Magnificent coastline, beautiful countryside, irresistible romantic ruins and wonderful local produce make Dorset a superb place to go. Here's our guide to what to do, where to stay and what to eat.
Save the flashier stretches of coast and Bournemouth’s polished urban sprawl veering towards Hampshire, Dorset is England’s dishevelled and delightfully understated county. A fiercely rural oasis between the Devon and Cornwall crowds and commuter belt territory, the county’s bucolic, chimney-smoke-and-thatched-village character inspired Thomas Hardy’s pen and remains wilfully suspended in time.
What to do in Dorset
A sparkling wine of the year award from the IWSC put Langham firmly on the wine map, and brought Dorset’s quietly swelling wine scene into sharp focus. For a deep dive into Langham’s Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, opt for the two hour tour, or take a self-guided tour through the vines followed by a deliciously unfussy lunch with a glass of Langham’s four wines.
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Head to Sandbanks for a beach-hut lined promenade or Shell Bay for flawless, buttermilk sand.
Further west, fossil country feels craggier and untamed, with Lulworth Cove a particularly lovely bay not far from the world-famous Durdle Door (which you’ll see at the top of this page).
Equally world-famous — though more for fossil hunting than ethereal beauty — is Chesil Beach.
This 18-mile stretch of shale flanking a lagoon is famous for the fossils found here which shed so much light on the age of dinosaurs. It’s even given the area the name by which it’s now often known: the Jurassic Coast, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Whether reaching it by ferry from Poole Quay or hiring a little motorboat, Brownsea Island is an Enid Blyton-worthy day trip. Red squirrels, sika deer, oystercatchers and kingfishers are fiercely protected as part of this wildlife sanctuary and thrive in a mosaic of woodland, heathland and lagoon.
Corfe Castle village tumbles down the hillside in weather-worn thatched cottages and historic pubs, all under the menacing gaze of the castle’s ruins. Visitors wander in and out of old fashioned sweet shops for candy cane, humbugs and fudge, while saucers clink in tearooms full of clotted cream-laden scones.
With its burgeoning art and interiors scene, its artisanal backbone that cities now fetishise, and its proximity to trendy West Bay and Burton Bradstock, this West Country market town is having a moment. Bridport springs to life on Wednesday and Saturday, when its main square is animated by market stalls flogging everything from coastal plunder to antique furniture.
Best hotels in Dorset
The team behind the Groucho club turned their gaze South West, to Burton Bradstock and settled on an unloved retirement home peering over Lyme Bay. Now, white tablecloths, long lobster lunches and misty sea views paint a nostalgic picture, while rooms hit that refreshed-historic sweet spot of standalone bath tubs and wood panelling galore.
From £245 per night
This creamy coastal pile is a nirvana for parents, all while keeping things civilised for those without them. The interiors are the epitome of fresh, contemporary classicism, courtesy of a recent overhaul, while an Elemis-stocked spa pampers guests already drowsy from the salty Jurassic Coast air.
From £140 per night
The far-reaching views out to sea from the Pig-on-the-beach’s clifftop perch are exhilarating. As is this voguish hotel’s architecture and interiors: a higgley piggeldy turreted building mixing Gothic and Victorian features with a cool spin on period drama unfolding inside. Fiercely local fare lines rustic tables in the orangerie: expect pollock reeled in that morning and vegetables plucked from the kitchen gardens.
From £342 per night
Deep in the rural thickets of West Dorset, on a farm in Lower Antsy lies a luxxy riff on rustic cabin idylls. Two huts, Littledown and Links, may suggest the simple life with their floor-to-ceiling lake views, but elaborate upholstered headboards, deep alfresco bath tubs and cultish ceramics have other ideas. An honesty bar shows off Dorset’s spirit game and breakfast boxes of farm-eggs and overnight oats can be organised.
From £175 per night
This red-bricked Sherborne townhouse is a portal into a sprawling warren of traditional rooms and renovated potting sheds tucked along a secret walled garden. After a recent shake-up, the locavore restaurant menu splits into more à la carte-style duck leg Bon Bons and Pork Belly with sobrassado roasted fennel, and the elevated classics – fish and chips and sticky toffee pudding.
From £290 per night
Best restaurants in Dorset
Along the fringes of the happening seaside village of Burton Bradstock lies Bredy Farm, whose milk parlour-turned-pizza parlour is considered one of the region’s favourite lunch spots. Portofino-style plates decked with local mackerel, prosciutto with caper berries, Salsiccia and hearty pizzas showcase West Dorset’s farming prowess; the latter arriving piping hot from a makeshift wood-fired oven.
Occupying a blue cottage in one of Dorset’s most idyllic market towns, The Wimborne Pig is a paean to the county’s fierce farming and fishing traditions. Its deli beginnings blossomed into a bona fide restaurant – two floors of original floorboards with a menu of Jurassic Coast steak, low-and-slow ballotine of brisket and pork belly, and allotment beetroot hummus.
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Well-documented as the UK’s most expensive slice of sand, Sandbanks edges towards the Bournemouth side of Dorset’s character, where Rick Stein is the hot table to book. Expect Brownsea Island oysters, Stein’s legendary Indonesian seafood curry and Cornish lobster thermidor, all with twinkling views across the bay.
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Working closely with local farmers and fisherman, Ex-Four Seasons chef JamieJones and his wife Ariane serve up Michelin-grade food for those exploring Thomas Hardy Country. Aperitifs and exquisite canapes ease into piping hot slithers of home-made bread coated in proper Dorset butter, then tapenade baked gurnard fillet and creedy duck breast with carrot puree and Dorset honey.
Etched into a sleepy West Dorset scene of thatched cottages and nostalgic phone boxes is The Acorn Inn, whose starring appearance in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles places it on the literary pilgrimage map). Low wooden beams, an original skittle alley and two bars thrum with locals soaking up real ales and Dorset gins with hearty plates of Portland lamb chops.
Those in the know have peeled off the main routes to the South-West and made this county of contrasts their
Mark Griffiths celebrates the 52 species of native British orchids whose extraordinary history and unconventional beauty have beguiled and intrigued
Paula Lester — herself a resident of Dorset — shares tips for those looking to enjoy a getaway in Sherborne.
Thomas Hardy’s depictions of a fictional Wessex and his own dear Dorset are more accurate than they may at first