Having already been on holiday twice this year – Bluestone in Wales and Berlin for my birthday – we assumed that our gallivanting for 2015 was done…much to the missus’ despair!
Imagine our delight then, when the awesome folk at Hampshire’s Top Attractions got in touch with me to ask if we’d be interested in visiting the county for a couple of days, choosing a few family-friendly places to visit, then writing about our experiences on my blog. Sometimes blogging can be utterly awesome!
Having looked through their really helpful website which details all of the fun stuff to do and see in Hampshire, we decided that we wanted to visit Winchester Science Centre, Blue Reef Aquarium and Paultons Park for Peppa Pig World. We were sent complimentary family tickets to visit these places and were even provided with accommodation at the nearby Macdonald Botley Park Hotel. Again, sometimes blogging can be utterly awesome!
We decided to visit Hampshire for the missus’ birthday in July, which also had the added bonus of being a couple of days before schools in the county would break-up for the summer, in theory, meaning less crowds at the attractions. After loading everything in the car, we set off on our mini-break – this is what we got up to in Hampshire:
Our first stop was 1.5 hours away at the Winchester Science Centre and Planetarium, which as the name suggests, is in Winchester and is a Science Centre and Planetarium. Although obviously designed for kids, there’s nothing I like better than letting the inner-child in me take over once in a while (OK, maybe there’s one or two things I like better).
Therefore, imagine my glee when we walked into the building and were greeted with over 100 interactive and hands-on exhibits covering everything of a sciencey nature. Now I’ll admit that I’m not particularly scientifically minded and can’t really remember anything from Chemistry, Biology or Physics at school, but that didn’t stop me exuding an enthusiasm on par with the hundreds of school kids who were running around the place.
Set over two huge floors, we were initially overawed with all of the lights, sounds and things to look at. Each exhibit had a specific purpose and something to teach you, but I’ll admit that I did more playing that reading. With Baby L in my arms, we went around each exhibit pushing the local school kids out of the way to ensure we got in there before them. At just less than a year old, Baby L was obviously a bit too young to understand the exhibits, but she certainly had a great time looking and touching the stuff in front of her cute, little eyes.
We’d hoped to go into the Planetarium, but the talk / show / presentation was a few hours away and I doubt we’d have been able to have entertained a baby for that long, so we unfortunatley missed out. Still, we were really impressed with the Science Centre and would definitely go back in the future when Baby L has grown into Kid L.
Having never been to Winchester before, we went into the City to have a quick mooch around and grab a bite to eat. We pushed the boat out and treated ourselves to a steak bake from Greggs, which we ate in the picturesque surroundings of the Cathedral.
As it was approaching early-afternoon, we thought it’d be a good idea to head to the hotel and check-in. We were staying at the Macdonald Botley Park Hotel and Spa near Southampton which would give us a good base for the rest of our Hampshire-based fun. We arrived at the hotel half an hour later, then proceeded to sit silently in the car for another 20 minutes as Baby L had fallen asleep – the things you do as a parent, eh?
After accidentally waking the sprog up by turning on the radio, we unloaded the car and checked in to the hotel. Botley Park is a 4-star hotel set in the Hampshire countryside with a host of facilities including tennis courts, an indoor swimming pool, a sauna, a gym and, most importantly for any blogger, free Wi-Fi.
Our room was on the first floor and was a great size – as well as having all of the mod cons like a hairdryer, coffee making facilities, iron & ironing board etc, we had a huge bed, a bath and shower in the bathroom and plenty of space for a travel cot which was provided for us. Having looked at the room specs afterwards, I think we were in an Executive Room or Feature Room which are upgrades on the Classic Rooms.
As the missus doesn’t get much of a chance to see the little one swim – as I’m the one who takes her to her swimming lessons – we decided to head to the hotel swimming pool for a splish and a splash in the afternoon. Baby L loves water and has massively benefited from lessons over the past few months, so I was interested to see how she did when out of the lesson environment.
The changing facilities were good, the pool was a decent size and there was only one other couple with a kid in the pool. The temperature of the pool was relatively warm, which we’ve found to be really important when you’re taking a baby swimming. Our local pool is bloody freezing which does nothing for Baby L’s mood when in the water. We played in the pool for 45 minutes or so, but decided to head out when a local kids swimming class was about to start.
