Why go here?
The image of the Cotswolds as a land of soft, rolling green pastures populated by timelessly twee cottages is not inaccurate but it is drawn principally from just one area, the north-central region, which is home to the beautiful villages of Chipping Campden, Broadway, Moreton-in-Marsh, Chipping Norton and Stow-on-the-Wold.
In fact, the Cotswolds is England's largest designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, stretching 102 miles along the steep Cotswold escarpment from Chipping Campden in the north to Bath in the south, Cheltenham and Gloucester to the west and Woodstock to the east. It even has its own lake district in the form of the Cotswold Water Park (waterpark.org), which covers 40 square miles, with 147 lakes and even a (man-made) beach. Indeed, the Cotswolds isn't just about thatched cottages.
The history trail
Start your exploration at Belas Knap (english-heritage.org.uk), England's best example of a Neolithic long barrow, dating from 3,000BC. It's just outside Winchcombe, as is medieval Sudeley Castle (sudeleycastle.co.uk), where Katherine Parr, the last wife of Henry VIII, is buried. From Winchcombe, head south to the Corinium Museum (coriniummuseum.cotswold .gov.uk) in Cirencester for interactive displays of the town as it was in Roman times. It's then a short journey to Chedworth Roman Villa (nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-chedworthromanvilla), with its mosaics, central heating and bathhouses, all set in one of the loveliest valleys in the Cotswolds. A fitting place to end is the Roman Baths (romanbaths.co.uk), in Bath, which has now installed improved access and livened up its presentations. Or take a trip to Woodstock (the Cotswolds' most easterly point) to visit Blenheim Palace (blenheimpalace.com), the birthplace of Winston Churchill, and notable for its glorious park which was designed by Capability Brown.
The inside attractions
In Bath, the American Museum (american museum.org) is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a special exhibition called Marilyn – Hollywood Icon, which features 20 of the screen legend's gowns and outfits. Meanwhile, the Holburne Museum (www.holburne.org), complete with new glass extension, is exhibiting a private collection from the Pop Art pioneer Peter Blake, which includes cut-out faces used for the cover of The Beatles' album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. In Stroud, the Museum in the Park (museumin thepark.org.uk) occupies two floors of a 17th-century mansion in Stratford Park and captures the imagination with colourful displays of the area's links with the cloth industry. It's currently hosting textile artist Kate Plumtree's exhibition of costumes inspired by British wildlife. Check out the special holiday workshops for children.
The retail therapy
Bath and Cheltenham are the two main centres for big stores and smaller independent shops, but Prince Charles's stomping ground, Tetbury (visittetbury.com), is the place for antiques. Despite a few closing over the past year or two, Tetbury still has about 20 antiques shops to explore. Most of them are on Long Street, as is the Highgrove Shop (highgroveshop.com), where you can buy products sourced from the Duchy Home Farm or selected by the Prince personally. Stow-on-the-Wold is good for little independent shops, including Maby's deli and Scotts of Stow. Earthier purchases can be sourced at the farmers' market held in Stroud every Saturday from 9am to 2pm (fresh-n-local.co.uk). It's one of the busiest in the UK.
The great outdoors
The biggest and best walks can be found along the Cotswold Way (nationaltrail.co.uk /Cotswold), which, for the most part, runs across the top of the Cotswold escarpment. The route passes through picturesque villages, including Broadway, Stanton and Winchcombe, while a dramatic drop to the west provides spectacular views over the Severn Vale. Bird lovers should head for Slimbridge Wetland Centre (wwt.org.uk), which has just added a large aviary called Wader Shore for wading birds including avocets and redshanks. Tree huggers will love Westonbirt Arboretum (forestry.gov.uk/westonbirt), where you can wander among some of the oldest and rarest trees in the world. And, if you've got children in tow, visit the Cotswold Wildlife Park (cotswoldwildlifepark.co.uk), where you can see more than 250 different species of mammals, insects and birds.
The places to eat and drink
The area is awash with fine restaurants and cosy pubs, but the Ebrington Arms (theebringtonarms.co.uk), just outside Chipping Campden, is hard to beat on all fronts. In April, this unspoilt 17th-century inn was voted North Cotswolds Pub of the Year by the Campaign for Real Ale. Its classic dishes, sourced locally, have earned head chef James Nixon an AA rosette and its three rooms have been awarded four AA stars. For a rich Regency experience with a contemporary twist, go to the Montpellier Chapter Hotel (themontpellierchapter hotel.com), in Cheltenham, which opened a few months ago to rave reviews. Offering more Regency charm and with great grub is Jamie's Italian (jamieoliver.com/italian/Cheltenham), which has been packed since it opened just a few weeks ago.
How to get there
First Great Western trains run from London Paddington to Oxford every 55 minutes and to Bath every hour. Contact National Rail (0845 748 4950; nationalrail.co.uk).
Check out the website of the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (cotswoldsaonb.org.uk).