Dorset holidays

Experience Dorset

Experience [destination]

Best Places to Visit

Dorset is one of the prettiest of England's counties, and is still mostly agricultural and mainly unspoilt. Its natural highlight is the amazing Jurassic Coast, now a UNESCO World Heritage site for its wild cliffs and the dinosaur fossils they contain. The coastal resort towns vary from buzzing to traditional, with Bournemouth the busiest and its neighbour, Poole, set on one of the world's most beautiful harbours, now a hub for the international yachting set.

The most stunning natural wonder in Dorset is Poole Harbour, the second largest natural harbour on earth, formed at the end of the last ice age when melt waters flooded a valley, with its settlement history going back to pre-Roman times. It's a convoluted stretch of water, with Poole town and several small villages set along its shores and tiny islands in its bays and inlets. Its western shores are part of the Purbeck Heritage Coast, a vitally important wildlife haven.

Weymouth's Old Harbour is one of the prettiest such harbours along the coast, and the town boasts the Sea Life and Marine Sanctuary with its seals, rays, penguins and other watery species. Brewers' Quay on the harbour is a restored Victorian brewery that is now home to family attractions and a shopping village, and the resort's local pubs and fish and chip shops are a reminder of Weymouth's century-old popularity as a seaside town.

Brownsea Island is just offshore from Poole Harbour and is a National Trust site for its unique population of endangered red squirrels. Another attraction popular with families is the Swanage Steam Railway with its authentic steam locomotive and vintage carriages. The picturesque hilltop town of Shaftesbury is well worth a visit for its pretty streets lined with old houses and its charming market square. Lyme Regis is another traditional Dorset seaside town, made famous in the film the French Lieutenant's Woman.

Lyme Regis is also the gateway to the Jurassic Coast. The amazing number of fossils discovered along its nearly 100 miles since the 19th century has included examples of the larger dinosaur species, with thousands of fossil hunters arriving every summer. In winter you'll have its huge expanse to yourself. Expect to see the coastline at its busiest following periods of heavy weather, as the tides are more likely to have exposed fossils that have previously not been found.

Top Landmarks

Although Dorset isn't famous for vast cathedrals, massive palaces or spectacular Roman remains, the county has plenty of interest for those wishing to explore its long history. A favourite destination is dramatic, ruined Corfe Castle, perched high on a hill and dating from Norman times. During the English Civil War, Dorset was a royalist stronghold until the castle was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell's Puritan army in 1646, and the ruins remain a popular tourist sight and a great photo opportunity for visitors to this day.

Settlement here goes back over 2,000 years, with the county seat, Dorchester, once a Roman town. A few stretches of its Roman walls remain and locally excavated Roman artefacts are housed in its museum. Neolithic Maumbury Ring earthwork was used as an amphitheatre and Poundbury Hill is a pre-Roman Celtic site. Dorchester's other historic sites include a Tudor period almshouse, and the town was a centre for Puritans emigrating to the New World of America.

The Saxon market town of Wereham displays ancient earth ramparts built by King Alfred the Great to deter the Danish Viking raiders. Its ancient Lady St Mary Church holds the original 1,900-year old coffin of St Edward the Martyr, whose remains were moved to Shaftesbury Abbey during the medieval period. The totally naked Cerne Abbass Giant, carved through the grass into the white chalk soil of a hill, is of undetermined age and origin, but legendarily and rather obviously symbolises fertility.

Entertainment

Evening entertainment in all of Dorset's coastal resort towns is regularly provided by the major hotels and can be anything from live music, dancing, cabaret acts and DJ nights to family-themed events. Bournemouth's pier holds the Pavilion Theatre and Bournemouth International Centre, which offer rock and pop concerts, variety shows, comedy performances and occasional forays into the world of opera and ballet.

Weymouth's promenade is the venue for festivals, funfairs and entertainment, as well as for popular pubs and bars, and the town has the liveliest late-night venues of any Dorset resort town. Live music bars, dance clubs and lounges can be found and, thanks to the recent 24-hour licensing laws, late night can mean just that.

All the resort towns have multiplex cinemas showing the latest films and, for a unique night out, greyhound racing at Poole's Dog Track combines the excitement of backing a winner with a great atmosphere, delicious food and excellent service. Bournemouth's Funnybone Comedy Club is a hit every Friday night and the town's new Le Chic lounge and club is a stylish addition to the scene.