Back in the hotel room, we made one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. We decided to try and replicate the fact that the little one sleeps in her own room at home, so we stuck the travel cot into the bathroom to see how she’d get on with her late-afternoon nap. Within a few minutes, she was asleep and we’d discovered an awesome hack when travelling with a baby. Whilst the baby slept, the missus popped off to the gym – by her account, there was a good amount of equipment, but the women hogging the machines as they gossiped were pretty annoying.
We had a dinner reservation at the hotel, so made our way down to the Winchester Restaurant once the sprog had woken up. The restaurant is an AA rosette award winner and has a “classic British menu”, so we were looking forward to enjoying a bit of fine dining. Our first experience of the restaurant wasn’t great though – it took us a while to be shown to a table even though numerous staff were working, we were given a highchair which was wet, covered in food and stunk, whilst the tables and chairs had all seen much better days.
The main menu had numerous different options on it and everything sounded and looked good. I had pork belly to start whilst the missus had gnocchi, we both had chicken as a main, then I had a lemon tart and the missus had apple crumble for desert. The food was rich in flavour, ingredients tasted fresh and every last scrap of food was eaten which shows how nice it was.
A kids menu was available, but it was all pretty bog standard stuff which seemed out of place compared to what was on the main adults menu. We tend to give Baby L bits of our food, but we ordered a starter of cheese on toast for her to eat when she wasn’t stealing what was on our plates.
Although the food couldn’t be faulted and our waitress was really friendly and attentive, I was slightly disappointed with the overall restaurant. For an award-winning restaurant (and a hotel which promotes itself as family friendly due to proximity to Peppa Pig World etc), I’d have thought that tables and chairs which were chipped and battered would have been replaced, highchairs would be cleaned and not left to the point of smelling like rotten food and cutlery for children would be available (even though Baby L doesn’t use them, we were told that they didn’t have any). I think it was a case of some aspects of the dining experience letting down other areas.
After eating, we headed back to our room, put the baby to bed in the bathroom (!) and settled down in front of the TV until we went to bed.
Today was the missus’ birthday! We woke up to the sounds of the little one babbling around 7.30am and the missus opened her birthday presents from the sprog and I.
We then headed down to breakfast which was in the same place as last night’s meal. We both ordered a cooked breakfast off the menu and helped ourselves to various other things like pastries and yoghurt which the little one sampled. The cooked breakfast was good, albeit portions felt a little stingy with only one of everything, whilst the croissants were awesome – having spent many a night in a hotel, the sign of a good breakfast is always a soft croissant in my book!
Just to add to my feelings from last night about ‘child-friendliness’ in the restaurant, this time we were given a highchair with a broken harness. Again, staff were really friendly and replaced the highchair instantly, but if it’s broken it shouldn’t be offered in the first place.
As the sun was out in force, today’s plan was to head to the beach to give Baby L her first proper experience of being at the seaside. The majority of beaches around the Portsmouth area are shingles and stone, rather than sand. However, after a quick Google, we managed to find a beach at West Wittering which was just sand.
Armed with a bucket and spade, we drove to the beach and had a fantastic few hours playing in the sand and sea with the sprog. Rather than re-hash content, check out my other post on Baby L’s first experience at the beach to find out what we got up to in West Wittering.
After de-sanding, our next stop was Portsmouth’s Gunwharf Quays for a spot of lunch and a browse around the shops in the outlet. I’ve not been to Portsmouth before – well, as far as I can remember – but the area around the Quays was really nice. I’ll put it down to the sun and the heat playing with my head, but it really felt like we could have been abroad, particularly with the 170 metre tall Spinnaker Tower soaring above the harbour.
There were plenty of places to relax, eat, drink and shop, but we were on a pretty tight timeline so reluctantly headed back to the car to make the short drive to Blue Reef Aquarium. We managed to park directly outside, then with the sprog strapped to my chest, we headed into the aquarium to visit the 50+ living displays of all things weird and wonderful from under the sea.
The aquarium was pretty dead, by which I mean no-one else was around, not that all of the fish were floating on their back. This meant that we could take our time to look at all of the various displays without the hassle of having loads of people in the way. On our underwater adventure, we saw plenty of different types of fish, mammals and reptiles.
Our favourite parts were the underwater tunnel which allows you to walk through a coral reef and get up close with the inhabitants, the family of otters and the huge outdoor activity area. Baby L has been to an aquarium once before, but didn’t really seem that interested – this time though, she seemed a lot more alert and aware to the fact that things were moving right in front of her face. A few times, she even giggled as a fish swam by!
