Our new fortnightly series of travellers' guides to holiday destinations heads for an English hot spot. David Atkinson reports

Why go here?

Big-sky scenery, a ready-to-go infrastructure and something for all budgets – no wonder the Lake District remains a perennial favourite for holidays at home.

The region first inspired the Romantic poets to wander lonely as a cloud in the early 19th century. It has since reinvented itself as a hub for families, foodies and walkers with a slew of great places to stay, eat and visit. While honey-pot towns within the Lake District National Park remain the favourite hangouts, think about venturing beyond the central Lakes this summer to Kirkby Lonsdale, Ulverston or Carlisle. You'll find all of the scenery – but less of the crowds.

The Great Outdoors

Grizedale Forest Park (forestry.gov.uk/grizedalehome), the Forestry Commission estate west of Windermere, is the place to dodge high-season traffic jams. The estate recently added Signs of Adventure, a series of offbeat road signs, to its excellent al-fresco art trail through the forest. Pick up a map at the newly re-opened visitor centre and follow the trail on foot or by bike.

For wildlife fans, Piel Island (pielisland.co.uk) is a little-known gem off the Cumbrian coast near Barrow-in-Furness. The self-appointed King of Piel reigns over his fauna-rich fiefdom from the Ship Inn and arranges wildlife-watching excursions. A new visitor centre and smart new B&B just opened – expect an influx of loyal new subjects.

The History Trail

William Wordsworth remains Cumbria's literary poster boy. His life story can be traced across the Lakes from his old grammar school in Hawkshead to the family home at Dove Cottage (wordsworth.org.uk). But it's Wordworth House (wordsworthhouse.org.uk) in his boyhood hometown of Cockermouth that really brings his story to life. Walk through the house with costumed interpreters and dress the kids up in period costume.

Roman history fans should head north to Carlisle, where Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery (www.tulliehouse.co.uk) unveils its landmark new Roman Frontier Gallery in June. The collection of stonework, armour and other Roman artefacts tells the story of the empire's northern-most frontier as recently captured in the film, The Eagle.

The Retail Therapy

Local goodies remain the souvenir du jour with Grasmere gingerbread and Kendal mint cake perennially popular. The humble Cumberland sausage is even a protected species now, thanks to new Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status under EU law. Local produce and farmers' markets on Saturdays in Keswick, Kendal and Ulverston are prime hunting ground. But the Holy Grail remains the Cartmel Village Shop (00 44 1539 536280; cartmelvillageshop.co.uk) for a sugar-hit fix of traditional Lakeland sticky toffee pudding.

To see how contemporary artists draw inspiration from Cumbrian vistas, the Old Courthouse Gallery (ocg-arts.com) in Ambleside and the Viridian Gallery (viridiangallery.co.uk) in Keswick are worth a look. Finally, for a one-stop shop of local products from beer to natural skin care, try Love the Lakes (lovethelakes.net) with shops in Keswick and Bowness-on-Windermere.

The Inside Attractions

The Lakes is blessed with lots of wet-weather attractions. The World of Beatrix Potter Attraction (hop-skip-jump.com) in Bowness-on-Windermere marks 20 high-energy years of excited kids and even more excited Japanese coach parties with birthday events throughout summer. More genteel, Brantwood (brantwood.org.uk), John Ruskin's former home overlooking Coniston, celebrates the works of the Victorian polymath. After exploring the house, check out the new slate xylophone in the gardens.

At the southern tip of Windermere, the Lakeland Motor Museum (lakelandmotormuseum.co.uk) has comfortably settled into its new, expanded home at Backbarrow. Windermere Lake Cruises (windermere-lakecruises.co.uk), which docks at nearby Lakeside, offers a car-free combination ticket with a lake cruise from Bowness or Ambleside, then entrance to the museum.

The Places to Eat and Drink

The Lakes remains a hotspot on the foodie radar with four Michelin-stared eateries: Holbeck Ghyll, Sharrow Bay, The Samling and, most notably, L'Enclume in Cartmel (www.lenclume.co.uk). The latter, the domain of top Cumbrian chef Simon Rogan, gives Heston Blumenthal a run for his molecular-gastronomy money.

More affordable, Cumbria's gastropubs combine the best of regional produce, such as fell-bred lamb and Cartmel Valley kippers, with a pint of local ale – mine's a pint of Lakeland Gold. The latest addition to the gastro scene is The Crown at High Newton (crownathighnewton.co.uk), which also just unveiled four stylish new B&B rooms.

And no visit is complete without a stop at the Good Taste Café in Keswick (00 44 1768 775973; simplygoodtaste.co.uk), which still serves the best coffee and muffins in the Lakes.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Virgin Trains (virgintrains.com), Northern Rail (northernrail.org) and First TransPennine (tpexpress.com) provide rail services into the area.

Further information

Cumbria Tourism (golakes.co.uk).