Darwin Forest Review (2022)

 Ad - This post was published in June 2022 and is based on a press trip in May 2022. Any shares / edits beyond this date have not been asked for. Please visit darwinforest.co.uk for the most up-to-date information. 

This trip had been originally planned for Spring 2020 but for obvious reasons, had to be postponed. Our original plan was to spend the weekend visiting Alton Towers with our Merlin Annual Passes and using Darwin Forest as a base from which to do this. 

However fast forward two years and our priorities have changed. We no longer have Merlin Annual Passes and now have an additional four-legged friend Fozzy in our family.

The beauty of Darwin Forest though is that they are flexible and can accommodate different kinds of trips - whether this be theme park lovers, dog-friendly holidays or families looking for a base to relax. 

We re-booked at the last minute and the aim of this break was for us to spend some quality time together as a family at the start of May Half Term and also celebrate Steve leaving his employed role of 19 years and joining North East Family Fun as a partner. 

Darwin Forest is not a budget holiday provider - they are a five star rated site and have received numerous awards and accolades over the years including 'Best in Britain' at the Hoseasons awards. Everything at Darwin Forest is finished to a very high standard.

If you are looking for the best prices, look for an off-peak stay - three night weekend breaks are available from as little as £335 for a family of four. I would also recommend checking out the late availability section of their website if you're looking for a break away in the next few weeks. 

There are a range of lodges available from luxury one bed lodges with spa bath and sauna up to larger exclusive lodges which sleep up to 8 and can include wine coolers, games consoles and coffee machines. Dedicated pet friendly lodges are available and many lodges come with a hot tub too.

You can browse the range of lodges available here. On this trip we stayed in a three bedroom, pet-friendly Haddon Classic Skyline Lodge. You can read a detailed review of the Haddon Classic Skyline Lodge here. These lodges feel super spacious and are really cosy. 

Friday Night at Darwin Forest 

Darwin Forest is located in the Peak District near Matlock Bath. It's just under a 3 hour drive from Newcastle and a pretty straight forward drive. We left straight from school and arrived at around 6:30pm. Check in is open until 8pm but if you are going to arrive later than that, it's not a problem, just give them a call and they'll make arrangements. 

Check in is super straight forward - simply park up at the reception car park, pop in and collect your keys and welcome pack. Darwin Forest is a fairly small site and most lodges offer two parking spaces for cars directly outside of their lodge which was handy.

Darwin Forest Review (2022)

Because the site is small and I suspect partly due to the way it has been designed, you rarely encounter any traffic and there is plenty of space around the lodges for kids to play. Our lodge (like most) did not have a private garden but you are in the middle of the woods. We did have a large enclosed decked area with beautiful views. A nice place to sit and listen to the birds. 

I noticed quite a few lodges had booked supermarket deliveries and their vans were allowed to drive up to the lodges to unload which again, it handy. We had just brought a few supplies from home but there is also a small shop on site if you need any essentials. 

Immediatly the kids wanted to explore - I made them take a photo of the site map and sent them off to find the adventure playground with instructions to return in an hour. It was so handy having that time without them being under our feet (they beauty of having older kids) and it allowed us to get organised and cook some burgers ready for their return. 

Not one to be left out, I too wanted to explore but time was getting on. We decided to take Fozzy on his evening walk through the woodland walk. There are a few different walks to enjoy direct from your lodge door at Darwin Forest - they are detailed on the map you are provided with on arrival or you can access via the Darwin Forest app. 

The woodland walk is lovely and perfect if walking with kids too. Lots of flowers, huge trees and little woodland games and sculptures to spot en-route which is always exciting - you never know what's going to be around the corner. 

We ended our day together in the lodge snuggled up watching Googlebox together which was followed by a lovely night's sleep. 

Saturday at Darwin Forest 

We're big fans of slow Saturday mornings - Steve will make us some breakfast and we'll watch cookery shows with our morning tea/coffee and if we can when we're away, this is the routine we'll stick with. The kitchens in the lodges at Darwin Forest are well equipped with everything you need to prepare family meals (including a dishwasher and full size fridge freezer in most). 

After our slow start, we planned to go swimming. Well behaved dogs can be left unattended in lodges for a short period of time at Darwin Forest (although you will be liable for any damage caused). You know your own dog and for us, I knew Fozzy would be fine being left for an hour or so (and he was). In fact I think he likes the peace! 

Something I was very surprised with at Darwin Forest is that the swimming pool does not require any pre-booking here. I've yet to visit anywhere else in the UK where this is the case. It was freeing just being able to come and go as you please. The pool is open from early morning until 8pm/9pm and you can visit, free of charge, as many times as you like throughout your stay. You just need to sign yourself in and out at reception. 

