Famous for its ridiculously wealthy spit of sand, Sandbanks; for the extraordinary, fossil-strewn Jurassic Coast; for its stunning, rolling ‘Hardy’ landscape; for its ancient, pagan monuments; and for the lovely, golden towns of Sherbourne and Shaftesbury, Dorset is a very seductive place.
Bournemouth and Poole, family holiday destinations for more than a century, are enjoying a resurgence of interest. And Dorset also boasts some of the best beaches in England, great seaside sports, a couple of highly romantic castles, theme-parks for the most discerning children, and beautiful walks.
Start at the east of 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! is one of a string of high-wire adventure courses for ages 10+.
For all the hype and glitz, Poole’s Sandbanks is still a lovely place to bring your kids on holiday: the beach is long, sandy and clean, and it 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 £1.50 at the car-park). Other attractions in Poole are Farmer Palmers, a farm attraction with plenty to occupy most ages, Tower Park, for teenagers in need of stimulation, and Splashdown, a large water-park. Then there’s the Adventure Wonderland, an imaginative little theme-park in Christchurch just east of Poole.
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 collectively as Studland Nature Reserve, owned by the National Trust – which means they are in a pristine state and 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 up and down the water’s edge and making sandcastles. Visit the romantic Corfe Castle and its little 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). You can 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 Farm, a great place for smaller kids.
Between Poole and Purbeck, at Wareham, Monkey World is commendable monkey refuge, while the nearby Blue Pool is a bit of an oddity – 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 big boys who like pretending they’re driving some enormous piece of machinery.
A delightful, slightly stately little town at the far west of the county’s coastline, Lyme Regis is 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.
The lovely, ancient county town of Dorchester 12km from the coast back towards Poole has prehistoric roots, of which you can find traces, including 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 is the cherry on the cake. Further inland, Sherbourne and Shaftesbury, quintessential English towns, offer beautiful countryside for rural holidays in very good accommodation.
Back on or by the coast lie Abbotsbury Farm Park offering more fun for little ones, Weymouth Sea Life Park, a well-laid-out aquarium that makes for a very good day out, and, near Bridport, the Great Dorset Maize Maze, a slightly bonkers place offering fun for all the family in addition to its maze.
Dorset is great for foodie family holidays, with lots of friendly cafés on the shore or river: try Weymouth’s Crab House Café overlooking Chesil Beach – a wooden shack with hats on hand to keep off the sun, serving crabs and their own farmed oysters to take away – or the Riverside Restaurant in Bridport, an airy and informal spot for local seafood.
There are also some superb family-friendly pubs, among them the Square and Compass in Worth Matravers near Swanage – one of the loveliest locals in Britain, with sculptures and chickens outside, good beer, simple food and even a small fossil museum. It’s a great place for a stop-off on a Dorset coastal walk. You could also try the much-loved and almost legendary Museum Inn near Blandford Forum and the Langton Arms near Blandford, a peaceful 17th-century pub welcoming children, serving delicious food and offering first-rate accommodation.
A more upmarket option is the Langtry Manor Restaurant in Bournemouth, attached to the delightful Langtry Manor Hotel, built by Edward V11 for Lillie Langtry and on the glamorous end of the scale. The restaurant has rave reviews, and both it and the award-winning hotel are very welcoming to children.
Dorset comes into its own for family holidays during the summer, but don appropriate clothing and many of its attractions, even outdoor, can be enjoyed year-round.
Dorset is easy to reach for family holidays, with Bournemouth just less than 2hrs by road from London, mainly along the M3. Trains serving the region include direct ones from London Waterloo to Bournemouth taking from 1hr 45mins.
Bournemouth also has an airport serving various European destinations, while Poole is a Channel ferry port.
Easy to get to and full of good-value self-catering accommodation, Dorset is a prime spot for budget-friendly family holidays, although there are many places where you can splurge too.By Georgina Allen
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