Known more for its traditional attractions than high-end hotels, the Essex seaside resort of Southend-on-Sea is enjoying a makeover.
One of the highlights is the 137-room Park Inn (parkinn.co.uk), just opened in the former Edwardian Palace Hotel on the seafront. The look is Ikea style with bold colours – rooms have canvas prints of fairground rides, referencing the Adventure Island theme park opposite – although original features can still be seen in the façade, fireplaces and mouldings in the public spaces. A blue plaque in reception honours Laurel and Hardy, who stayed here nearly 60 years ago.
Green-minded glampers should head to Alde Garden (aldegarden.co .uk) in Sweffling in Suffolk's pretty Alde Valley. The latest addition to the outdoor accommodation here is a large dome-shaped yurt, sleeping five, based on the original Mongolian bentwood design. It has solid wooden floors, soft sofas and rugs, but no electricity – at night the yurt glows with candlelight or solar-powered fairy lights. For colder nights and cooking there is a log-burning stove and solar-powered showers. Free bikes are laid on (Aldeburgh is an invigorating 11-mile cycle ride) and holistic therapies are available for weary limbs.
The Varsity Hotel & Spa (thevarsity hotel.co.uk) in Cambridge opens this month with 48 suites suitably themed on the town's academic heritage – Masters, Graduates – offering views across the city spires. Most un-studenty touches include Nespresso coffee machines, iPod docks and monsoon showers.
The previously unseen stables at the Jacobean stately home Audley End House and Gardens (english- heritage.org.uk/audleyend) in Saffron Walden, Essex, open to the public for the first time this summer. Built in the 17th century, the Grade I-listed buildings host a new exhibition highlighting the importance of horses to the property, including some fine live equine specimens to admire.
Lottery winner Sheringham Museum (sheringhammuseum.co.uk) in Norfolk has had a £1.1m facelift. It celebrates the town's development from small 19th-century fishing village to fashionable holiday resort in the early 20th century. Exhibits focus on the fishing harbour and lifeboats dating from the 1800s. Extra activities include book signings, art exhibitions and guided walks.
Check out the world's largest biodome, filled with more than 10,000 tropical butterflies, at Butterfly World (butterflyworld project.com) in St Albans, Hertfordshire. It's got Mayan-style ruins and waterfalls, too – a living rainforest that you can explore via its convenient walkways. "Phase 1" of the project is now open, featuring a butterfly breeding house, gardens and a chrysalis-shaped lake. There's a programme of summer holiday activities for children, too.
For a fragrant day out, visit Norfolk Lavender (norfolk-lavender.co.uk) at Caley Mill, Heacham, near Hunstanton, where fields of glorious lavender are turned into oil. New for this year, more than 50 varieties of bamboo have been grown in the gardens and there's a rare breeds animal centre, featuring wallabies, alpacas and prairie dogs.
Get out and about in the Bedford River Valley Park (bedfordriver valleypark.org), near the Great River Ouse. This regeneration project is aimed at creating a vast new country park for Bedfordshire. And, although it's still a work in progress – the aim is to create a harmonious mix of leisure spaces and wildlife habitats – most of this flood plain is open to the public, with a series of cycling and walking routes to follow.
Suffolk is fast gaining attention for its local produce. One place to sample it is at the recently refurbished Bildeston Crown (thebildeston crown.com) in the village of the same name. The Grade-II listed former coaching inn is the only restaurant in the county to have three AA rosettes and it is aiming for a Michelin star with award-winning dishes including mutton hotpot and cabbage (£16) as well as an eight-course tasting menu (£70).
Head for the village of Navestock Side near Brentwood, Essex, where Alec Smith gives a nod to his father and grandfather – both former fish porters at Billingsgate Market – with the seafood-laden menu at Alec's Bar and Restaurant (alecsrestaurant.co .uk), which opened last month in the former Green Man pub. Fresh fish is brought in each day from across the British Isles and rustled up into dishes such as pan-seared Scottish king scallops, with rocket and shaved Parmesan (£8.50) and grilled Guernsey skate with brown butter and capers (£17.50).
For further information, go to visiteastofengland.com
Jo Fernandez is travel editor of the London Evening Standard.