Holiday hot spot Dorset offers a checklist of charms. Its shoreline is one of Britain’s best and boasts the Jurassic Coast – a World Heritage Site flecked with sea-carved bays, crumbly cliffs and beaches loaded with fossilised souvenirs. Swimming, kayaking and hiking here are memorable indeed. Inland, Thomas Hardy's lyrical landscape serves up vast Iron Age hill forts, rude chalk figures, fairy-tale castles and must-see stately homes. Then there are resorts alive with party animals, golden beaches flanked by millionaires' mansions, and sailing waters that have hosted Olympic events. Time then to add Dorset to your holiday list.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Dorset.
The massive, shattered ruins of Corfe Castle loom so dramatically from the landscape it's like blundering into a film set. The defensive fragments tower over an equally photogenic village, which bears the castle's name and makes for a romantic spot for a meal or an overnight stay. Corfe Castle hosts events in the shadows of its atmospheric ruins, including outdoors theater in the summer, and festive events in December. History The startling, fractured battlements of one of Dorset's most famous landmarks were once home to Sir John Bankes, Charles I’s right-hand man. The Civil War saw the castle besieged by Cromwellian forces; in 1646 the plucky Lady Bankes directed a six-week defence and the castle fell only after being betrayed from within. The Roundheads then gunpowdered Corfe Castle apart; turrets and soaring walls still sheer off at precarious angles – the splayed-out gatehouse looks like it's just been blown up. Tickets and other information Corfe Castle is managed by the National Trust, and booking in advance of your visit is strongly recommended (this includes NT Members). The car park is around 0.4 miles (700m) from the site, and the castle grounds are uneven with cobbles and steep sections. There's a cafe onsite along with pubs and tea rooms in the village of Corfe Castle that will ensure you're well fed.
Durdle Door is the poster child of Dorset's Jurassic Coast. This immense, sea-fringed, 150-million-year-old Portland stone arch was created by a combination of massive earth movements and erosion. Today it's framed by shimmering bays, with a long sand-and-shingle beach and high limestone cliffs behind. A swim here is unforgettable, but there are no lifeguards. The route from the car park You can park at the top of the cliffs (four hours £5). Make the most of the facilities here as there is nothing down at the beach. The path to Durdle Door is around 0.5 miles (900m) and very steep with over 140 steps. Wear appropriate footwear, and be prepared to carry all your belongings and trash back up the path with you on your return. Alternative routes The route from Lulworth Cove follows a section of the South West Coast Path (approx 1 mile). A quieter and much more rewarding (if testing) walk is east along the coast from Ringstead, or from the car park 0.5 miles northeast of that village (7.4 miles return).
Dorset's must-see stately home looks every inch the setting for a period drama. It overflows with rich decor, most famously in the Spanish Room, which is smothered with gold and gilt. Other highlights are the hieroglyphics in the Egyptian Room and the elegant marble staircase and loggia. Artworks include the overwhelming ceiling fresco The Separation of Night and Day, by Guido Reni, and paintings by Rubens, Titian and Van Dyck. Kingston Lacy is 2.5 miles west of Wimborne.
The tiny cottage that was home to TE Lawrence (1888–1935) provides a compelling insight into a complex man. The British soldier became legendary after working with Arab tribes against Turkish forces in WWI. Look out for Lawrence's evocative desert-campaign photos, his French crusader castle sketches and the desk where he abridged Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
Occupying a massive slab of horizon on the southern fringes of Dorchester, Maiden Castle is the largest and most complex Iron Age hill fort in Britain. The first defences were built on the site around 500 BC – in its heyday it was densely populated with clusters of roundhouses and a network of roads. The Romans besieged and captured Maiden Castle in AD 43 – an ancient Briton skeleton with a Roman crossbow bolt in the spine was found at the fort.
Portland's white limestone has been quarried for centuries and has been used in some of the world's finest buildings, such as the British Museum and St Paul's Cathedral. Tout Quarry's disused workings now house more than 50 sculptures that have been carved into the rock in situ, resulting in a fascinating combination of the raw material, the detritus of the quarrying process and the beauty of chiselled works. Tout Quarry is signed off the main road, just south of Fortuneswell.
Rarely do you find such a nudge-nudge, wink-wink tourist attraction. Nude, full frontal and notoriously well endowed, this hillside chalk figure is revealed in all his glory. And he's in a stage of excitement that wouldn't be allowed in most magazines. The giant is around 60m high and 51m wide and his age remains a mystery; some claim he's Roman but the first historical reference comes in 1694, when three shillings were set aside for his repair. These days a car park provides grandstand views.
The Thomas Hardy collection here is the world's largest, offering extraordinary insights into his creative process. You can see from text in Hardy's cramped handwriting where he's crossed out one word and substituted another. There's also an atmospheric reconstruction of his study at Max Gate and a letter in which Siegfried Sassoon requests permission to dedicate his first book of poems to Hardy.
Every May some 600 free-flying swans choose to nest at this swannery, which shelters in the Fleet Lagoon, protected by the ridge of Chesil Beach. Wandering the network of trails that winds between the swans' nests is an awe-inspiring experience that's punctuated by occasional territorial displays (snuffling coughs and stand-up flapping), ensuring that even the liveliest children are stilled. The swannery is near the picturesque village of Abbotsbury, 10 miles from Weymouth off the B3157.