After being in the aquarium for an hour or so, the little one was starting to get a little tired so we headed back to the car in the hope that she’d fall asleep in her car seat. As time was on our side and the weather was nice, we took a detour on our way back to the hotel so that we could check out the views across to The Isle of Wight.
The rest of the night was pretty uneventful – a stop off at a local supermarket to buy loads of food for the missus’ hotel room birthday picnic, then bed.
Having had another good night’s sleep in our comfortable bed, we once more went down for breakfast in the restaurant. We had no highchair related complaints today, but strangely, today’s breakfast was a full buffet rather than table service. I have no issues with that whatsoever, but it was a bit weird that breakfast could be so different on two consecutive days. Also, pretty disappointedly, the once awesome croissants were pretty hard today. I’ll admit that I nearly shed a tear.
We packed up our stuff, checked out of the hotel and headed to Paultons Park – home of Peppa Pig World – for the final, and arguably most exciting, part of our Hampshire mini-break. We’ve recently started watching Milkshake in the morning to prepare for our visit to Peppa Pig World – the last thing I wanted was to get my Pedro Pony mixed up with my Suzy Sheep.
We arrived just after the park had opened at 10am and was already surprised to see the car park filling up. We stuck the sprog in the baby carrier rather than the pushchair so that we had speed and manoeuvrability advantages over the rest of the crowd, then headed in the direction of Peppa Pig World. Things weren’t too busy when we got there, so we decided to do as many of the rides as we could before more people arrived.
There are seven theme park rides at Peppa Pig World which are all based around different characters from the cartoon. We went on Windy Castle first which Baby L loved, although it made me feel pretty queasy! We then went on a boat ride which I can’t remember the name, followed by a car ride which again I can’t remember the name. I think I have more practice to do when it comes to kid’s cartoons…
We then had a photo taken with Peppa and George as Baby L tried to pull Peppa’s eye out of its socket, we had a look at the animals – including meerkats and penguins – then had a play in the outdoor adventure playground which had climbing frames, slides, swings etc. After this, we had a wander over to the indoor playzone, but made the rookie mistake of forgetting to take socks for Baby L so we couldn’t go in. Note to self, always remember socks!
Although there were still plenty of things to do at Paultons Park, the little one was getting a bit tired, so we decided it’d be best to head off and start our journey back home after 3 hours at the attraction. We really enjoyed Peppa Pig World and will definitely be going back in the future to do everything else that Paultons Park has to offer. My advice would be to get there early in the day and try to avoid peak times if possible, oh yeah, and remember socks.
And that was the end of our mini-break to Hampshire. We had a lot of fun, got some great memories and enjoyed visiting the county – with it only being 1.5 hours away from where we live, and with plenty of things to do, we’ll definitely be heading back in the not so distant future.
Summary & DADventurer Star Ratings
Winchester Science Centre and Planetarium – a fantastic place for kids to play, explore and learn, with plenty of interactive exhibits. Designed for older kids, but Baby L still got a lot out of visiting. A shame we missed out on the planetarium talk, but that’ll be something for the future. 5 out of 5 stars.
Bluereef Aquarium – has everything you’d expect of an aquarium, with plenty of different types of fish and animals to watch. The huge outdoor play area is an added bonus and ideal for summer. 4 out of 5 stars.
Peppa Pig World (Paultons Park) – a great day out for the family, but timing your visit to avoid peak times is a must. Peppa Pig World is smaller than I thought with just seven rides, but there’s plenty of other things to do such as outdoor play areas, indoor play areas, shows, animals and the rest of Paultons Park. I expect we’ll be coming back again and again as Baby L gets bigger, however it was still enjoyable for an 11-month old which I was a little concerned about prior to visiting. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Macdonald Botley Park Hotel and Spa – Really nice hotel room with all of the modern cons you’d expect, as well as a good swimming pool, gym and bars. Food in the restaurant is of a high quality and staff are friendly, but things felt a little dated (damaged tables and chairs etc) and not particularly family-friendly (broken high chairs, no child cutlery etc). It is close to being a really good hotel, but unfortunately some aspects let it down. 4 out of 5 stars.
N.B. This review was written by me (Dave) and represents my honest opinion. Our break to Hampshire, which included accomodationm breakfast and dinner at Macdonald Botley Park Hotel, as well as tickets to Winchester Science Centre, Bluereef Aquarium and Paultons Park were provided to us for free by Hampshire’s Top Attractions in exchange for writing an honest review of our experiences.