Live music fans have a great choice in the country, from pubs with regular live music nights featuring local bands and invited guest musicians to places such as Sturminster Newton's Exchange venue, offering quality cinema, theatre, community and music events. Finns in Weymouth is a hub for music fans and, for a local pub turned funky international live music venue, there's nowhere better than Portland's Royal Portland Arms.

Dining Out

Dining out in Dorset offers a surprisingly varied choice of everything from the traditional seaside holiday favourite of fish and chips to fine dining, fast foods and a variety of international options. Venues vary from bistros, traditional eat-in fish and chip shops, to local pubs and gastro-pubs, tea rooms, hotel restaurants at all levels and back-street speciality eateries.

Food and drink events are popular here, giving visitors the chance to sample the region's delicious blue cheese, apple cake, local seafood and other gourmet delights. Farmers' markets are weekly treats for foodies, with ultra-fresh fruit and vegetables as well as home-made jams, cakes, sweets, sauces and more. Local wines are also worth trying, as the mild, sunny weather in this corner of the UK supports vineyards.

If you're a fan of seafood in all its guises, Dorset is the place, with restaurants serving oysters from their own beds and freshly caught shellfish from local fishermen such as Lyme Bay scallops, local clams, lobsters and seasonal white fish. The Bay Cafe, set in Parkstone Bay off Poole Harbour, is an oasis of charm and serves chef-supervised seafood delights that won't break the bank against the glorious background of the harbour and its yacht-filled marina.

Beach

Dorset's beautiful beaches have been heaven for kids with buckets and spades for many decades, and they are still the perfect sea and sand destinations for family visits. For everyone else, they're just as great, with clean, safe waters, Blue Flag stretches and the main beach at Bournemouth still pulling in crowds of surfers when the wind and tide coincide. Chesil Beach's 17 miles of pebbles may not be suitable for sandcastles, but for water sports fans it's a centre for windsurfing and kite surfing. For rock pools, acres of sand and an offshore reef at low tide, Ringstead Bay lies five miles from Weymouth.

Romance

Dorset has plenty of romantic hideaways for a togetherness holiday, from country inns, rental farmhouses, holiday cottages and small hotels in remote villages to chic boutique hotels in Poole. Clifftop walks at sunset and deserted bays in early summer before the crowds arrive are perfect for fine views over the waters and lunchtime picnics, and a quiet drink or pub supper in a roadside inn miles from the nearest town are all ways to get to know each other again. 

Family

One of the best beaches for a family holiday in Dorset is Bournemouth's main beach, which is lined with resort hotels that give a great welcome to families with young children. As well as kids' clubs, organised activities and children's pools and menus at the hotels, there's a great choice of family-oriented leisure parks in the county, including Woodland Park with its ski slope, West Bay close to the Jurassic Coast and Sandford with its entertainment. Family attractions include the Bovington Tank Museum and Abbotsbury Swannery. 

Adventure

Walking, trekking and hiking are all popular activities in Dorset, as is horseback riding. The county has a network of outdoor pursuit centres, some of which offer all-inclusive holidays focusing on selected outdoor activities. River boating and sailing in the English Channel, and around the coastline are easily arranged, and micro lighting lessons can be had at Verwood's Microloght Aviation Club. A plethora of riding stables and equestrian clubs offer hacking at all levels and a trial flying lesson can be had at the Solent School of Flying.

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Need to know

Need to know [destination]

Language

The official language in the UK county of Dorset is English - one of the reasons why many Brits choose to stay within the country for a domestic 'staycation', along with the county's other attractions. As a popular international tourism destination, you're likely to hear a mix of world languages well represented too.

Currency

Although the UK is a European Union member country, it is not a member of the Eurozone and has the pound sterling (£) as its official currency. ATMs and banks offering currency exchange services are found in large towns, but banking services in rural villages may not be available. All major credit cards are accepted at most outlets, including petrol stations and shops, with cash only needed for small purchases and bus fares. Generally speaking, the pound is stronger than the euro, and usually stays at an exchange rate between €1 and €1.50 to the pound.