One thing to note though is that there is no lifeguard on duty and under 15s need to be accompanied by an adult which is much older than what we are used to. It didn't matter too much to us as we all wanted to go swimming but if you have younger teens who are used to swimming alone on holiday, this is something to keep in mind. 

The pool is 1.3m deep throughout with a small toddler area too. There are no slides and there is a section dedicated to lane swimming. It didn't feel freezing to me and we really enjoyed just relaxing and swimming here. There is a viewing area for spectators and you can pay for various activities such as water zorbing, the gym or to access the spa too for a small fee. If you fancy a real treat, beauty treatments are available. 

There are family and individual changing rooms which were very clean. You need to leave outdoor shoes at reception when you sign in which I definitely think helps with cleanliness. 

After swimming it was back to the lodge for a quick lunch before heading back out. 

Darwin Forest has a range of activities on offer including archery, axe throwing and even mini jet skis. These can be booked online ahead of your visit.

As our trip was booked at the last minute, there wasn't much availability left but that's not too much of a problem as there are plenty of drop in activities too including an adventure playground, trim trail, indoor games room and mini golf. There's a huge soft play on site too if you are visiting with younger kids. 

We started the afternoon with a walk around the trim trail with Fozzy and the kids. It was super quiet and we didn't bump into anyone else. This self-guided trail runs alongside a little stream and includes nine different mini activities to try including balance beams, pull up bars and climbing walls. 

We had a good laugh trying them together and getting a little competitive too. As expected Dee beat us all hands down. 

You can collect orienteering / children's trail maps from reception and there are wildlife and activity boards dotted around the woodland walks too. Loads to keep you occupied. 

After our walk around the trim trail, we fancied a drink. There are two options at Darwin Forest - the Explorer Cafe which is attached to the soft play (and also has outdoor seating) or Foresters Pub / Restaurant. Dogs are welcome in the outdoor areas of the Explorer Cafe and Foresters and in the bar area at Foresters. 

We decided to visit Foresters and their outdoor terrace is a real sun trap. One of the areas is joined onto the adventure playground and ideal for parents to enjoy a drink while the kids play. The staff behind the bar are super friendly and are the kind of people who will remember you / your order if you pop back again during your stay. 

Bar prices weren't too extreme and we spent a good hour playing our new favourite game (ad) Taco Cat Goats Cheese Pizza. Eee what a laugh we had playing this. Most families with older kids / teens seemed to have the same idea and the tables around us were playing various card games too. It was a lovely way to spend the afternoon and the atmosphere was really nice. 

After relaxing in the pub, we were ready for another activity and popped along to the mini golf course. You pick up golf clubs and balls from reception and to my surprise, it's completely free and again, an activity which doesn't need to be booked. There are nine holes of varying difficulty and we enjoyed the course. The receptionists gave us a little tip to not pot our ball on the last hole and then we could go around again. 

I'm not exactly sure of the dog policy on the golf course. From experience most courses don't allow dogs but this course is fairly small and most people seemed to just stand with their dogs on the grass a little back from the course while others in the group were playing. There is a picnic table overlooking the course too if someone in the group wishes to spectate rather than play. 

Saturday Evening at Darwin Forest 

Saturday night had been pencilled into our diary as our 'celebration night out' in recognition of our family's change of circumstances / Steve joining NEFF. We decided to book a table at Foresters for convenience and as it's on site, it meant we could enjoy a bottle of wine too. Booking a table is recommended in advance and it's easy to do online ahead of your visit. 

I have to say, I was extremely impressed with our meal and I thought we received very good value for money. Service was attentive and despite the main bar area being busy, there wasn't too much of a wait for food either. The only negative I would say is that a lot of the dishes were not available due to shortages which looking at other reviews, seems to be an on-going issue. Don't set your heart on a particular dish and you should be ok. 

A children's menu is available but we all ordered from the main menu. 

We ordered four starters, five main courses, a couple of sides, a bottle of wine and three large soft drinks and our bill was £110. Considering this included a couple of seafood dishes, I thought this was a really good price for a special meal out and had to double check the bill. I'd definitely recommend a meal here. 

Sunday at Matlock Bath 

This wasn't our first stay at Darwin Forest and we usually tend to follow the same pattern - we'll stay on site one day and on another day we'll explore somewhere close by. In previous visits we have enjoyed a trip to Alton Towers, Bakewell and Bolsover Castle. I really want to visit Eyam Plague Village which is also nearby but it's not fully dog-friendly so wasn't meant to be on this trip.

However somewhere that had been on my list to visit for a long time was the Heights of Abraham and Matlock Bath and I was delighted to see that both places welcome dogs.

We booked tickets to Heights of Abraham in advance and read that it's best to get there for opening as the car park can get busy later in the day. Matlock Bath is just a 10 minute drive from Darwin Forest and we had no problems getting parked at 10am (it was a lot busier when we left). 

