Prepare to be charmed by caravan holidays in Dorset – get the most from your visit with Practical Caravan's comprehensive travel guide

Think of the prettiest countryside and the most charming villages you can imagine and then double it. You have just found Dorset, a rural idyll of undulating hills in between which preposterously pretty villages seemingly grow from their roots. The traditional postcard has all but gone with the advent of social media, but those that sold showed images of old cob cottages with thatched roofs and roses clambering over the porches.

You can see such dwellings in virtually every village. Villages that have names straight out of a Hardy novel, but then that is not surprising for the author Thomas Hardy, was born in Dorset and lived and wrote his novels here. You can visit his birthplace – a cob and thatch cottage in the village of Higher Bockhampton – where he wrote pastoral greats like Under the Greenwood Tree and Far from the Madding Crowd.

Dorset is bordered by the counties of Devon and Somerset in the west, Wiltshire to the north and Hampshire and the New Forest to the East. Dorset is not just about inland countryside. Its coastline is one of the most famous in Britain – the Jurassic Coast, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that's 95 miles long (including a section of the Devon coast) and 185 million years old!

To the far west of the Dorset coastline lies the charming town of Lyme Regis, whose narrow maze of steep streets slope down to the sea. The town, and neighbouring Charmouth, are some of the best places from which to begin a fossil hunt. But if you simply want to look at the natural wonder of the coast on your caravan holiday in Dorset, the best places from which to view are Golden Cap, with a clifftop walk, and the Hardy Monument (dedicated to a different Thomas Hardy, a commander on board HMS Victory in whose arms Lord Nelson died at the Battle of Trafalgar) along the South Dorset Ridgeway. From this breezy footpath, an ancient route on a line of hills north of Abbotsbury and Portesham, you can see the shingle Chesil Beach and, behind it, The Fleet Lagoon, a significant feature of the Jurassic Coast.

At the eastern end of Chesil Beach is Portland, almost an island but for the sandbank between it and the mainland. Portland Harbour was used for the sailing events during the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and is now used for regular sailing instruction and competition.

South east facing Weymouth, partly sheltered by Portland, has long been a favourite among seaside goers. Little wonder with its Georgian seafront and narrow winding streets behind, together with a sandy bay. 

Just a few miles further east is one of the most picturesque parts of the Jurassic Coast, with the almost circular Lulworth Cove and the rocky archway of Durdle Door. You can snap a good photo of both from the clifftop; access is steep but there's a caravan park right above the pair! There's evidence of dinosaur footprints here too.

The Jurassic Coast finishes 'around the corner' at Old Harry Rocks, at the entrance to Poole Harbour, a northern tip of the Isle of Purbeck. Far from an island, and more of a peninsula, it holds various attractions worthy of a visit.

The ghost village of Tyneham doesn't have the rosy glow of a picture postcard. Under orders, the village was evacuated during World War Two and the residents never returned. Visits are only possible at eerily quiet weekends and during August as the village remains in a military firing range.

Behind are the Purbeck Hills, a ridge of chalk downs that are great for a walk and at the eastern end of which is Corfe Castle. Ruined during the English Civil War, much of the stone was pilfered to build houses in the lovely village of the same name. It's filled with tiny tearooms and gift shops – head to Ginger Pop, which sells all things Enid Blyton. The adventure writer stayed in Purbeck, and the area including Corfe Castle inspired many of her stories. You can hop on the steam train in Corfe Castle to make a grand entrance into the Victorian resort of Swanage – it's how the Victorians did it.

Bournemouth and neighbouring Poole and Christchurch are virtually combined to create Dorset's largest conurbation. Bournemouth offers all the entertainments and attractions of a modern coastal resort, but between the town and the Isle of Purbeck lies Poole Harbour, a natural wetland of significant wildlife importance.

