On the second largest natural harbour in the world, Poole is a port town and tourist resort with beaches, cultured gardens and lots of inspiration for days out.
In the 1700s Poole was one of England’s most active ports, then played a part in the D-Day landings in 1944 and maintains a cross-Channel ferry terminal today.
Shielded from the sea, Poole Harbour is watersports heaven, whether you’re harnessing the wind, paddling or using a motor.
Much of the harbour is bounded by nature reserves, protecting sandy coast and vital habitats for birds and deer.
You can’t talk about Poole without bringing up Sandbanks, ever-present in lists of the best beaches in the country and enriched with the most expensive property in England outside London.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Poole:
1. Poole Harbour
From the promenade on Poole Quay you’ll be treated to one of the best views of Europe’s largest natural harbour.
There you can appreciate both the vast dimensions of the harbour and the flotilla of cargo ships, cruise boats, pleasure craft and cross-channel ferries that pass through the narrow mouth every day.
The harbour is a drowned valley, created at the end of the last ice age and is an estuary for a number of rivers all strewn with islands.
Below we’ll talk about all the ways you can make the most of Poole Harbour, from ferry rides to watersports, nature walks and day trips to Corfe Castle in the Purbeck Hills to the south.
2. Sandbanks Beach
Not a year goes by without Sandbanks Beach earning a Blue Flag award.
This sandy spit at the northern entrance to the harbour has a welcoming swathe of soft golden sand, bordered by some of the most expensive property in the UK. The beach is defended from the tides by a long row of groynes, which help to keep waves low and safe on clear summer days.
Sandbanks is unquestionably one of the best beaches in the country, and among the mansions, upscale restaurants, watersports centres and yacht dealers behind, you can find children’s play areas and a crazy golf course.
3. Corfe Castle
A day out in the Hartland Moore National Nature Reserve, the former royal fortress, Corfe Castle is just over ten miles around the harbour from Poole.
The stronghold started life as a wooden motte and bailey castle, founded during the Norman conquest and commanding a pass in the Purbeck Hills, which run from Wareham in the west to Swanage in the East.
Over the next 500 years Corfe Castle would be reinforced in stone, and in the English Civil War the Royalist Mary Bankes defended the stronghold during a three-year siege.
After the war the castle was slighted to prevent it being reused, and much of its stone was recycled for houses in the delightful village below.
There’s a model village and gardens to browse, and a heritage steam railway wending through the Purbeck Hills to Swanage.
4. Compton Acres
The margarine entrepreneur Thomas William Simpson commissioned Compton Acres in 1920, and to this day it’s considered one of England’s finest privately-owned gardens.
On a circular path in ten acres there are five themed sub-gardens: a heather garden, a Japanese garden, a rock and water garden, an Italian garden and a mature wooded valley.
The Italian Garden is a refined formal garden, with fountains and statues depicting Bacchus (within a temple) and “Wrestlers of Herculaneum”, while the rock garden is among the largest in private hands in England, and boasts more than 300 different plant species.
The Japanese Garden has stone and bronze art, brought here from Japan in the 1920s, and an authentic tea house, wreathed with Japanese wisteria.
5. Boat Trip
In summer, if you spend any time in Poole it will be hard to resist the temptation to step aboard a boat to see more of the world’s second largest natural harbour.
Poole Quay is the main departure point for hour-long trips around the harbour, taking in views of all five major islands, as well as the Purbeck Hills.
You could also catch a ferry to the largest, Brownsea Island, which is owned by the National Trust, coated with woodland and heather, and one of the last places in England where the native red squirrel survives.
For another trip you could take a cruise down to the elegant resort of Swanage, passing the magnificent chalk stacks, Old Harry Rocks as you go.
6. Poole Park
Integral to the town since the Victorian period, the genteel Poole Park has lawns, mature trees, a cafe and recreation facilities around a large boating lake.
Replenished by the sea during spring tides, that body of water is more than 20 hectares and large enough for activities like kayaking, windsurfing, kayaking and rowing.
On land you can play a round of miniature golf, children can ride the miniature train and there are also tennis courts and a cricket pitch where you might see Poole Town Cricket Club playing fixtures in the summer.
If you’re feeling especially active there’s a parkrun every Saturday morning, attracting hundreds of runners each week.
7. Poole Museum
One of the Southwest of England’s top visitor attractions, Poole Museum is in a Victorian quayside warehouse with a modern glass atrium from 2007. Over four floors, the galleries have a chronology of Poole from prehistory to the 21st century.
On the ground floor, the show-stopper is the Poole Logboat, a preserved Iron Age vessel carved from a single oak tree and dating back 2,200 years.
Further up, there are fascinating maritime artefacts, pottery made in Poole and overseas and glimpses of community life, like a dentist’s chair, historic fire engine and an old-time pharmacy cabinet.
