Kate Taylor decided to give one of the new 'glamping' pods a try at Sandy Balls Holiday Village
When we arrived at Sandy Balls (stop sniggering) on a Thursday in early July, we were surprised to find a drive-in check-in system. We queued up and watched wardens popping in and out of the reception building, checking booking reference numbers on the computer and reappearing with (no, sorry, not a Big Mac) a site map, campsite and activities information, a voucher to present at the shop and a letter to display in our windscreen.
We drove as directed, slowly past the Sandy Balls Holiday Village Centre, the wooden 'Laid-back Lodges', 'Premium Lodges' and holiday statics for hire, past a couple of large washroom buildings and touring fields, driving cautiously round all the families, who were ambling along at a very relaxed pace.
New for 2014, the wooden camping pods are set in their own hedged-off cul-de-sac, behind the field of pre-erected tents ('Ready Tents') for hire and facing the massive children's adventure playground and one of the excellent washrooms, with their covered washing-up sinks, laundry area and disabled facilities. There is even a bathroom in the ladies, so you could pop several tiny children in the bath at once for an enjoyable splash, which is handy if they dislike showers.
We were pleased that we could park right next to the pod, on the chunky golden gravel. In front of our pod was a handy wooden picnic table with built-in bench seats for four, and a metal barbecue stand. So, what's inside a camping pod?Well, we'd never stayed in a pod before, so it was fun opening the door for the first time for the big reveal!
Inside, there's a pair of facing two-seater sofas, with a practical dining table that clips to a rail under the double-glazed window and has a folding table leg at the other end.
On arrival, the pod looked clean, fresh and cosy, but not particularly glamorous. I decided that people would need to bring the glamour with them if they wanted the full 'glamping' experience. I made a mental note of the accessories I probably should have brought along – fairy lights, bunting, lanterns and sun loungers, perhaps!
We quickly worked out that to make the sofa into a double bed, you unclip the tabletop from the rail, push the table leg up and drop the tabletop down onto the wide wooden batons along each seat base. Then just redistribute the black PVC-covered sofa cushions to form a mattress. It takes no time at all.
The other two berths in the pod are two sets of three taped-together black PVC-covered floor cushions.
So what else was in our glamping pod? A miniature fridge, an electric kettle, a mini waste bin, a fire extinguisher, electric lights, two folding camping chairs, a small TV on the wall and four power points. There was a complimentary disposable barbecue pack to get us started, and a plastic crockery and cutlery pack waiting for collection in the campsite shop.There were two coat hooks on the porch, outside the door, which we found handy for damp towels and coats. Under the sofa/bed were two storage areas which you could use to stash bedding during the daytime.
The pods are extremely warm, being well insulated and double glazed, with a curtain to pull across the window. The front door is half-glazed and has a roller blind to protect your modesty. We threw open the window and door and moved our food, clothes, washing kits and bedding in. I'm not great at travelling light, so I left a few spare pairs of shoes and spare blankets in the car! The pods were so cosy that we wouldn't be needing extra warm layers.
It was so quick and easy to move into the pod, compared to pitching your own tent, or even setting up a motorhome or caravan on a pitch. The one thing we knew we'd miss, was a washroom with a toilet at night. We'd have to put clothes on and head across to the (admittedly very close) toilet block. This thought was quickly followed by the joyful realisation that this also meant we had no toilet cassette to empty into the chemical disposal point at the end of the weekend!
We went off to explore Sandy Balls properly. The site is set in a magnificent estate of sandy heathland and woods, so we set off to find the Sandy Balls that give the site its quirky name. They're not far from the camping areas, and when we scrambled up one of these hills in the woods, we had a fantastic view over the river below and the magnificent 'Vista Lodges' across the wooded valley.
We went to the Sandy Balls Village Shop and were delighted to see that you could easily survive without ever leaving the campsite. The shop sells a modest selection of fresh meat, vegetables and fruit, plus plenty of biscuits, cakes, chocolate, sweets, jams and other groceries and camping supplies.
Sandy Balls has excellent leisure facilities. There's a gym, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, with a 'Skull Island', jacuzzi, kayaking, canoeing, arcade, children's craft activities, live music, takeaway food and a courtyard with seating, sun umbrellas and TV screens.
That night we ate a delicious meal in Woodside Inn at Sandy Balls (Tapas dishes, a 6oz Ribeye steak and chips, and a chicken dish, followed by a tropical ice-cream dessert) and watched some exciting World Cup football on the giant TV screen indoors. It was a lively Friday night and the campsite was buzzing with excitement.
The next day we hired 'Comfort Bikes' from the helpful guys at theSandy Balls Cycle Centre and set off across the New Forest on a wonderful 10.4-mile bike trail across Hampton Ridge, to the Royal Oak pub at Fr
We ate at the Pizza in the Piazza on the campsite that night and again were really pleased with the food.
It was another World Cup football night and we watched the game in the courtyard. When we got back to the pod the guys in the pre-erected tent behind us were chatting happily to each other over a few beers. They carried on until 1am. The pod's insulation kept some of the sound out and I slept well, but unfortunately my partner Malcolm had his second sleepless night and a chat with the night warden.
If I could improve one thing about Sandy Balls Holiday Village, it would be to separate the night owls from the early risers. The pods are situated between the late revellers in the Ready Tents and the happy children flocking to the adventure playground early in the mornings. I would move the Ready Tents to a separate rally field and put touring caravan and motorhome pitches in the field behind the pods instead.
There is so much to see in this part of the New Forest that I'd like to go back for another visit. We managed to fit in more walks in the beautiful woodlands owned by Sandy Balls and a visit to the peaceful little Rockbourne Roman Villa, then on the way home went off to Buckler's Hard at Beaulieu, to marvel at the skill of Nelson's shipwrights back in the days when wooden fighting ships were constructed on the banks of the river.
Compared to tent camping, staying in a pod is absolutely wonderful. It's warm, cosy, has a fridge, a TV, comfy beds, two generous tables and a barbecue stand. You won't get wet or cold once you are in your pod, which is more than you can say for some tents. You can arrive on site, move in and head off to enjoy all the activities on offer at Sandy Balls Holiday Village without delay.
A three-night weekend in early July costs £279, while four nights mid-week costs £199 (4-17 July). This goes up to £349 for the four-night mid-week break at the end of July. In peak season (end of July to the end of August) bookings are for a whole week at a time. Check out thespecial offers at Sandy Balls Holiday Villagefor late deals.
If you're a confirmed caravanner or motorcaravanner, then a camping pod probably isn't for you, wherever it's located. Just take your caravan or motorhome and enjoy the touring pitches at Sandy Balls Holiday Village, which are 11m x 11m (5m x 6m of that being the gravel hardstanding). They have water, a TV point and 10A electric hook-ups. For the same period in July, a touring pitch for two adults and two children costs £130 and includes the use of all the facilities.
Would I go again? Yes, ideally with my toddler grandson when he's a bit bigger, since Sandy Balls caters so well for families with children. It would also be good for a holiday with friends.
In fact, for my next New Forest adventure, I've got my eye on one of those ultimate Vista Lodges, set in the quiet woodland, overlooking the view. Next time I'll take fairy lights and bunting.