In the middle of the harbour is Brownsea Island, where the Scout movement was founded and where, today, you can still see red squirrels, the only place in southern England where they have managed to avoid the rodent grey. You can get to the island for nature walks by ferry from Poole Quay and Sandbanks.

In Dorset's hinterland cluster a group of appealing market towns each one small enough to discover over a couple of hours. Dorchester is the county town and has connections with the author Thomas Hardy and HRH The Prince of Wales, whose vision of town planning has been incorporated into the building of an urban extension to the town.

Sherborne, close to the Somerset border, centres on the magnificent 15th century abbey, while Blandford Forum harks back to an important Roman settlement. It is today, however, home to the Hall and Woodhouse Brewery, and one of the main attractions of the town is the brewery visitor centre and tours.

Shaftesbury, in the north of the county, is a quintessentially English hilltop town. Dating back to the 9th century, its position affords amazing views over the Blackmore Vale. The cobbled Gold Hill really is one of the most idyllic streets in England – made famous, of course, by a golden-tinted Hovis television advert back in the 1970s.

This county's best attractions may hark back to the past, but caravan holidays in Dorset really are bang up to date, with dozens of well-kept and modern campsites situated conveniently throughout.

Top five things to do in Dorset

  1. Go in search of fossils along Dorset's Jurassic Coast. If you're not sure what you're supposed to be looking for, join a fossil hunting walk and talk from Charmouth or Lyme Regis with an expert guide.

  2. Make the most of a summer's day with a trip to the beach. Visit Bournemouth to find the longest stretch of sand – and the oldest beach huts – and cross the river on the chain ferry to pretty Swanage Bay and the wilder Studland Bay, where you'll get great views of Old Harry Rocks.

  3. Don't miss the Cerne Giant, a burly chalk figure of a naked man on the hills above the village of Cerne Abbas. At 180 feet tall, and considered as a symbol of fertility, suffice to say he is well endowed! The best place from which to see him is the viewing area on the main A352.

  4. Visit Athelhampton House, a delightful 15th century Tudor manor house near Dorchester. Set in formal gardens, the house has links with the author Thomas Hardy, who visited the house frequently and set his poem, 'The Dame of Athelhall', at the house.

  5. Visit the Portland Bill Lighthouse, one of the most famous of all lighthouses around the British coastline. There's a visitor centre next door, and some great walks along the headland.

When to visit Dorset

Visit Dorset in the summer months to enjoy the main annual events. The Lyme Regis Fossil Festival in May is a great one for fossil hunters. July welcomes the Dorset Seafood Festival to Weymouth, the UK's largest free street seafood festival. Also in the same month is the first of the music celebrations, the Larmer Tree Festival near Tollard Royal. The following month is the huge Camp Bestival at Lulworth Castle.

Bournemouth is the place to be on the August Bank Holiday for the giant (and free) Bournemouth Air Show, with spectacular displays from the likes of the Red Arrows above the beach. Nearby Swanage hosts the Swanage and Purbeck Walking Festival in September, while, also in the same month, you can go mildly silly at the Bridport Hat Festival; hat wearing compulsory of course!

How to get to Dorset

To reach Dorset from the west, access off the M5 followed by the A30 and A35. From the east, take the M3, M27 and the A31, which provides a picturesque route through Hampshire's New Forest before arriving in Dorset. From the north, use the A37, A36 and A338, all spurs off the A303.

No routes are particularly quick in Dorset, something to remember when planning your caravan holiday, but that is part of the attractiveness of the county - as soon as you cross the border, slow down (you'll have to anyway for the rural roads) and enjoy the scenery as it passes.

All the roads, though rural, are fine for towing caravans. There are no nasty surprises in terms of overly steep hills, but unclassified – and even some of the main roads – can be narrow in places.

Inevitably, roads along the coast are busy in summer months. If your campsite is on the coast, accessed along narrow lanes, check if there are specified arrival and departure times before setting off from home.

For traffic updates keep your radio on or check BBC travel for Dorset