590 612345;beaulieu.co.uk; £17.75) plus historic buildings that will provide entertainment on a rainy day. From there, it's a two-mile ride (or walk) along the Beaulieu River to Buckler's Hard (01590 616203; bucklershard.co.uk), a maritime museum flanked by 18th-century red-brick houses left over from the time when ships such as Agamemnon – Nelson's favourite, used in the Battle of Trafalgar – were built here. The Beaulieu River's unusual mix of fresh and saltwater means you can see moon jellyfish and nibble at wild samphire while kayaking past yachts in the harbour (01590 612377; newforestactivities.co.uk; £28 per person for two hours).
Summer weekends mean a barbecue on picnic tables in the garden at The Master Builder's (0844 815 3399; themasterbuilders.co.uk). Nearby is banking tycoon Lionel de Rothchild's creation, Exbury Gardens (023 8089 1203; exbury.co.uk; £9) which can also be experienced on the blue-painted steam train (£3.50 per person).
The top family attraction in the area is north-east of the national park boundary, and just off the M27. Paultons Family Theme Park (023 8081 4442; paultonspark.co.uk; £21) boasts rollercoasters, log flumes, a huge splash park and – new for this summer – Peppa Pig World ( peppapigworld.co.uk).
Also just beyond the National Park boundary is the port of Lymington, just five miles from Brockenhurst. It has an elegant Georgian high street and a cobbled quay where fisherman dock their catch among the bobbing yachts. Cool off at the large Lymington Seawater Baths (01590 678882; lymingtonseawaterbaths.org.uk), then enjoy lunch on the terrace of the Ship Inn (01590 676903; theshiplymington.co.uk ).
Try the gentle 90-minute coast-hugging walk beside the wetlands on the Solent Way to Keyhaven, the jumping off point for Henry VIII's medieval coastal fortress Hurst Castle (01590 642500; hurstcastle.co.uk; £4) on a promontory in the sea. Further along, Highcliffe Castle and beach and the cliffs at Milford on Sea, just outside the National Park boundary, offer the best views of the famous trio of chalk pinnacles, the "Needles" on the Isle of Wight.
Children will enjoy the land train (£1.20 adult; 60p child) from Mudeford Sandbank, within easy reach of the National Park, reached by ferry from Mudeford quay, to the nature reserve at Hengistbury Head. It's worth a return journey for the mussels and chips al fresco at the Beach House Café (01202 423474; beachhousecafe.co.uk). As you sit among rows of pretty painted beach huts, it's hard to imagine ancient forest lying just a stone's throw away.
Three places to stay New Forest
STANWELL HOUSE HOTEL
This self-professed boutique hotel is set in one of the lovely Georgian buildings in the middle of Lymington high street, paces from the quay, with a tranquil garden at the back. It has 30 individually decorated en suite rooms with comfy beds and modern bathrooms, some with roll-top baths or rainforest showers. Its seafood restaurant uses locally sourced produce, there's a bistro and/or a glass-roofed courtyard which spills out into a lavender-scented Victorian garden in summer. Doubles from £119 including breakfast (01590 677123; stanwellhouse.com).
This luxury B&B on the main road into Brockenhurst, heavy with beams from a 17th-century ship, offers charming bedrooms and a warm welcome. Owner Christina encourages carless guests and has two "eco" rooms with furniture that has been made from reclaimed wood. From October, there will be cycle-powered televisions. Doubles start at £75 including breakfast (01590 622296; cottagelodge.co.uk).For a dining treat, try the newly opened Pig Hotel (01590 622354; thepighotel.co.uk) from one of the creators of Hotel du Vin, a mile away.
This tranquil, spacious site, off the road between Brockenhurst and Beaulieu, has 500 pitches (and pre-pitched tents for hire) and is surrounded by thick woodland. It has good facilities with power showers, although there is no electricity on site. There are ranger-led activities, fishing and cycle tracks – and dogs are welcome. Feast on Loosehanger cheese, venison and wild boar sausages, cider and more from nearby Setley Ridge Vineyard farm shop (01590 622246; setleyridge.co.uk). The cost is £19 for standard pitch (01590 624344; forestholidays.co.uk)
New Forest Tourist Information: thenewforest.co.uk