Dorset and drama aren’t words you often hear in the same sentence, unless you’re talking fictional drama. The sleepy coastal county has inspired countless classic novels, films and TV shows, from Jane Austen’s Persuasion to The French Lieutenant’s Woman and the spine-tingling Broadchurch. Thomas Hardy’s books are set here, and many of the landscapes he described have barely changed since. It’s also the setting for Ammonite, a recent release starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan – an apt title given the fabulous fossils found on the county’s Jurassic Coast.
So you’ll be spoilt for stunning scenery if you take your tourer to Dorset, whether you’re planning a beach break or head inland for a country walk – more than half of the county is designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The only other thing you’ll need is activities for rainy days: we’ve found six fabulous family-friendly caravan parks with swimming pools, starting in the Bournemouth area and heading west from there. Unless state, all offer electric hook-ups and free WiFi; check the park’s website for the latest Covid-19 updates.
Merley Court Holiday Park
Address: Wimborne, Dorset BH21 3AA
Open from February to New Year
Bournemouth’s sandy beach is only 25 minutes away, but this secluded caravan park also offers a chance to explore the Dorset countryside – it’s a 10-minute drive to the Cranborne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and just six minutes to Wimborne Minster, a sturdy Norman church built on the site of a Saxon nunnery where Alfred the Great’s brother was buried. Bring your bikes, because a cycling trail runs past the site.
This dog-friendly site is more sedate than some of the other resorts on our list, but it’s a genuinely tranquil spot and the kids can let off steam in the play area and outdoor pool. There’s a shop, a bar and a laundrette, and it’s a 10-minute walk to the nearest pub – or head into Wimborne Minster for cracking pubs and restaurants, a branch of Waitrose and fresh local produce at Wimborne Market. If nearby Merley House isn’t grand enough for you, it’s a 10-minute drive to Kingston Lacy, a Venetian-style mansion with a Japanese garden in 800 acres of British woodland.
Prices: from £17 a night for a family of four
Top tip: the park is passing on the government’s 15% VAT reduction for tourism to clients, and offers extra discounts for NHS, military, emergency services and “blue light” staff
Sandford Holiday Park
Address: Poole, Dorset BH16 6JZ
Open from March to November
Part of the award-winning Parkdean Resorts group, this woodland site is an ideal base for exploring Dorset’s brilliant beaches. A 25-minute drive takes you to the gently shelving sands at Swanage, on the scenic Studland Peninsula, where you can go for a clifftop ramble or explore the atmospheric ruins of Corfe Castle. It’s also a 25-minute drive to the seven miles of golden sand that run from Christchurch via Bournemouth’s Victorian pier to the swanky millionaires’ mansions of Sandbanks, Harry Redknapp’s home turf. Head to Lulworth Cove, half an hour away, for a selfie with the Durdle Door sea arch in the background; Weymouth, a 40-minute drive away, to hunt for fossils on shingly Chesil Beach; or West Bay, 45 minutes away, to follow in the sandprints of Broadchurch stars David Tennant and Olivia Colman.
There’s plenty to keep the family busy on site, too – Sandford Holiday Park has indoor and outdoor pools, a sports pitch, crazy golf, an adventure playground, kids’ clubs and a host of sporty and arty activities. There’s a small shop, a laundrette, a bar/restaurant and a pub just up the road; head into Poole, 12 minutes away, for supermarkets and a wider choice of places to eat, including several pubs with views of the bustling natural harbour.
Prices: from £22 a night for a family of four (minimum two-night stay)
Top tip: for a proper change of pace, take the ferry from Poole to Brownsea Island, a National Trust estate where you’ll see red squirrels, sika deer and avocets
Haven Seaview Holiday Park
Address: Preston, Dorset DT3 6DZ
Open from March to early November
If you love the facilities offered by the big resort groups, but dread the 10-minute trudge from your pitch to use them, this site northeast of Weymouth could be the caravan park of your dreams. It has everything you’d expect at a Haven – heated indoor and outdoor pools, a playground, restaurants, a shop, a laundrette and more than 20 activities for kids of all ages, from archery and kayaking lessons to pottery – but there are only 82 touring pitches, so you’re never far from the action. It’s a great place to bring four-legged friends, too, with countryside all around and easy access to Bowleaze Cove, a beach where dogs are allowed all year.
Haven Seaview Holiday Park is a five-minute walk from a pub and two chippies; head down the coast road to Weymouth, 15 minutes away, for supermarkets and a wider choice of places to eat, as well as castle ruins and black-tip reef sharks at the Sea Life Centre. It’s a 15-minute drive to Dorchester, in the heart of Hardy country, where Horrible Histories fans will love the remains of the Roman amphitheatre at Maumbury Rings and Iron Age Maiden Castle, one of the best-preserved hill forts in the British Isles. Lulworth Cove, 25 minutes away, is a dog-friendly shingle beach that’s a clifftop stroll away from Durdle Door.
