Hampshire is a great place to visit with plenty for all the family to enjoy - on the coast, in the countryside or in the cities and towns. We were invited on our weekend break by Hampshire's Top Attractions and we chose to visit Beaulieu National Motor Museum and Exbury Gardens and Steam Railway on the Saturday, and Marwell Zoo on the Sunday. Our overnight stay was at the Mercure Southampton Centre Dolphin Hotel in Southampton.
We drove from North Kent to Exbury Gardens and Steam Railway, situated in Exbury, Southampton, within New Forest National Park - this would have taken just over two hours, if we hadn't of stopped several times for DS! It was lovely and sunny when we arrived and the gardens were absolutely stunning. The gardens cover 200 acres and filled with rare trees and flowers. I don't know much about flowers and gardening, but you don't need to, to appreciate the beauty of nature. It was great for DS too, who simply enjoyed running around the open spaces and pointing out tall trees. We mainly chose this attraction because of the steam railway and DS's obsession with trains - it definitely did not disappoint! The train took us round a 1.25 mile circuit around the gardens for approximately 20 minutes, where we could see areas of the garden you cannot access on foot. We passed the exotic fruit patch, a lake, sculptures and woodland moss animals. The controller of the train was very entertaining for the children (and adults!) and also gave us great detail of the history of the gardens and the railway. They also had a buggy ride to transport you around the gardens, but we didn't go on one of these. Tickets for the gardens would usually cost £10 for adults and children under 15 are free, or £13 for adults and £3.50 for children 3-15 for a combination ticket (gardens and buggy or rail), or an all inclusive ticket is £15 for adults and £6 for children 3-15.
After we visited Beaulieu National Motor Museum, situated in Brockenhurst, Hampshire, still within New Forest National Park and only ten minutes drive from Exbury Gardens. The museum showcased cars and motorcycles through history, including a fantastic display of rally cars (which my 3yo DS particularly loved), the official collection of original James Bond vehicles and the World of Top Gear. The James Bond vehicles were fascinating and very impressive, and I'm sure the World of Top Gear area would be too for fans (I'm not much of a Top Gear fan). We sat in the pod ride within the museum, which took us through 100 years of motoring history. A short walk to the other side of the site (or you could take the monorail or onsite bus) takes you to Beaulieu Abbey. We didn't have time to explore this, however it was very picturesque. We took a ride on the monorail, which gave us a bird's eye view of the Beaulieu grounds. They also had a park and the Dipstick’s Driving Circuit, where children can ride around on mini motorised vehicles, DS really enjoyed this too. It was a slightly more grown-up version of the Lego cars in Legoland. They also had go karts, but it wasn't open at the time we visited. To get into Beaulieu National Motor Museum, tickets are quite expensive at £21 for adults, £19.50 for seniors, £12.50 for youths (13-17) and £10.50 for children (5-12). Family tickets can also be purchased for £55.
We made our way to The Mercure Southampton Centre Dolphin Hotel in the centre of Southampton (half an hour drive from Beaulieu). We parked at the hotel car park, which had a £3 charge - this was rather cramped and we were quite lucky to get a space! The hotel doesn't look great from the outside, the car park behind wasn't very organised and at the front, opposite the hotel is a strip club - but I would say don't judge a book by its cover. We checked into the hotel where we were given one of the Privilege rooms (Azura), which had a double bed and a sofa bed. The difference between a Privilege room and one of the standard ones, is that this room had a mini fridge, Nespresso machine (which DH loved!), bathrobe, slippers, upgraded toiletries, complimentary water, free unlimited WIFI and a broadsheet newspaper (we had the Independent, not sure if this varies). I was quite skeptical of the sofa bed at first for DS, but it was actually quite comfortable and perfectly fine for him. I even had to sleep in it myself half way through the night when he woke! The room was spacious and the bathroom was bigger than your average. It had two types of showers over the bath.
We had dinner that night at the hotel, where we ordered the Chilli & Lime King Prawns with toasted brioche and garden leaves (£5.95) and the Antipasto (Parma ham, salami, feta cheese, olives, sun blushed tomato - £5.95) for starters, Pan Fried Breast of Duck with broccoli, fondant potato and an orange sauce (£13.95) and Baked Fillet of Pork with mash potato, sage, apple & calvados (£11.95) for mains and the Classic Tiramisu (£5.50) and Rhubarb Crème Brulee vanilla shortbread (£5.50) for dessert. DS had garlic bread, spaghetti bolognese and Eton Mess. Our meals were very well presented and the service was great. Our waitress was very welcoming and chatty, especially to DS. The Crème Brulee was amazing in taste as well as presentation. I was also very impressed with the kids meal DS had - which was quite a large portion and delicious. The kids menu actually listed normal foods you'd find on the adult menu, rather than the typical fish fingers and chips you usually find offered to children!
The next day we visited Marwell Zoo, 11 miles/30 minutes away from the hotel. We jumped on the Road Train, which took us to the other end of the zoo. This was a great way to get an overview of the park and plan what parts to see in more detail, and DS loves any form of transport! They also had a Rail Train (for an additional £2 per person) but unfortunately it was closed during the middle of the afternoon, much to DS's disappointment. The animals were great and the enclosures were very big. I got the impression that the animals were very well looked after. Although the zoo was largely outside, they did have quite a few indoor areas to look inside the animal's sheltered areas. Our highlight was seeing the giraffes, but we also really enjoyed seeing the monkeys and penguins. They had several play areas around the park and one main cafe, which had a very nice canteen and was reasonably priced. They also had picnic areas for those with packed lunches. Entrance to the park is £18 for adults and £14 for children aged 3-16.
Overall, I would definitely recommend visiting Marwell Zoo and Exbury Gardens, they were both enjoyable for the whole family. Beaulieu National Motor Museum is impressive, if you're into your cars. You can find more attractions, or read up on the ones above, on the Hampshire's Top Attractions website: www.hampshireattractions.co.uk