YORK, England — Standing in the shadows of York Minster, northern Europe's largest medieval Gothic cathedral, I am aware of just how much history this magnificent walled city can lay claim to. The Romans and the Vikings left their stamp here; Saxons and Normans have been part of its heritage; and the House of York made up one of the competing factions in the Wars of the Roses.
Guy Fawkes, an architect of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot to blow up the British Parliament, was born here, and Dick Turpin, a notorious 18th-century highwayman, was executed here — in an Al Capone-like twist, not for any of the heinous crimes he allegedly committed, but for the paltry act of horse theft.
With the exception of London and Edinburgh, perhaps no British city rivals York in historical significance.
Visitors flock here to glide silently through the Minster, with its exquisite stained-glass windows and its flying buttresses. They come to walk the ancient city walls, stopping at Micklegate Bar, once both the entry point for visiting royalty and the location where the heads of traitors were prominently displayed.
They can attend a mock trial of the Yorkist King Richard III in an atmospheric museum tucked away in a corner of the city wall. Was he really the hunchbacked monster of Shakespeare's play, responsible for the murder of his two young nephews in the Tower of London, or a capable ruler, maligned by biased historians? You decide.
Not all of York's attractions are so bloody. It's all sweetness and light (and a sumptuous array of pastries and teas) at Betty's Tea Room. Although the first Betty's was opened in the Yorkshire spa town of Harrogate, this one in the heart of York's city center has become the flagship.
It gained lasting fame during World War II, when Canadian and American "bomber boys" wrote their names in lipstick on a mirror in the basement bar before heading off on a mission. If they returned safely, they would etch over their lipsticked names with a diamond pen. The names can still be seen today.
Definitely stop in for a spot of tea at Betty's, but be prepared to queue, or wait in line. It's that popular.
The Texas of England
As enticing as York is, it is but part of the allure of the county of Yorkshire, sometimes referred to as "the Texas of England," both for its size (it's the largest of England's counties) and for the over-the-top pride its residents take in all it has to offer — so much that it's difficult to know where to begin.
Do you head off on the Tea Trail or the Ale Trail? You can do both, in addition to tasting some pretty good local wines. The spectacularly situated Holmfirth Vineyard, one of 14 wineries in the north of England, offers five varietals, plus panoramic views of the rugged hills of the Peaks District National Park. Fans of the PBS series Last of the Summer Wine will recognize the area.
After you've finished your wine tasting, more decisions await. Do you wander over the North Yorkshire moors, heavily carpeted in red and purple heather, or wander through the corridors of stately Castle Howard, setting of both the movie and the television versions of Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited?
When it comes to literary heritage, Yorkshire certainly has it. I spent one afternoon in the charming village of Haworth, where sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë lived with their vicar father in the parsonage. From the room where they wrote, the sisters could look beyond the church graveyard to the wild and distant moors, presumably for the inspiration needed to pen, respectively, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
I spent another afternoon in the seaside town of Whitby, built on two cliffs above one of the most picturesque harbors I've ever seen. From the top of one cliff, I could look across to the other and see the ruins of Whitby Abbey.
Although celebrated in its own right as one of the few survivors (at least partially) of Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries, the abbey has achieved literary fame as well. Dracula author Bram Stoker used it as inspiration for Carfax Abbey, the fictional home of the vampiric count. Seeing the abbey outlined against the sky, with waves crashing over the rocks below, I could easily imagine Dracula lurking among the ruins on a moonlit night.
The abbey has to share honors for Whitby's most famous spot, however, with the Magpie Café, a legendary seaside restaurant. Again, you can expect to queue here, as it is seemingly known by everyone in Britain as the place to go for fish and chips.
Food, art and spas
As with most of Britain these days, Yorkshire's food has escalated beyond fish and chips and mushy peas. As the home of Yorkshire pudding, Wensleydale cheese and ginger beer, the county has a number of excellent dining options — the sophisticated restaurants at York's Cedar Court Grand Hotel and the Feversham Arms in the lovely village of Helmsley, and the 350-year-old Shibden Mill Inn, voted Yorkshire's Pub of the Year for 2011 in a contest by the Yorkshire tourism bureau. The inn's candlelit dining room is so atmospheric that one could envision Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson dining in one corner and their archenemy Moriarty ensconced in the shadows of another.
Yorkshire's cultural scene is highlighted by the wonderful Yorkshire Sculpture Park and the brand-new Hepworth Gallery, showcasing the work of 20th-century sculptor Barbara Hepworth and other contemporary artists.
Both are worth a visit, but I particularly loved the sculpture park — for its stunning art (the current temporary exhibition from Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, which runs through Jan. 22, is phenomenal), and for the 500 acres of rolling parkland where the permanent collection is displayed, alongside placidly grazing sheep.
Although it's doubtful that a leisurely lope through Yorkshire will leave your muscles tense and aching, it's comforting to know that a number of world-class spas await you in case it does.
For contrast, check out the Titanic Spa and Eastthorpe Hall. The Titanic, in a converted cotton mill in a secluded glen on the edge of the Pennine Mountain Range, bills itself as the United Kingdom's first eco-spa. The range of treatments is mind-boggling, from the Egyptian mud chamber to the Hopi ear candle treatment (completely painless, I was assured).
Eastthorpe, in a manor house overlooking beautiful gardens, follows a holistic approach, from the welcoming ceremony upon arrival to the departure ritual. Sandwiched in between is a half-day pampering package, which includes your treatments of choice and a luncheon prepared by the spa's chef and served in a glass-enclosed conservatory.
A stint at either spa will leave you refreshed to tackle more of Yorkshire's treasures — from the vast open spaces of the Yorkshire Moors National Park and the Yorkshire Dales to the county's array of heritage gardens and stately homes.