Start in east Dorset, with Bournemouth and Poole, the grande dames of resort towns, which have been entertaining visitors for years – although in Pooles’ case they used to be mainly pirates and brigands. Bournemouth, actually developed for Victorian holiday-makers, is a place of sandy beaches, formal gardens and seafront accommodation. For all their ‘old granny’ images, both towns have rejuvenated into much more happening places and are great family destinations. Don’t miss Bournemouth Oceanarium near the town’s pier. About 15km north, in Moors Valley Country Park, Go Ape! has high-wire adventure courses for both young and older kids, plus forest Segways.
Bring the kids to Poole’s Sandbanks, a lovely place despite the hype and glitz: the beach is long, sandy and clean, and shelves gently, so is good for non-swimmers, and the water is clear. There’s still a lot of old-fashioned family holiday fun to be had, but if you get bored of beach-ball and sun, there are always a few tacky celebrities swanning about on their yachts to spy on (and feel smug about, knowing that while they’ve spent £10 million for their view, yours was a couple of quid at the car-park). Other attractions in Poole are Farmer Palmers Farm Park, with plenty to occupy most ages including a summer maize maze, and Tower Park, for teens in need of stimulation, including Splashdown waterpark. Then there’s Adventure Wonderland, an imaginative little theme-park in Christchurch east of Poole.
In Poole Harbour, discover the National Trust’s Brownsea Island, famous for its red squirrels and other wildlife, and for its links with the Scout movement. Come here to picnic, walk, enjoy the natural play area, let the kids roam free, and perhaps stay over on the back-to-basics 'eco adventure' campsite (arriving by public or your own boat).
Take the ferry from across one of the largest natural harbours in the world to the quirky, beautiful Isle of Purbeck peninsula. Your first stop is the stretch of sandy beaches known as Studland Nature Reserve, also owned by the National Trust – which means they're pristine and in another world from the mad tackiness of Sandbanks. There are a few little eating places and some watery things to do, but mainly it’s about strolling along the water’s edge and making sandcastles. Visit romantic Corfe Castle and its adjacent village. It’s all right out of the 1950s – Enid Blyton set some ‘Famous Five’ adventures in this area (a fact that’s not gone unnoticed by the Tourist Board and several small shops).
Drive over to the spectacular Durdle Door natural limestone arch, or spend an afternoon enjoying the history-themed entertainments at Lulworth Castle – we recommend a quick steam-train trip from Swanage and a picnic on the other side of the castle, which lets you enjoy the views down over Chesil Beach, now famous because of the Ian McEwan novel. Near Swanage you’ll also find Putlake Adventure Farm, a great place for smaller kids.
Between Poole and Purbeck, at Wareham, Monkey World is a commendable monkey refuge, while the nearby Blue Pool is an old clay pit that has been turned into a lake and looks quite extraordinary in the summer sun. You can’t swim here, alas, but there is a tea-room and a museum of clay mining. West of Wareham, the Tank Museum in Bovington is for those who like pretending they’re driving some enormous piece of machinery.
Venture to delightful, slightly stately little Lyme Regis at the far west of the county’s coastline – a good place for families to stay and in particular a good place for small dinosaur enthusiasts or fossil-hunters. It’s one of the gateway towns to the Jurassic Coast, a UNESCO World Heritage Site covering 135km of coastline between West Dorset and East Devon. In 1811, after a fierce storm caused parts of Lyme Regis’ East Cliff to collapse, 12-year-old Mary Anning, a keen fossil-hunter, discovered an almost complete dinosaur skeleton, a 9m ichthyosaurus, now displayed in London's Natural History Museum. The Dinosaurland fossil museum in the town and a thousand little shops selling dinosaur kits help feed the interest.
Just outside Lyme Regis, check out the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre with its free interactive exhibitions on local geology, and join in with a guided fossil walk or rockpooling sortie for all ages.
Amble the lovely, ancient county town of Dorchester 12km from the coast back towards Poole. Traces of its prehistoric roots include the Maumbury Rings and Maiden Castle. It also has Roman ruins, the house belonging to Thomas Hardy, a military museum and hosts of pretty streets and churches, and great places to stay and child-friendly eating places. The Dinosaur Museum will detain you for about an hour on a rainy day; better (and cheaper) is the Dorset County Museum with its Jurassic Dorset and Ancient Dorset galleries. Further inland, Sherbourne and Shaftesbury, quintessential English towns, offer beautiful countryside for rural holidays in very good accommodation.
Turn back towards the coast. Abbotsbury Children's Farm offers more fun for little ones, while the Weymouth Sea Life Adventure Park is a well-laid-out aquarium that makes for a very good day out, with general tickets including access to the Jurassic Skyline viewing tower and the Caribbean Cove Adventure Playground (more expensive tickets also get you into the on-site Pirate Adventure Mini Golf).