Heights of Abraham isn't a cheap day out but there are various discounts available. Expect to pay £50-£70 for a family ticket. I do think your ticket offers good value though as it includes a return cable car ride, adventure playgrounds, access to exhibitions and sculpture trails plus two guided cavern tours. I'd aim to spend 3-4 hours here but you can easily spend all day. 

This was Harry, Dee and Jack (plus Fozzy)'s first cable car ride and they absolutely loved it. Look at their smiles. We definitely made a memory on this day. 

Dogs are welcome in most of the outdoor areas at Heights of Abraham but cannot take a cavern tour. However this has been well thought out and there are dog-friendly walks which take you overground from the start of the tour to the finishing point where you can meet back up with your group. 

Steve and the kids really enjoyed the cavern tours and when I met up with them were full of stories of children working in the mine and how they'd touched 'cave snot'. Nice!! 

You can take picnics to Heights of Abraham but we decided to have lunch in their restaurant. You can book a terrace table with a spectacular view in advance of your visit but we aren't that organised and had to make do with a table on the rear terrace instead.

It was still nice and our food was absolutely delicious. I had a chicken caeser salad which had plenty of chicken in it and the boys' burgers looked so good. The staff in the restaurant were lovely and service was prompt too. 

Heights of Abraham is absolutely immaculate and the views are just spectacular. There were staff constantly cleaning and everything is in extremely good condition. It's clear to see where the admission fee is being spent here. 

After enjoying the activities on offer at Heights of Abraham, we headed back down in the cable car to Matlock Bath. It's just a short walk into the town from the car park so no need to move our car. 

Matlock Bath is somewhere with a charm all of it's own. It's like a seaside town with multiple fish and chip shops / ice cream stalls and gift shops but there isn't actually a beach. There's a lovely riverside walk and small playground and arcades to play. 

Matlock Bath is home to a small aquarium which allows dogs to visit too. It was only £3.90 per person to visit so it was a no brainer for us. It's a small but quirky place with a nice variety of fish and a large carp pool where you can feed the fish.

Randomly, there is a hologram exhibition above the aquarium and a visit is included with admission. We actually enjoyed this and the kids liked seeing the various graphics jumping from their frames. 

Our day at Matlock Bath naturally came to an end in the late afternoon and our original plan was to stay for fish and chips for tea but as we'd had a fairly large lunch we weren't ready for anything substantial yet so decided to head back to the lodge (via Matlock Meadows Ice Cream Parlour) instead.

Matlock Meadows is a cute little place - you can buy ice cream direct from the farm, say hello to the animals and there are indoor and outdoor play areas too. 

Later in the evening, Steve and I popped back to Matlock Bath to pick up fish and chips to take back to the lodge.

It was nice having a little romantic stroll along the river just us two and the prices here are so cheap - a chippy tea for 5 was just £19! There are a few different takeaways who will deliver to Darwin Forest and sometimes the pub offers takeaway too. 

Monday in Matlock 

Check out is 10am at Darwin Forest. I did have plans to visit Lea Gardens after spotting Darwin Forest's Facebook page share their page. It's a stunning Rhododendron garden with over 500 varieties and looks right up my street. Dog friendly too. However the weather was threatening rain and I decided that taking the teens on a rainy walk to see some flowers before driving home probably wasn't my best idea. 

I googled dog-friendly cafes for breakfast nearby which brought up 'Cafe In The Park' in Matlock (not to be confused with Matlock Bath) which was just a few miles away and had good reviews. There is a dog-friendly area inside and covered outdoor seating overlooking the park too. 

What a lovely place. I'm so pleased we visited on the off chance as it was really nice. Dee was super pleased to see Nutella on Toast on the menu and their local sausages were absolutely superb.

I would recommend keeping this place in for a cake stop too - their cake cabinet looked so good and I was very tempted to order a big slice for breakfast pudding. After a Full English it just wasn't going to happen though. 

The rain held off so we enjoyed a walk around Hall Leys Park where the cafe is based. It's a lovely place that reminded me of Morpeth with a mini train, boating lake, ducks to feed, outdoor paddling pool/splash zone, sports courts and playground. A nice place to spend a few hours and I'm pleased we discovered it before heading home. 

I did consider booking tickets to Chatsworth House and visiting before our journey home as I've heard so many good things about it but I think it's the kind of place to best explore without a dog to get your money's worth and really somewhere you need to plan to spend at least half a day.

Also, before we booked this trip away we had already booked cinema tickets to see Maverick with the extended family at home at tea time so needed to get back for that. It's a place for us to visit another time though. 

Our break at Darwin Forest was exactly what we needed. A relaxing break with attractions suitable for teens and dogs close by as well as excellent on site facilities to provide the opportunity for lots of family time with no hassle. 

Find our more and book here: darwinforest.co.uk

You can read more about Darwin Forest and things to do close by in the following posts: 

Visiting Darwin Forest with Tweens 


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