MARC EVANS discovers there’s more to the county than fake tans when he enjoys a weekend in Essex I TRIED my best not to mention it. I was determined to avoid going down that route but, in the end, it was our tour guide Ian who brought it up.

“They even do The Only Way is Essex tours here now,” he admitted, while taking my wife and I and our black Lab Pete on a fascinating trip around Mersea Island, the most easterly inhabited island in the UK, connected to the mainland by an ancient causeway.

Some people’s obsession with the vacuous reality TV version of Essex shown in TOWIE is beyond me, especially after discovering the real beauty of this county.

Tourist body Visit Essex is trying to promote the county as an ideal short-break destination, pointing out its rural, coastal, shopping, foodie and historic attractions. Their press release made no mention of following in the footsteps of Amy Childs et al. Thanks goodness.

We parked our prejudices and preconceptions along with the car when we arrived at Down Hall Country House Hotel in Hatfield Heath, near Bishop’s Stortford.

Okay, technically it’s in Hertfordshire, but it’s right on the Essex border. And with luxury like this, I wasn’t going to quibble about postcodes.

Down Hall is a proudly pet-friendly hotel, set in 110 acres of woodland, parkland and landscaped gardens.

Pete was greeted with a Pooch Welcome Pack and quickly decided that these were the sort of surroundings he could easily get used to.

As for us humans, we experienced the ‘wow’ factor that met us after the long journey up the hotel’s drive. The hall’s stunning exterior instantly told us this was going to be a weekend to remember.

The gods were also smiling on us, with a window of beautiful weather showing off the surroundings.

The next morning we walked off our enormous buffet breakfast (as high on quality and variety as it was on quantity) by exploring the grounds.

Pete was in his element, as indeed were his owners.

We made use of the lovely swimming pool and sauna (while the dog slept off his exertions) and watched wedding parties thank their lucky stars for picking such a beautiful date and venue.

The hotel’s Grill Room restaurant prides itself on using produce from its own vegetable garden, and these were in abundance in our excellent three-course dinner. Highlights included the venison terrine, the sea bass and the pistachio creme brulee.

The next day we set off for Mersea Island, famed for its oyster beds.

It took a scenic, if winding drive, but was worth the effort.

Guide Ian told us about its history – from its days as a haven of smuggling to its links to Sir Winston Churchill – and took us on a really interesting tour of the area.

We got to explore the beach, have a nosy look at people’s boathouses (which ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous), and Pete even braved the water.

The weather brought the crowds out to this scenic little spot, which has to be explored by foot. Indeed, to help you, it has a 12-mile path that stretches right the way around it.

We saw the oyster sheds, for which this area is famed, and this certainly whet our appetites for lunch at the Coast Inn.

We maintained the seafood theme (what else are you supposed to do when you can see and smell the sea from your table?) and tucked into a huge bowl of mussels and a delicious dressed crab.

Great food, great scenery, Essex is well worth braving the M25 for.

When it comes to a great weekend away, maybe the only way really is Essex.

* Down Hall Country House Hotel, Matching Road, Hatfield Heath, near Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, CM22 7AS. 01279 731441 * For Essex tourist information visit The Coast Inn, 108 Coast Road, Mersea Island, CO5 8NA. 01206 383568