Dorset sails into a summer of fun and Games

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As host of the Olympic sailing events, Weymouth will soon be the focus of the South Coast. But there's lots to tempt visitors beyond the shore, says Jonathan Lorie

'It's all in the way you read the wind and water," says the sun-tanned sailing instructor, "and these days it's about your fitness. That's what makes a good sailor." He casts a doubtful look at me, then points towards the tiller. "And now it's your turn."

As I lurch towards the stern, a trio of white yachts with matching indigo sails taut with wind race towards us, turn in perfect formation and slice away. Their wet-suited crews trapeze out on steel wires. "Olympic trainees," he murmurs. I take the tiller and try not to fall overboard.

This summer these glittering waters off Weymouth will host Britain's Olympic sailing events. The locals hope it will showcase their region to the tourists of the world. So I've come to see what south Dorset has to offer – whether you've got those Olympic tickets or not.

I start with a taster of the sport itself, tacking out from the new National Sailing Academy where the Games will be based. I won't be a contender. But it's a world-class place to mess about on boats – and it's welcoming to everyone. Local children can sail here for a fiver. The rest of us can just drop in to hire a dinghy, brave an instructor, or loll on the first-floor sundeck drinking Pimm's. Which is where I repair after a morning of learning how not to helm.

The view from up there is astonishing. Vast cliffs of chalk arch their way eastwards, fronted by the shimmering expanses of Portland Harbour and Weymouth Bay. Hazy in the distance is Durdle Door, a huge arch of chalk stepping out to sea. It's a giant's landscape, great for walkers or swimmers – or lollers like me.

Left of the cliffs is Weymouth, the classic bucket-and-spade resort, a fading Georgian beauty past its prime. For years its peeling terraces and cheerful chippies have hosted the English childhood holiday, all deckchairs and seashell shops.

But things are changing for the Olympics. The Regency balconies along the front have had a lick of black paint. The fine sands have sprouted two cool cafés, their roofs shaped like upturned wooden ships' hulls. And builders are just completing the Weymouth Eye, which will lift visitors 53 metres high to admire that fabulous view.

And leading that change is the Olympic Village beside the dock. It's a stylish new development of Portland stone cottages – and will be available as upmarket holiday homes when the competitors have gone.

Yet behind the modernising projects on the coast, there's an older Dorset sleepily stirring. I find it just inland at Moonfleet Manor, a Jacobean mansion on the edge of Chesil Beach. Now a boutique hotel, it's the perfect place to stay if you're down here for the Games.

I drive there down a long and bumpy country lane, past fields heavy with summer. I cross a series of stone gateways topped with heraldic beasts. The manor appears round a bend, a handsome pile of cream stucco and classical windows. When I stop, I can hear the shuck of surf on stones.

The house was built in 1603 and remodelled by the great architect Edwin Lutyens. And it shows. Walking inside, I'm in a grand country home of the Edwardian era, with tiger skins and polar bears on the walls, huge satin sofas, and Chinese furniture everywhere. But the dining room is a white modern cube, all recessed lights and steel chairs. And the plate of seafood they serve me is very nouvelle – a delicate medley of seared scallops and melting pollock, splashed with a purée of vanilla and apples. Like the hotel itself, it's traditional, local and contemporary, all at once.

The hotel was named after Moonfleet, a much-loved children's tale of smugglers and wreckers on Chesil Beach. And it's not the only literary link around here. Thomas Hardy, the great novelist of Dorset life, was born a short drive north of here at Bockhampton. You can visit his childhood home, an enchanting thatched cottage surrounded by flowers. Up some creaking stairs is the narrow bedroom where he first began to write.

But I'm heading further inland, going "deep country" as dusk falls. It's a lovely ride through villages of golden stone and heavy thatch, past woods where deer graze wild, to the hamlet of Buckland Newton. Here Dorset Badger Watch has two wooden hides beneath a bank of trees, open to the public. Inside my cabin are two blonde children enthralled by the sight through the window. For there, among long grasses, are seven badgers. They tussle and forage not six metres away as night comes on. "This most ancient Briton of English beasts," the nature poet Edward Thomas called them, and there is indeed something old and untamed about this scene.

Tonight I'm staying somewhere definitively old: the Acorn hotel at Evershot, a 16th-century coaching inn that was a favourite of Thomas Hardy. He liked to write by the inglenook fire in the rough-walled bar. I like to subside into a vast bowl of venison sausages, then stagger upstairs to the Hardy Bedroom. Inside this cosy room is a surprise: a four-poster bed, carved with acorns and lined with blue and white embroidery. A leaded window looks onto Georgian and Elizabethan houses across the lane.

Next morning I wander the village and discover a cottage visited by Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Back at the inn, the history goes on. Alexandra the manager tells me that the low-ceilinged drawing room was a courtroom for Bloody Judge Jeffreys, who in 1685 sentenced hundreds of local rebels to hang, some from red posts by the road. "You can see the redposts everywhere," she claims.

And amazingly, I do see one, driving across to Beaminster – a red metal post at a remote turning where blackbirds call. But whether it's truly old, and once held a corpse, I'd rather not know.

