You're in Hampshire and Dorset, two shires jealously guarded as special rural treasures. Everybody knows of Southampton and Bournemouth, but less known is the hilly countryside farther inland, which is best previewed in the New Forest. Discover tiny villages and thatched cottages untouched by the industrial invasion at Chideock and Charmouth.

Jane Austen wrote of Hampshire's firmly middle-class inhabitants. Her six novels, including Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, earned her a permanent place among the pantheon of 19th-century writers and unexpected popularity among 1990s film directors and producers. You can visit her grave in Winchester Cathedral and the house where she lived, Chawton Cottage.

Hampshire encompasses the South Downs, the Isle of Wight (Victoria's favorite retreat), and the naval city of Portsmouth. More than 36,421 hectares (90,000 acres) of the New Forest were preserved by William the Conqueror as a private hunting ground; this vast woodland and heath remains ideal for walking and exploring. We concentrate on two major areas: Southampton, for convenience, and Winchester, for history.

Dorset is Thomas Hardy country. Born in Dorset in 1840, this celebrated novelist disguised the county of his birth as "Wessex" in his novels. "The last of the great Victorians," as he was called, died in 1928 at age 88. His tomb occupies a position of honor in Westminster Abbey.

One of England's smallest shires, Dorset encompasses the old seaport of Poole in the east and Lyme Regis (known to Jane Austen) in the west. Dorset is a southwestern county and borders the English Channel. It's known for its cows, and Dorset butter is served at many an afternoon tea. This is mainly a land of farms and pastures, with plenty of sandy heaths and chalky downs.

The most prominent tourist center of Dorset is the Victorian seaside resort of Bournemouth. If you don't stay here, you can try a number of Dorset's other seaports, villages, and country towns; we mostly stick to the areas along the impressive coastline.

You'll find the most hotels, but not the greatest charm, at Bournemouth. If you're interested in things maritime, opt for Portsmouth, the premier port of the south and home of HMS Victory, Nelson's flagship. For history buffs and Austen fans, Winchester, the ancient capital of England, with a cathedral built by William the Conqueror, makes a good base for exploring the countryside.

The best beaches are at Bournemouth, set among pines with sandy beaches and fine coastal views; and Chesil Beach, a 32km-long (20-mile) bank of shingle running from Abbottsbury to the Isle of Portland -- great for beachcombing. However, the most natural spectacle is New Forest itself, 375 sq. km (145 sq. miles) of heath and woodland, once the hunting ground of Norman kings.