Chalky cliffs tower over powder sand beaches, babbling brooks interlace through rolling heathland and ancient settlements buzz with proud inhabitants and curious visitors alike in Dorset’s breathtaking World Heritage site. Peppered with natural wonders and secret spots, more than half of the county is covered by Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, offering the perfect rural retreat. The county has offered inspiration for numerous literary works and continues to this day to lure creative types with its pastoral charm.
Steeped in ancient history, Dorset is famous for being the home of the Jurassic Coast. Beginning in neighbouring East Devon and stretching 96 miles all the way to Old Harry Rocks, north of Swanage, this prehistoric coastline is a treasure trove of geological wonders, including elaborate rock formations, caves and fossils. Immortalised in Thomas Hardy’s pulse-racing novels, this castle-flecked, farmstead-strewn landscape will seduce literary buffs and nature-lovers alike.
When to go
Located on England’s south coast, the county receives some of the UK’s longest sunshine hours, making it ideal for a British staycation. With countless beautiful beaches, ranging from sandy to pebbly, it’s unnecessary to jet off somewhere far-flung for a dose of summertime coastal hedonism. With the ocean’s range of blue hues, you’d be forgiven for thinking you had landed somewhere in the Mediterranean.
Having said that, Dorset is a great destination to visit any time of the year. The county’s rural interior is criss-crossed with stunning walking trails and driving roads where you can enjoy fragrant spring blooms or the colours of autumn. Wrapping up for a wind-swept winter hike is just as exciting, and you can reward yourself by scouting out an inn with a roaring fire to warm up next to.
What to do
Durdle Door is widely regarded as Britain’s most photographed beach, and its easy to see why. The famous rock arch was formed from erosion some 140 million years ago and attracts more than half a million snap-happy tourists each year, eager to see this unique formation.
Neighbouring Man O’ War bay is a rather more peaceful spot to pitch up and dip your toes into the blue. The stretch of ancient coastline also includes Lulworth Cove with its unique scallop shape and the Kimmeridge ledges where countless fossils can be found when chunks of the shale cliffs blister and fall. Kimmeridge bay is overlooked by the rather sweet Clavell Tower which you can stay the night in, however it is fully booked until at least 2020…!
The region positively overflows with historic drinking dens, none more instagram-worthy than peaceful Worth Matravers’ Square & Compass pub. The ‘bar’ rather more resembles a serving hatch, and we recommend pulling up a mushroom-shaped stone pew with a pint of the home-brewed Sat Down Be Cider. The village is also home to ‘Woodhenge’, Dorset’s contemporary answer to neighbouring Wiltshire’s infamous ancient edifice.
The major town of Bournemouth is great for shopping and classic coastal pursuits. Its Victorian pier, that stretches out 900 feet over the sandy beach and water, has an old-fashioned amusement arcade and variety theatre that will send visitors back in time to the turn-of-the-century heyday of seaside leisure. The bustling town also has many cool restaurants, bars and nightlife options and a pretty green ribbon of pleasure gardens that run through the centre to the seafront promenade. Walking the 7-mile length of Bournemouth beach from glittering, mansion-strewn Sandbanks Peninsula in the west to the impressive nature reserve of Hengistbury Head in the east is a great way of spending a fervent day. Reward yourself by making pitstops at the bountiful beachside cafés and bars that dot the esplanade, or take the weight off for a while by hopping on the cheerful road-train.
Along the coast, the seaside town of Weymouth was host to the 2012 Olympics sailing events. The town is sheltered from the elements by the 18 mile long and 15 metre high Chesil Bank, one of only 3 shingle beaches in Britain, that links the town to the Isle of Portland.
Literary legend Thomas Hardy’s hometown of Dorchester provided the inspiration for his catalogue of notable works, including Tess of the d’Urbervilles and The Mayor of Casterbridge. The town is home to many delightful restaurants, cafés and teahouses, and is overlooked by Maiden Castle, a huge, grass banked Iron-Age hill fort. The beautiful nearby village of Cerne Abbas is a draw for those wishing to catch a glimpse at its cheeky chalk Giant erected – sorry, etched – into the hillside.
Dorset is dotted with villages that have their own unique quirks, ripe for exploring. The steeply sloping, cobblestoned Gold’s Hill in Shaftesbury was made famous by ‘Britain’s favourite ad’ for Hovis bread in the 70s, or catch a medieval reenactment at the ruins of Corfe Castle. The Greyhound Inn at its foot claims the title of ‘most photographed pub in Britain’. Elsewhere in a county that takes great pride in its oddities, take the time to search out some giggle-inducing place names and hamlets such as Piddle, Droop, Shitterton and Scratchy Bottom.
On a more glamorous note, many locations in Dorset have been used for TV and movies, such as Bridport’s West Bay being a key location for ITV’s Broadchurch. Adaptations of Far from the Madding Crowd have been shot in Dorchester and its surrounds, and Lyme Regis’ Cobb Harbour was made famous by Meryl Streep’s cloaked figure in 1980’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman. More recently, Swanage’s heritage railway station stood in for Woking in the final scene of 2017’s WWII blockbuster Dunkirk.
What to eat
Seafood, naturally, takes a prime spot on Dorset’s menus. We love the Hix Oyster & Fish House in Lyme Regis, owned by culinary maestro Mark Hix, where you can tuck into freshly shucked molluscs and whole grilled lobster with breathtaking views of the Jurassic Coast. For an adults-only treat, book a spot at Sienna in Dorchester: the contemporary eatery’s tasting menu puts a fresh new spin on British favourites.
Those looking for high-end must visit The Pig on the Beach, Studland. New head chef Andy Wright continues the establishment’s ethos of using home grown vegetables and herbs from their own greenhouses and locally sourcing ingredients, adding his own interest in using foraged elements. The sunshine-yellow manor house has beautiful gardens to enjoy balmy afternoon meals in, with views to the sea and surrounding hills. Rick Stein has also extended his Cornish franchise of superior seafood restaurants to an apt location in glitzy Sandbanks.
Where to sleepThe Plantation – Canford Cliffs, Poole
Part of the Upham Group of inns, The Plantation is a smart pub with luxury boutique hotel rooms just a short drive from vibrant Bournemouth.
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With only 6 rooms, this family-run boutique hotel plays host to an award-winning restaurant and a charming atmosphere.
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What was once a medieval inn has been renovated into a modern boutique hotel, with 16 rooms and a lovely restaurant.
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Dorset is very accessible by car and has great train links to London, meaning the county is only 1.5-3 hours from the capital. Bournemouth and Southampton have small airports that link to numerous national and European destinations.