Steve McKenna finds fancy retreats, literary legends and Britain's best beach in beguiling north Norfolk.
As we pull into Burnham Market, an idyllic village born to grace postcards, chocolate boxes and murder mystery weekends, my other half, with a flicker of anxiety, says: "Oooh, I don't know about this place."
"What do you mean?" I reply, my eyes drifting across the immaculately tended-to village green, past the million-pound properties, the butcher, baker and fishmonger, and over to the figures crowding in front of the village pub. "Lovely and quaint, isn't it?"
"Mmmm, yes; but I'm not sure if we'll fit in."
"Well, for starters, you're not wearing red cords or a flat cap."
I look down at my T-shirt, jeans and trainers, then gaze out the window again and realise she's only half-joking. Most of the well-heeled people ambling by, some walking their spaniels, others locking their Mercs and Bentleys, wouldn't look out of place in Horse & Hound magazine, a Victorian period drama or as a guest in Prime Minister David Cameron's aristocratic family home.
Prim and affluent, Burnham Market is tucked a few kilometres south of the scenic north Norfolk coast, hemmed in by swathes of farmland criss-crossed by narrow lanes and footpaths.
Despite being out in the sticks - county capital Norwich is an hour's drive away, London a further two-hour train journey - it's popular not just with Norfolk folk, but with outsiders, too.
Moneyed Londoners have bought second homes here (hence the village's moniker, Chelsea-on-Sea), royal sightings have been known (the Windsors have a large estate nearby and the area is often dubbed "the Royal Coast"), while Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley and Stephen Fry (for his 50th birthday) have patronised the place we're bedding down in tonight.
Nudging the village green, neighbouring a clothing boutique that boasts of its long history dressing the gentry, the Hoste is a 17th-century inn-cum-boutique pub, restaurant, hotel and spa; renowned for its upmarket, celeb-luring vibe and flamboyant, cosmopolitan touches.
Originally called the Pitt Arms, in 1811 it was renamed after the Hostes, a famous local land-owning family. William Hoste was a revered naval officer and protege of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, who was born just down the road in nearby Burnham Thorpe and apparently used to drink at the inn.
Entering the Hoste - which, in the past, has also served as a courthouse, livestock market and brothel - I find a place that ebbs and flows between being exclusive and egalitarian, with polite, attentive, yet largely unstuffy, staff.
A series of bright, airy fine-dining rooms are fringed around the convivial front bar, where a mix of people, some speaking with the soft, lilting Norfolk accent, others uttering cut-glass vowels in Queen's English, are supping pints of ale, glasses of wine and cups of cafetiere coffee next to a roaring fire. We note that hikers and cyclists and children and dogs are welcome, in an establishment that's undergone drastic changes in the past two decades.
Alongside wife Jeanne, Paul Whittome, a charismatic entrepreneur, author and foodie, transformed this once humble countryside pub into one of rural England's most eccentric and talked-about venues.
When Paul died in 2010, Jeanne took over the business but later sold it to old friends - and former customers - Brendan and Bee Hopkins, who had returned to Britain after a decade living in Sydney.
The new owners aim to turn the Hoste into the region's first five-star hotel, and have carried out a £2 million ($3.7 million) expansion and revamp to the property.
We're led up a gently creaking staircase, past walls decorated with arty seashell designs and coastal sketches, and ushered into a small, but well-appointed en suite room that melds 21st-century trappings (including a plasma TV and fragrant Molton Brown and Arran Aromatics toiletries), with an olde English air (vintage furniture, bundles of cushions and scenes from what resembles a D.H. Lawrence story etched into the trimmings).
It's all lovely and cosy, though I'm half-tempted to ask to be transferred to Room 5. Admiral Lord Nelson was said to have once kipped in there.
We find it's easy to spoil yourself rotten in Burnham Market. In fact, relax the purse strings and you can fulfil all your pampering desires (in the Hoste's newly extended wellness spa), enjoy fabulous fresh local produce (including seared loin of venison and Norfolk coastline assiette, featuring lobster risotto, cromer crab and scallops), and soak up lively conversation and champagne afternoon tea, without even leaving the pub.
For us, however, the Hoste, and the village, is a great base to visit a few other north Norfolk treasures.
