The fact that north-east England has been named one of the 30 up-and-coming destinations for 2008 in Lonely Planet's prestigious annual Bluelist should come as no surprise. This often overlooked region is packed with attractions, stylish towns and cities and miles of pristine sands; its coastline was revealed to be one of the lesser culprits in the Marine Conservation Society's recent survey about the increase in litter on Britain's beaches.
One of the most beautiful parts is Northumberland. For a good introduction, take the train from Newcastle to Berwick-upon-Tweed. As the train crosses Robert Stephenson's Royal Border Bridge, passengers take in impressive views of the River Tweed. Berwick (berwick-upon-tweed.gov/guide) is a fine Georgian market town and home to the best-preserved Elizabethan fortifications in Europe. Highlights here include the 1.5-mile circuit around the ancient city walls, the Barracks Museum and the Town Hall Museum with its historic courtroom and "condemned" cells.
Little fishing villages with bucket-and-spade beaches stack up along the coast. The best include Seahouses, Craster and Alnmouth (northumberland-coast.co.uk). Looming large on a basalt outcrop is Bamburgh Castle (bamburghcastle.com), the first reference to which was made in AD420. Restored in the 1750s by Lord Crewe and now home to the Armstrong family, 16 of its rooms are open to the public, along with the Armstrong Museum and Bamburgh Aviation Artefacts Museum.
The Barn at Beal Visitor Centre (barnatbeal.com), which recently opened its doors, is well positioned to keep visitors entertained while they wait for the tide to clear the causeway that connects the mainland to Holy Island (holy-island. info), one of the area's premier features. The barn focuses on local farming, wildlife and environmental issues and there's a restaurant serving local produce. The centre has a camera pointing at the causeway, feeding back images of the tide, which means that visitors don't have to sit in the queue of cars waiting for the sea to clear before they drive across.
Take the circular three-mile Holy Island Discovery walk (visitnortheastengland.com/walking), accessible twice daily at low tide, to enjoy its highlights. Lindisfarne Castle (nationaltrust.org.uk) dates from the 16th century and sits on a rocky outpost. It was converted into a holiday home in 1903 by Edwin Lutyens and has a beautiful walled garden designed by Gertrude Jekyll. Lindisfarne Priory (english-heritage. co.uk) is reputed to be the cradle of Christianity in England, and so is a place of pilgrimage. But whatever your beliefs, it's pleasant to wander around the ruins and visit the museum, which tells the story of St Cuthbert and the monks who lived there until 1537.
Weather permitting, there are daily boat trips from Seahouses harbour to the Farne Islands (nationaltrust.org.uk). Inner Farne is home to one of Britain's most important seabird sanctuaries, with thousands of nesting kittiwakes, razorbills and guillemots, and puffins during their breeding season in March. There are good wildlife walking trails to follow and the Chapel of St Cuthbert to visit, and watersports enthusiasts can go kayaking.
Inland, Harry Potter film fans will be familiar with Alnwick Castle (alnwickcastle.com) as the setting for Hogwarts. With its imposing parapets, turrets and gargoyles, it is the second largest inhabited castle in England after Windsor. Home to the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, whose family, the Percys, have been in residence for 700 years, the castle has many lavish rooms and towers to visit, a sizeable Renaissance art collection and a Knights School for kids.
Alnwick Garden (alnwickgarden.com) is a sprawling patchwork of differently themed contemporary gardens, including a Poison Garden. The Grand Cascade water feature is the largest in the country, with four different displays every half hour. But it's not all about looking; clamber over rope bridges and suspended walkways to one of the largest tree houses in the world. Drop in to the Treehouse restaurant for locally sourced produce.
Standing high on Northumberland's hills is the eastern stretch of Hadrian's Wall (hadrianswall.org). The remains of this ancient frontier of the Roman Empire include forts, mile-castle garrisons and temples. Visitor centres, museums and reconstructions bring the frontier to life and the route of the wall can be walked or cycled; the Hadrian's Wall National Trail is an unbroken 84-mile signposted path stretching from coast to coast, and the Hadrian's Cycleway is a 160-mile cycle route.
Other top spots to visit include Woodhorn (experiencewoodhorn.com), a £16m development in the Queen Elizabeth II Country Park, which pays tribute to the cultural history of the area, and the Northumberland National Park (northumberland-national-park.org), which runs from Hadrian's Wall to the Cheviot Hills.
Finally, in the west of the region, Kielder Water and Forest Park features the largest man-made lake in northern Europe. The area, which has the least light and air pollution in England, offers a healthy environment to enjoy a range of outdoor activities as well as star-gazing at the new Kielder Observatory (kielder-observatory.org), which opens this month.
AROUND THE UK
1. Head to the National Forest to catch one of the most spectacular sights of spring – the appearance of millions of bluebells. Yoxall Lodge in Staffordshire opens its Bluebell Woods from this weekend (nationalforest.org.uk).
2. The St George's Day Festival continues today at Wrest Park in Bedfordshire. Falconry and fire-eating, horseback displays, music, theatre and jester workshops and lots more will keep the family amused (english-heritage.org.uk).
3. Youngsters can enjoy their own roller-coaster ride, the Big Apple, which has just opened at the Milky Way Adventure Park in North Devon (themilkyway.co.uk).
4. Children aged between three and seven years should get down to W5 in Belfast on Saturday. At the K'nex Kids Bizarrosaurous event they can use the W5 collection of K'nex googly eyes, wings and flappy feet to build their own creepy creature (w5online.co.uk).
5. Celebration Weekend at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh starts on Saturday and promises two days of fun for families. Focusing on key stories in the history of the museum, events will include music, art and dance, as well as treasure trails and meetings with historical characters (nms.ac.uk).
How to get there
National Express East Coast (08457 225225: nationalexpress.com) offers advance returns, booked online, from London to Berwick-upon-Tweed from £28. East Coast Rental (01289 307611; berwickcarhire.co.uk) offers car hire in the area from £32.50 per day.
Visit Northumberland (visitnorthumberland.com).