Prices: from £19 a night for a family of four
Top tip: for a whistle-stop tour of the Dorset countryside, book a Land Rover tour with Jurassic Safaris – great views and secret scenery guaranteed, peregrine falcon sightings possible.
Haven Littlesea Holiday Park
Address: Weymouth, Dorset DT4 9DT
Open from March to early November
You’ll have views over the water to Chesil Beach if you book a touring pitch here – the largest lagoon in England runs behind this 17-mile stretch of shingle, where bird lovers will spot geese, storks, herons and even ospreys. There’s a coastal path to the dog-friendly beach from the caravan park, and the sandy strand that starts at Weymouth Esplanade is a 10-minute drive away. Head to Abbotsbury, 20 minutes up the coast, for a colony of 700 swans, subtropical gardens, thatched cottages and jaw-dropping views of the beach and bay from Abbotsbury Castle, site of an Iron Age hill fort.
Haven Littlesea Holiday Park is ideal for water babies, with heated indoor and outdoor pools connected by a lazy river, and the resort chain’s usual array of aquatic activities. The site has three restaurants, a bar, a shop, a laundrette, four playgrounds, adventure golf, bungee trampolines, all-weather sports courts and much more. Weymouth has plenty of shops and pubs, but if you fancy driving to dinner, the Admiral Hardy is a 20-minute walk away.
Prices: from £18 a night for a family of four
Top tip: the bouncing bomb used by the Dambusters was tested on the lagoon, which gives you every excuse to have a pebble-skimming competition
Freshwater Beach Holiday Park
Address: Burton Bradstock, Dorset DT6 4PT
Open all year
If the toilet block at this award-winning seaside site seems eerily familiar, it’s because it stood in for the law court’s lavs in the smash-hit drama Broadchurch. This brush with TV fame is only one of the park’s attractions – it has a private stretch of shingle beach, an outdoor pool, playgrounds and the Jurassic Fun Centre, an indoor leisure complex with indoor pools, water slides, a sauna, a steam room, a gym and a bowling alley. There’s a Spar store on site, along with a bar/restaurant and a laundrette, you can fish from the beach and golfers can get in 18 holes at the Bridport & West Dorset Golf Club, right next door.
Beyond the park, you can tick off Broadchurch locations galore in nearby Burton Bradstock and West Bay: both have pubs and beach cafes, and West Bay has a sandy beach and a busy little harbour. Bridport, a 10-minute drive away, has a Waitrose and a Morrisons, and there’s a cluster of excellent restaurants in lovely Lyme Regis, 25 minutes from the park. Or step back in time – 185 million years in time, to be precise – on a fossil hunt near Charmouth, 20 minutes away. Just make sure you’ve checked the collector’s code at charmouth.org before you bag that ammonite.
Prices: from £25 a night for a family of four
Top tip: bring your own boat for a spot of marine exploration, or book a high-speed tour of the glorious coastline near West Bay with Lyme Bay RIB Charters
Highlands End Holiday Park
Address: Eype, Dorset DT6 6AR
Open from February to November
There are seaside views, then there are the views from this five-star site in the heart of Broadchurch country – it overlooks a staggering 99 miles of the south coast, from Portland Bill to Start Point, across the border in Devon. You’ll be itching to explore it all, and there are footpaths from the site down to dog-friendly Eype beach, for fossil hunts and rockpooling, but Highlands End Holiday Park is a destination in its own right. The 2019 Dorset holiday park of the year has an indoor heated pool with sauna and steam room, a soft play area, a wildlife lake, a shop and a bar/restaurant that serves top-notch local produce and has a display of vintage fire engines that’s straight outta Trumpton.
It’s a 12-minute drive to sandy West Bay, 10 minutes to the shops, antiques emporia and restaurants in Bridport, and a 10-minute walk to the nearest pub. Make time for a day out and a slap-up meal in elegant Lyme Regis, where you’ll find excellent seafood restaurants, ichthyosaur skeletons at the Dinosaurland fossil museum and the famous Cobb, a curved stone pier that featured in Jane Austen’s Persuasion and in the movie version of The French Lieutenant’s Woman – take a black cloak and practise your moody Meryl Streep stare for a photo that’ll wow all your followers on Instagram.
Prices: from £26 a night for a family of four (under-4s free)
Top tip: check the website for a 10% discount if you’re planning to stay for more than three days outside peak season