"Dear old Sandringham, the place I love better than anywhere in the world," mused King George V, while his son, King George VI, said of it: "I have always been happy here and I love the place."
At the heart of the Sandringham Estate, which comprises 8000 hectares of farmland and forestry, Sandringham House has been a regal country retreat since Queen Victoria's time. It's where the present monarch normally heralds in the new year.
This lavish property is hedged by 25 hectares of beautifully landscaped gardens and lakes, and is flush with classic Edwardian furniture, objets d'art gifted from European royalty and oriental gems gleaned from the Far East and India.
Half the year (in 2014, between April 19-November 2), the public can mosey round the house and its adjoining museum, which hosts an extraordinary vintage royal car collection.
Open year-round are the nature trails and woodland paths of Sandringham country park. About six kilometres away, Houghton Hall is the birthplace of Robert Walpole (regarded as Britain's first prime minister).
This stately home's house, garden and grounds are open to the public from May 4-October 19.
A haven for walkers, amateur photographers, nature lovers and the bucket-and-spade brigade, the windswept north Norfolk coast boasts several scenic stretches, including the birdlife-rich enclaves of Cley Marshes and Blakeney pint.
Yet for many, Holkham is the jewel in the crown.
Blessed with numerous "Best British Beach" awards from Britain's Coast magazine, its seven kilometres of sand are peppered with creeks, dunes, shady pinewoods, green pastures and salty marshes.
The beach is near another of Norfolk's sumptuous stately piles, Holkham Hall.
Just east of Holkham, Wells is a quirky little town, with a picturesque working harbour moored with old fishing boats.
Its quay is a delightful spot to sit and munch takeaway cod and chips.
Two cracking pubs, and rows of pretty Georgian houses, face on to the town's lovely green, while Staithe Street, Wells' main pedestrianised cobbled stretch, is lined with cafes, tea-rooms, curiosity shops, second-hand bookstores and a small theatre.
Cromer's beach isn't much of a looker, but there are gorgeous clifftop walks, crab stalls, a golf club, gaudy amusement arcades, a pier and pavilion theatre, and a tangle of winding old streets that meander around the tallest church tower in Norfolk.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle hatched the plot for the Hound of the Baskervilles in Cromer after hearing about local legend, the Black Shuck, a huge canine phantom which had apparently roamed the shoreline since Viking times.
Legend had it that anyone unfortunate enough to meet its fiery gaze would die within a year.
Adding to Cromer's spooky reputation is the myth of Shipden, a nearby clifftop village that fell into the sea in the 14th century.
Listen carefully, say locals, especially before a storm, and you can hear its subaquatic church bells ringing.
A 40-minute drive west of Burnham Market, King's Lynn was one of Europe's most important mediaeval seaports, and the birthplace of George Vancouver, who charted North America's Pacific coast and claimed Australia's south west coast for the British Crown.
The maritime heritage of this buzzing market town is still evident, with handsome old merchants' houses, cobbled lanes and the elegant Customs House overlooking the harbour.
King's Lynn's modern, walker-friendly core is full of all the usual chain stores, but if you fancy a movie, the Majestic is one of the country's oldest and cutest little cinemas (opened in 1928).
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Aled Jones and Lesley Garrett are among the stars to have entertained audiences at King's Lynn's annual summer music and arts festival.
The writer paid for his own trip (actually, his other half did; it was a birthday treat).
From London Liverpool Street, take a Greater Anglia train to Norwich; see greateranglia.co.uk. They leave every 30 minutes. Book online in advance and one-way fares are as low as £8 ($15). You'll need your own wheels to appreciate north Norfolk.
Rooms at the Hoste, with breakfast, are priced from £75 Sunday to Friday; weekend deals from £90 per night (minimum stay two nights). The Hoste's 62 rooms are spread over several properties in Burnham Market, including the historic coaching inn, luxury self-catering cottages, the delightful Vine House and a converted railway carriage; see hostearms.co.uk. In Wells-next-the-Sea, the Crown Hotel is a refurbished 18th-century watering hole with 12 en suite rooms; bed and breakfast priced from £100; see thecrownhotelwells.co.uk.