1. Dorset’s best beaches

The most popular is Bournemouth beach, a glorious stretch of sand, where you can swim, surf (head to Boscombe for Europe’s first artificial surf reef) or build a sandcastle. Stroll along the beach, perusing the piers, and make the short climb up the Hengistbury Head at the eastern end for views of white cliffs and the Isle of Wight.

Dorset is home to the dramatic Jurassic coast and Durdle Door is essential visiting; an exceedingly picturesque and oft-photographed, giant natural limestone arch, near Lulworth.

There’s more highly acclaimed coastal walking along the epic South West Coast Path, starting at nearby Poole. Hikers may want to check out the beautiful New Forest too, famous for its indigenous ponies.

Dorset's Lulworth

2. Dorset is for book lovers

Bookworms will be pleased that Dorset is Thomas Hardy country and Bournemouth boasts the tomb of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. Other literary claims to fame include the epic (if stony) Chesil Beach, which gave Ian McEwan a name for a novel. Plus JRR Tolkien holidayed in Bournemouth for 30 years.

Bournemouth, Dorset

3. Watersports galore

Nearby, Poole has a huge sheltered harbour, a dream for watersports enthusiasts (windsurfing and kite surfing are big here) and some of the country’s most exclusive real estate.

4. Views, history and a ducking stool!

On the other side of Bournemouth, little Christchurch is worth visiting for the colossal, 11th- century Priory and England’s longest parish church claims some cracking views from the 120-foot tower. There are Saxon and Roman ruins here. Better still, there’s a ducking stool.

5. Bournemouth nightlife

Back in town, Bournemouth’s burgeoning language schools have recently boosted a boisterous nightlife scene that completely belies the town’s old-age reputation (hell, there’s even a Walkabout). Bournemouth is lamb dressed as mutton; it looks old, but it’s young really.

And a bonus reason to visit…

During the day the town has a casually infectious salty-air holiday atmosphere, neither too forced nor commercial. More people smile here than seems normal for this country.

Indeed, in a 2007 survey (by First Direct Bank) Bournemouth was found to be the happiest place in Britain.

Five more south coast gems

Isle of Wight
Its beaches and coastal scenery have long attracted holidaymakers, now a younger crowd comes for the Isle of Wight Festival (June) and Bestival (Sept).

The White Cliffs of Dover
Rated as Britain’s third greatest natural wonder in a Radio Times poll, the White Cliffs are ubiquitous in England’s folklore, from Shakespeare to James Bond. Best seen by boat.

South West Coast Path
The ultimate way to see the beautiful south-west region. The 1013km trail starts/ends in Poole and follows the coast all the way round Devon and Cornwall finishing at Exmoor. Great for day walks, too.

London by the sea? It’s better than that. Georgian charm and bohemia, plus great eatin’, shopping and clubbing.

Lizard Point, Cornwall
Unspoilt headland battered by the sea; great for inspiring hikes and wave watching. A less touristy Land’s End.

Essential information on visiting Bournemouth

WHEN TO GO: It can get crowded during  the summer holidays. April to May and September are better.
GETTING THERE: Trains go regularly from London Waterloo (book a couple of weeks in advance; from £5; southwesttrains.co.uk) or go by National Express bus (from £4; nationalexpress.com).
GETTING AROUND: To get to Durdle Door et al, you need your own wheels. Hire a car at easycar.com/tntmagazine to get a 5 per cent discount.
GOING OUT: A pint of beer costs about £2.85.
ACCOMMODATION: Bournemouth Backpackers (bournemouthbackpackers.co.uk) has beds from £14.
GET MORE INFO AT: bournemouth.co.uk.

Related: England’s best beaches

Words: Damian Hall