The Northeast of England is booming as a destination, partly it seems due to the popularity of a certain MTV reality TV show based in and around Newcastle. But we've long rated the Northeast as a great place to take the family, with the coast of Northumberland being a particular favourite (see our feature on A Winter Break in Northumberland).
Another Northeast family highlight is County Durham and its lovely university town of Durham. The latter, worth exploring in its own right for its UNESCO listed cathedral and castle and its excellent shopping, is an ideal jumping-off point for the Durham Dales. These are part of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty with its waterfalls (including England's tallest, High Force), its heritage Weardale Railway, and Killhope, the North of England Lead Mining Museum, among other family-friendly attractions.
However, the real draw here, on the edge of County Durham as you head north, is Beamish, The Living Museum of the North. In this wonderful open-air re-creation of an early 19th-century pit village, you can take a ride on replica locomotives pulling reproduction period carriages, experience life down a drift mine, watch costumed interpreters act out scenes from daily life on a farm (complete with real animals), in shops, and so on, and then round it all off with lunch from the fish-and-chip shop – coal-fired, of course – and some treats from the old-fashioned sweet shop and sweet factory.
If it's university holiday time, you can actually stay in Durham Castle, which is partly a student residence – there are twin rooms, or also two grander state rooms, one with two bedrooms suited to families. Otherwise, the best place to stay in town is the Durham Marriott Hotel Royal Country, which is a little scruffy in parts (the characterful buildings can't be the easiest to maintain) but does have a good indoor pool and both connecting rooms and some with two double beds. For eats, the classic spot (as testified by the ever-present queues) is La Spaghettata, the best of several Italians in the city. The kitsch decor and informal atmophere make it great with kids (as well as popular with students), but the food is far from bog-stand – try the penne alla vodka or the salmon with chili, coriander, ginger and spring onions.