There are two rooms for short term exhibitions, and in summer 2018 there was a show for Port-Impressionist Augustus John.
8. Scaplen’s Court Museum
On Sarum Street in Poole’s Old Town there’s a former inn dating back to the 1300s.
Run by the nearby Poole Museum, Scaplen’s Court is Grade I listed, and has museum displays documenting life in Poole from the 1400s to the end of the 1800s.
One of the stone fireplaces has graffiti left by Parliamentarian soldiers who were lodging here in the 1640s during the English Civil War.
There’s a Victorian schoolroom, a period kitchen and a walled herb garden designed by the well-known landscaper George Dillistone in the 1930s.
9. Upton Country Park
On Holes Bay at the very north of Poole Harbour is a country park in 130 acres, with a Grade II listed manor house, formal gardens, a stretch of shoreline and parkland.
Occasional guided tours of the Regency-era house are offered to the public, but the biggest appeal is the walled garden, which has neatly tended borders and flowerbeds and is edged by a terrace for the park’s tearooms, open seven days a week.
There’s a splash fountain in summer, walking and cycling paths to explore, a soft play area in the Courtyard Barn and a plant centre, while segway tours of the estate are available in summer.
Every Saturday morning at 09:00 there’s a free, timed 5k park run at Upton.
10. Hamworthy Park
Quieter and less exposed than Sandbanks, Hamworthy Park is on Poole Harbour, not far west of the ferry terminal.
The park has a narrow beach and a small promenade, traced by beach huts and benches.
The harbour’s gentle waters are just right for families with smaller children, while this spot is also used by windsurfers and kitesurfers to begin their adventures.
The park is blessed with sensational views over to the Arne Peninsula, Brownsea Island and the Purbeck Hills to the south.
There are also extensive grassy areas in the park, as well as a cafe, playground and a paddling pool.
11. Shell Bay
Across the mouth of Poole Harbour from Sandbanks, Shell Bay can be reached by a short ferry ride.
Like Sandbanks the beach has immaculate golden sand, but instead of mansions there’s nothing but protected dunes and heathland behind.
The bay’s northern edge is a wonderful vantage point, looking west to Poole Harbour, while if you come around to the east side of the bay there’s another stupendous view along the coast to Bournemouth.
Shell Bay joins to the National Trust site, Studland Bay, which carries on south for miles and has a nudist beach on its most remote section.
All along there’s a stirring view of the Old Harry Rocks.
12. Old Lifeboat Museum
Make your way to the atmospheric Fisherman’s Dock at the end of Poole Quay and you’ll uncover an exciting slice of local maritime history at this historic boathouse.
This was Poole’s lifeboat station from 1882 to 1989, and houses the Thomas Kirk Wright, launched in 1939 and the first of 19 lifeboats to arrive at Dunkirk for the evacuation on 30 May 1940. You can take a good look at the vessel and read up on its eventful 23-year career as a lifeboat.
The RNLI also runs a shop in the boathouse, selling clothing, cards and other RNLI-themed souvenirs to help this charity.
13. Arne RSPB Reserve
On Poole Harbour’s Arne Peninsula there’s a vast nature reserve, spreading across almost 1,400 acres.
RSPB Arne has a stunning variety of habitats, including sandy beaches, scrub, wet woodland, ancient oak woodland, mudflats, reedbed, farmland and dry and wet lowland heath.
There’s a “welcome hut”, where you can find out about the RSPB’s conservation activity in the park, and this also has a shop and cafe.
The reserve has the largest flock of spoonbills in the UK and its gorse scrub is an important breeding ground for the Dartford warbler.
There’s a large herd of sika deer, an East Asian species that escaped from deer parks in the region in the 19th century and has since become naturalised.
14. Farmer Palmer’s Farm Park
Aimed exclusively at children up to the age of eight, Farmer Palmer’s Farm Park combines animal encounters with indoor and outdoor play.
These animal activities take place on a schedule, and little ones will get to hand-feed lambs and goat kids, see cows being milked, groom a pony, watch piglets racing each other and pet a guinea pig.
The park also has a maize maze, woodland walk, dozens of picnic tables, along with pony rides, tractor-trailer rides, pedal go-karts, pedal tractors, an indoor bouncy castle and a “fun barn” soft play area.
Poole Harbour is rightly seen as one of the best places in the UK for water activities.
The diversity of experiences on offer along these 110 miles attests to that.
The water is almost invariably flat in the harbour, but the reliable winds in more open but shallow areas, especially around Sandbanks, puts sports like windsurfing, kite-surfing and sailing on the agenda.
More sheltered parts of the harbour are suited to kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding, and there are designated areas for motorised activities, generally in the the Wareham Channel.
There’s an array of watersports companies operating out of Lilliput on the east side of the harbour.
Jetski Safaris for instance, provides guided trips in the harbour and out along the Jurassic Coast, without needing any prior experience on a jet ski.