Our summer holiday this year was kept simple and we went for four nights to Sandy Balls Holiday Village in the New Forest.
We’d been to Center Parcs before but as they ramp their rates up to extortionate proportions even for summer holiday prices, we thought we’d look for something along the same lines but at a more reasonable price.
Our lodge was in a good location onsite, far enough away from the centre to feel more secluded and near to the forest walks, but only a short stroll to the main facilities, including a shop, arcade, swimming pool and restaurants.
There were some nice touches – like an information pack on arrival and welcome basket with tea, coffee, sugar, biscuits and squash. And milk and a bottle of Prosecco in the fridge. But the overall cleanliness of the lodge let it down. The basics had been done but there were parts of it that looked liked they’d never seen a vacuum cleaner. Dusty under beds, sofas and down the sides of cupboards, a wilted cactus in a glass on the window sill in the bathroom that had been gathering grime since it was put there (why bother?), radiators that were thick inside with fluff and a blind in the toilet that was covered in black mould.
I’d forgo the welcome touches just so that I didn’t have to pick someone else’s barbecue up from the outside grill and litter pick around the edge of the lodge.
There was only a dustpan and brush to use to keep the place clean so that didn’t help – a forlorn broom end on the decking outside teased us with what could have been. Basically, the lodge wasn’t maintained regularly enough and you could tell. We had asked for an iron on one occasion and after frantically searching through cupboards at reception, were told by staff that guest services would bring one to the lodge. They may well have done, but it wasn’t to ours. These are simple things to get right and really not on for the price we paid – £975 for a luxury wooden lodge.
On the plus side, the staff on site were all very pleasant and helpful, and the woodland walks and general atmosphere on the park was laidback and peaceful.
Top tip: Do the food shop off site, with a few top-ups at the park
We did a main shop at the Tesco Express in Fordingbridge when we got there, as the onsite supermarkets are notoriously over-priced. Maybe don’t do your entire week’s shop all at once though, as we had to fit it into one basket and our six-year-old Herbie’s one job of holding the milk came to an abrupt end when he dropped four pints all over the floor, hopping about as he needed a poo. Top marks for the staff on duty who didn’t charge us for it though.
Top tip: Bike hire is well worth it
We hired bikes for three days of the holiday from the bike shop onsite. We booked online before we arrived, which meant we got a 20% discount, and you can use the hire shop whether or not you are staying at Sandy Balls. A simple process and great staff.
One thing to note is that it’s not like Center Parcs, where all the cycling routes are within the forest you are staying at. At Sandy Balls, the only routes suitable for families are really those outside the park, which are accessed via quite a busy main road. Once we had got our bearings with this (there was a cycle path part of the way), then we were able to explore the beautiful landscape of the New Forest with ease.
I had a tag a long for Herbie as he hadn’t mastered pedals yet and can highly recommend it as he had got them completely by the end of the holiday. The penny finally dropped that I may have been taking most of the slack though when a group of octogenarians overtook us on their electric bikes commenting ‘help your mum out,’ and I realised Herbie was treating it more like a tuk-tuk ride.
Top tip: Traditional holiday activities like the arcades never get old
The highlight of the visit for the boys was a trip each day to the arcade, which was ironic seeing as we could have stayed at home by the seaside to do that. The top activity was collecting up all the tickets won after spending £40 or so on the games machines to pick prizes from an assortment of tat you could have brought for a quarter of the price. But we loved it for what it was!
Top tip: Go to the pool early
We managed to get to the pool once during our stay, and went when it had just opened at 9am, which is a good time to go as it was pretty quiet. It’s a weird set up though as there isn’t any family changing so you have to split up. Seeing as I’m the only girl in the family, I had a leisurely time getting ready whilst Rich took both the boys in with him. I realised when our two-year-old Gus came out wearing his swimsuit on backwards that it probably would have helped if I’d taken one of them in with me.
Top tip: Try the pubs – there’s a great selection suitable for families
The village pubs on our cycling routes were great for kids and provided good pub grub. The Fighting Cocks was just up the road and had a good outdoor wooden play area. Herbie was mortified when another kid turned up in exactly the same t-shirt but luckily the other child was even more embarrassed and swiftly hid inside. It’s here you can get amongst the New Forest ponies that lounge about the roads, holding up traffic and forcing everyone into taking a slower pace.
The Horse and Groom in Wood Green was a lovely little pub too, with a pretty beer garden. Herbie met a few other children, all girls, on the play equipment and was suitably confused and intrigued in equal measure, as they all appeared to be going commando. We had a nice lunch and the kids menu featured good quality choices – Herbie had sausage and mash, but then decided he didn’t like it because someone had the audacity to put gravy on it. Gus had his usual gourmet choice of chips before falling over and smashing his face on the picnic bench, spending the rest of the holiday looking like he’d been in a fight.
The holiday park does have lots of activities going on – the alpaca walk was recommended but we didn’t get the chance to do it as we were out on the bikes most of the time. But it was difficult with a two-year-old and a six-year-old to find things that they could do together as activities tended to be suitable for under or over fives.
Top tip: Book a late deal if possible
We googled prices for the next week when we were there, and they had dropped at both Sandy Balls and Center Parcs so it’s worth waiting for a last minute deal if you can hold out as it seems the trend for overpriced holidays in the summer break shows no sign of improving. It meant that with the few issues we had, we left having had a good time but feeling it was not yet value for the money being charged at that time of year.
Top tip: Make the most of the beautiful countryside and great nature-spotting opportunities