Visas

Citizens of other EU countries may enter the UK visa-free for an indefinite stay on production of an ID card or current passport. Citizens of the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and a number of other countries may also enter visa-free for a stay of up to six months. The list of eligible countries is posted on the UK Border Agency's website, with nationals of other countries advised to check online or at their nearest UK embassy for visa requirements. Visas may be required for longer visits and especially if you intend to work or study during your stay.

Climate

The county of Dorset lies along and back from the southwestern coastline of England and enjoys warm summers and mostly mild winters, with spring and autumn variable as regards temperatures and prevailing weather. The warmest months are July and August, with daytime highs of around 22°C and cooler evenings, and December through February is the coldest period with lows of around 6°C. Spring and autumn have variable temperatures and rainfall occurs throughout the year, although Dorset is one of England's sunniest counties.

Main Airports

Dorset's only airport is Bournemouth International Airport, a small facility some four miles from the centre of the resort town. It's mostly a hub for low-cost and charter flights to Mediterranean and North African beach resorts, and has no flights to London or any other UK regional airports.

Flight Options

Overseas visitors to Dorset will need to fly to one of London's airports or another UK regional international airport and continue their journey by public transport or hire car. The only international routes to Bournemouth International Airport are a seasonal flight from Geneva with EasyJet or a flight from Dublin with Aer Arann. There are no domestic flights from UK cities to this airport.

Travel Advice

Visitors may be able to take advantage of off-season discounts in Dorset's coastal resorts outside the brief July and August high season. Accommodation charges during July and August are at their highest, with reductions available at other times, particularly in the winter months, with the exception of the Christmas season.

Other Transport Options

For arrivals at the London airports of Heathrow and Gatwick, taking the train to Waterloo Station in central London and changing trains to the West Country lines to Bournemouth, Dorchester, Poole, Weymouth, Sherborne or Gillingham is the fastest way to go, with the journey taking around 3 hours. Long-distance buses run from London's Victoria Coach Station to most of Dorset's large towns, while self-drive is possible via the A303 road to the north of the county.

Getting Around

Getting around between the main towns and coastal resorts is by local train, bus or hire car, although the rural north of the county is poorly served by public transport. Rail lines joining villages were discontinued several decades ago and rural villages may only have one bus per day or even one bus per week.

Bus

Long-distance buses run from London's Victoria Coach Station to Dorset's coastal resorts and other major towns. There are regular links between the county's major towns but bus services in the agricultural areas are infrequent.

Car

Self-drive is the only practical way to tour Dorset, although car hire is expensive and petrol prices are among the highest in Europe. Even so, given the cost of travel by rail, if you're visiting in a group, it's the most economical way to see everything the county has to offer.

Train

Dorset is accessed by train from London's Waterloo Station via two lines, the West of England main line and the South Western main line. The first runs through the west of the county, stopping at Gillingham and Sherborne, and the second runs along the south through Bournemouth, Poole and Dorchester, terminating at Weymouth. A smaller line, the Heart of Wessex, runs from Weymouth to Bristol. Train travel in the UK is expensive, although the trains themselves are modern and comfortable.

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FACTS

  1. The modern name Dorset comes from the Saxon Dornsaete, which in turn came from the Roman Durnovaria, meaning 'the place of fist-sized pebbles'. At one time the full name of the county was Dorsetshire, but it has since been shortened.
  2. Many of Enid Blyton's Famous Five books are set around Poole Harbour and the Isle of Purbeck, and tourist trails take in both locations over two days.
  3. Surprisingly, this sleepy county is home to one of the hottest chillies in the world. The Dorset Naga registers over a million on the Scoville heat scale, and is tested annually by chilli experts.

FACTS

  1. The modern name Dorset comes from the Saxon Dornsaete, which in turn came from the Roman Durnovaria, meaning 'the place of fist-sized pebbles'. At one time the full name of the county was Dorsetshire, but it has since been shortened.
  2. Many of Enid Blyton's Famous Five books are set around Poole Harbour and the Isle of Purbeck, and tourist trails take in both locations over two days.
  3. Surprisingly, this sleepy county is home to one of the hottest chillies in the world. The Dorset Naga registers over a million on the Scoville heat scale, and is tested annually by chilli experts.

Holiday Types