Beaminster is a medieval market town, where chef Mat Follas runs the double-rosetted Wild Garlic Café. He set it up after winning Masterchef in 2009, abandoning a career as an IBM executive to live the good life in Dorset. He brought with him the concept of wild foraging, a new way to get back to nature – and that's what we're doing this morning.

"I like to show people the stuff that's growing all around them, that they don't know about," he says, a smiling Australian with a devilish goatee beard. "Look at this one." And he walks me up a lane, plucking weeds and trying to convince me they're safe to eat. "Try this nettle," he grins, and when I flinch he says, "actually it's a Dead Nettle, no relation at all. You should see people's faces when we put that on a salad in the café."

We walk up a hill past grazing horses to a beech wood, picking as we go. A church bell peals across the valley below. I can see why Mat moved here. "Dorset is a foodie's paradise," he muses. "It's the freshness of the ingredients – seafood from the coast, meat from the hills. There are four or five top chefs, and we all compete with each other." This summer he's opening a second eatery: in Weymouth for the Olympics. He's calling it the Chesil Beach Café. I might come back for that.

Which reminds me, it's time to return to the coast, to see perhaps the jewel in Dorset's crown. I chugg up wiggling lanes with sweeping views, past an iron age fort that William Wordsworth said had the finest vista in England, and down to the quintessential seaside resort: Lyme Regis.

This is the start of the Jurassic Coast, a rugged stretch of cliffs 155 million years old, where dinosaurs were found by Mary Anning in 1811. Eight years earlier Jane Austen stayed here, lodging in a house on the steep Georgian high street.

I'm staying at the appropriately historic Alexandra Hotel, where the date 1735 is chiselled above the porticoed front door. It's a comfortable mix of Georgian rooms and modern décor, with a cliff-top lawn sprinkled with rattan chairs and cedar trees. To one side a tiny folly rises – a white tower in whose topmost room you can hold a romantic dinner or even a wedding.

My own dinner tonight is at a less romantic spot, but one that shows again the blend of contemporary chic and local tradition that seems to be a hallmark of this county. I'm trying the Hix Oyster & Fish House, a clifftop shack that's one of Britain's finest seafood restaurants.

The place is buzzing with happy diners. And the food is fabulous. My starter is tiny scallops melting in their shells, topped with crunchy slices of fried chorizo. Then there's a buttery plate of Portland gurnard, fresh off the boats. It's garnished with sea sand wort, a broccoli-style green that's foraged from the shore. I can see why the diners are all smiling. Through floor-to-ceiling windows, those Jurassic cliffs roll into the night: as I do shortly after.

I've saved the best till last. My final morning in Dorset will be spent beneath those cliffs, searching for fossils. I've travelled the length of Dorset to reach this.

Lyme Museum runs daily fossil tours and I tag onto a group of hopefuls in the morning sun. We're led by two museum experts, Chris Andrew and Paddy Howe, who explain the geology and impart their enthusiasm. They've filmed here with Sir David Attenborough to promote this World Heritage site, and their passion is contagious

Soon we are crunching over shell-strewn sand and shallow pools, looking for the fossils they've told us about – spirals of ammonites, little sticks that once were squid, and maybe even the octagonal vertebrae of dinosaurs.

We shuffle our way through layers of time, seeking the relics of eras too huge to comprehend. Ninety million years, 155 million years, Cretaceous, Jurassic. Giants' time. An inheritance still hidden in the sand. People do find things – all the things our guides have said – though I find nothing.

And then, in a scrappy patch of pebbles between two orange flints, I see it. A tiny curling ammonite, fossilised into coppery metal, so fine that I think it's a fake. I reach down and pick it up. It is real. It is perfect. It is a keeper. My own tiny piece of timeless Dorset. I turn for home.

Travel essentials

Staying there

Acorn Inn, 28 Fore Street, Evershot, Dorchester DT2 0JW (01935 83228; acorn-inn.co.uk). Doubles start at £99, B&B.

Alexandra Hotel, Pound Street, Lyme Regis DT7 3HZ (01297 442010; hotelalexandra.co.uk). Doubles start at £177, B&B.

Moonfleet Manor, Fleet Street, Weymouth DT3 4ED (01305 786948; moonfleetmanorhotel.co.uk). Doubles start at £120, B&B.

Visiting there

Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy, Osprey Quay, Portland DT5 1SA (0845 337 3214; wpnsa.org.uk). Two-day sailing courses from £190.

Dorset Badger Watch, Old Henley Farm, Buckland Newton DT2 7BL (badgerwatchdorset.co.uk). Adults £12, children £10. Lyme Regis Museum, Bridge Street, Lyme Regis DT7 3QA (01297 443370; lymeregismuseum.co.uk). Fossil walks adult £10/children £5. Weymouth Bike Hire (07973 751 393; weymouthbikehire.co.uk). Daily rental from £12.50.

Eating there

Wild Garlic Café, 4 The Square, Beaminster DT8 3AS (01308 861446; thewildgarlic.co.uk). Foraging tours £95. Hix Oyster & Fish House, Cobb Road, Lyme Regis DT7 3JP (01297 446 910; hixoysterandfishhouse.co.uk).

Further information

Dorset Tourism Board: visit-dorset.com.

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