Picture the scene: you've led your family on a relaxing walk along one of the paths that zig-zag through this ancient woodland. You've built up a hearty appetite and a spot of lunch beckons at a picture-postcard pub.
As you stroll into Brockenhurst, something catches your eye. There, ambling along the middle of the road, you spot a lone cow, while on the verge ponies graze.
Welcome to the heart of the New Forest, where cattle, ponies, donkeys, deer and pigs have roamed free for centuries.
This former Royal hunting ground - created in 1079 by William the Conquerer - is one of the UK's 15 National Parks. Steeped in history, this unspoilt corner of southern England offers tranquility and beauty spots in abundance as well as a host of attractions and a feast of entertainment.
In short, a perfect day out for families of all ages.
Exploring the New Forest
Covering more than 200 square miles, the New Forest is a haven for ramblers, dog-walkers, cyclists and horse-riders. And despite its name, there is much more to this large swathe of open countryside than forests - it features thousands of acres of heathland and a panoramic coastline.
So pack a pair of sturdy shoes and set off to sample some of its stunning scenery.
En route you'll come across a wide range of ancient trees - some of which may be over 1,000 years old - and in the autumn an explosion of fungi, with more than 2,700 species on show.
The New Forest is famous for its deer, so head to Bolderwood to marvel at them from a specially-built viewing platform. From April to September, herds of fallow deer are fed daily here by a Forestry Commission ranger.
This corner of the forest also features three signposted walks (suitable for buggies) as well as a large picnic area nestled among the trees:
Hatchet Pond on the outskirts of Beaulieu - the biggest area of fresh water in the New Forest - is another magnet for day-trippers. Here, you can take a one-mile return route towards Hatchet Moor where the banks of two smaller ponds offer ideal picnic spots.
For wildlife lovers, Keyhaven Nature Reserve - covering 500 acres between the mouth of the River Lymington and the village of Keyhaven - is a must-see attraction. Stick to the Solent View footpath alongside the marshes and keep your eye out for wading birds such as Curlews and Sandpipers and wildfowl including Mallard and Teal.
The New Forest also boasts some 40 miles of coastline, with Hordle Cliffs at Milford-on-Sea offering breathtaking of the Solent and Isle of Wight. Benches and shelters can be found at regular intervals along this cliff-top route, while the dog-friendly Needles Eye Cafe is the ideal place to rest your weary feet on your return to Milford-on-Sea.
For visitors looking for a more leisurely glimpse of the sights and sounds of the national park, the New Forest Tour runs open-top buses from the end of June to the middle of September. Families wishing to saddle up to see the sights are equally well catered for. You can hire bikes, cycle helmets and clothes all year round from a range of outlets. And some shops will happily deliver your hire bikes to wherever you are staying in the New Forest.
Food and Drink in the New Forest
From charming tearooms to quaint village pubs and high-end restaurants, the New Forest has earned a reputation for top-notch food and drink. So much so that the community has devised a network of "food trails" to showcase the best of its locally-sourced produce.
The New Forest is particularly proud of its game and venison, sustainably caught within its boundaries, and the pork, bacon and sausages from its Pannage pigs, who dine on acorns and beech mast in the woodland.
During your visit, look out for the New Forest Marque, a sign of true local produce.
Details of the series of trails can be found at the New Forest Centre in the heart of Lyndhurst, the unofficial 'capital' of the forest and the starting point for the so-called Woodland Wander trail. This 25 mile route - best negotiated by pedal power - runs from Lyndhurst to the picturesque village of Burley, via Minstead and Bolderwood.
Burley itself is the home of New Forest cider and fudge, with locally-sourced pork pie ploughman's on the menu at the Cider Pantry Tearooms, while the Burley Inn serves ales from Ringwood Brewery on the edge of the New Forest.
Beaulieu, one of the jewels in the New Forest's crown, has its own food trail and so does Milford-on-Sea.
Here in Milford you can pop in to The Raft, a chic bistro which offers "local produce with a twist" as well as coffee and locally-made cakes. This seaside spot also features an award-winning fish restaurant, Verveine, which includes a traditional fishmonger's.
Dogs are welcome at a number of cafes and pubs across the New Forest, including the White Buck Inn, Burley; the Fighting Cocks, Fordingbridge and the Hare and Hounds, Sway.
Attractions in the New Forest
The New Forest features a varied range of attractions to suit the whole family. From kayaking and canoeing to horse-drawn wagon rides and summer deer safaris, there is plenty to do all year round.
Among the most popular tickets is a day out at the famous National Motor Museum at Beaulieu. Here, some 285 vehicles - from the earliest carriages to classic cars and motorcycles - chronicle the story of motoring.
The museum also features a motor sport exhibition, charting the history of Formula One, and the World of Top Gear, including some of the cars wrecked during stunts on the show.
Families can also visit Palace House, the onetime gatehouse of the medieval Beaulieu Abbey, regarded as one of the ten most impressive stately homes, palaces and castles open to the public.
Set within 140 acres of parkland on the edge of the forest stands Paultons Park, which is due to open for the season on February 12. This popular attraction offers 60 rides, Peppa Pig's own theme park and the Lost Kingdom, including a host of dinosaur attractions and Jurassic-themed family rides.
For a more sedate day out, head to the celebrated Exbury Gardens on the south-east corner of the New Forest, about three miles from Beaulieu. This 200-acre attraction blooms in late May and early June when its rhododendrons and azaleas are in flower. Hop on board the steam railway for a 20-minute tour of the gardens and enjoy a shady riverside walk and a picnic by the pond.