"The Ladies of Llangollen" house in Plas Newydd
Jesse Window, Llanrhaedre Church, Ruthin
Ruthin Castle Hotel
Plas Rhianfa Hotel
Wales' B&Bs can be comfy.
Snowdonia National Park waterfall
Hikers on the Coast Path
Ugly House, Ty Hyll
St. Seiriol's Well, Anglesey
Patchwork Pate owner Rufus Carter makes pate for UK's royalty (left); meat pies at Leonardo's delicatessen in Ruthin.
Bodnant Food Center
Welsh cakes on the griddle.
Wales Coast Path
VISITING WALES: IT'S A TRIP
Quaint B&Bs, afternoon tea and
a spectacular coastline
By Don Heimburger
Photos by the author
“Croeso,” or welcome, to Wales, Land of Mist and Magic.
That's the friendly greeting you will get in Welsh when traveling to this idyllic spot in the United Kingdom.
About the size of Massachusetts, the 8,000 square miles of Wales is dotted with wet marshlands, green forests and mountains, like 3,560-foot-high Snowdon in Gwynedd in the north. Wales even has large, sandy beaches. Surprisingly, the unspoiled yellow sands of Rhossili Bay in Swansea, South Wales was voted as Europe's third best beach in a survey of worldwide tourists.
The country features 750 miles of coastline on the Irish Sea and the Bristol Channel. The new Wales Coast Path stretches 870 miles (covering 95% of the Wales coast) and offers breathtaking views of land and water. The whole coastal pathway leads hikers along 1,030 miles of windy cliff tops, through tiny hamlets, next to quaint seaside villages and sheltered coves, and past welcoming pubs and restaurants. Along the path you'll pass through farmland, coastal heath, dunes, salt-marsh, cliffs and woodlands. In 2012 Lonely Planet chose the coast of Wales as the best place to visit.
Three million people; nine million sheep
THREE MILLION PEOPLE, NINE MILLION SHEEP
The awesome scenery is shared with about 3 million residents and three times as many sheep. Cooked just right, you can savor the delicious lamb dishes every night at about any good restaurant, and there are a lot of those in Wales, as well.
The first step in your discovery journey to Wales is getting there, which isn't too difficult. From the United States, for example, you can fly into Manchester Airport, a modern, busy air hub only 40 miles from the Welsh border. It's the third busiest airport in the United Kingdom.
From London, Cardiff is just three hours by the M-4 Highway, and fast trains run between London Paddington and Cardiff. There's also frequent bus service in the United Kingdom between major cities. From Dublin, you can take the ferry to Holyhead, which puts you into port in a little over three hours.
FRESH AIR, LOTS OF COUNTRYSIDE
Once in Wales, you'll start breathing the fresh air of this smallish, mostly rural land, and realize the scenic beauty its 13 counties have to offer. Plus, the natives are pretty friendly, and most speak English, occasionally lapsing into a rather guttural Welsh.
The Welsh language, which is Indo-European, descended from the sixth century, and is a bit hard to pronounce. For example, you'll see location names like De o'r Twr, where the Egyptian-style obelisk called Jubilee Tower, a castle-like ruin built in 1810, stands; Gwaenysgor is the name of a church and village mentioned in the 1085 Domesday Book commissioned by William the Conqueror; and Coed Llandegla identifies a working forest producing Welsh timber and providing hiking and biking trails, along with a Black Grouse walking trail.
Virtually everything is translated for you into English anyway. Just remember that the names aren't really that long: they are a number of descriptive words joined together, similar to German. About 20% of the population in Wales speaks Welsh fluently.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Wales is just what you expect it to be and read about: gently rolling hills, rather imposing mountains in Snowdonia National Park in the northwest, sweeping patches of moors sprouting heath and peat bogs, colorful stone houses and stone fences, smoke curling up quaint 500-year-old farm home chimneys, lush green grass (for the sheep), and rushing rivers and waterfalls, plus quiet, serene lakes. Throw in scenes an artist would die for on the coastal areas, and quaint B&Bs that serve traditional hearty farmhouse breakfasts (bacon, sausages, black pudding, eggs, tomatoes, fish)—that's Wales in the 21st century.
Mix in dramatic landscapes, the rich Welsh heritage and a diverse culture, and you've got today's Wales. Oh, yes, add in the narrow, one-lane country roads and some hairpin curves, about 600 castles, and hundreds of grand, historic manors scattered throughout the land. Now you're starting to get the picture.
British/Canadian BBC television journalist Dan Snow, who won an award for special effects in the program Battlefield Britain, says he remembers walking the footpaths and hills around his grandmother's house in North Wales. “I remember so clearly going with my great uncle, who is a sheep farmer in those hills. There's one called Moel y Gest just east of Criccieth, which I remember...as being a towering mountain. I realized right from the beginning that Wales was somehow different. It's partly because the people, and the village life, couldn't have been more different from London where I grew up. Gwynedd is such a magical corner of Europe. It feels completely unique.”
WHAT TO SEE AND DO
For being such a small area in terms of most other European countries or the rest of the United Kingdom, Wales has a lot to offer. Judy Brough, a life-long resident of the U.K. and Wales, and now living in Conwy, who knows Welsh history backwards and forwards, says because of the short distances in Wales, you can be high up in the snowy mountains in the morning, on a sand beach in the afternoon, and shopping and dining in one of the larger cities in the evening. She enjoys the culture, people and attractions so much, “I'm here to stay,” she exclaims.
So what can you do? Let's start with castles. There's Beaumaris, built in 1295 on the Island of Anglesey, the last and largest of Edward I's “ring of steel” castles; it is called a sophisticated example of medieval military architecture. The virtually impregnable fortress boasts layers of defenses within the ultimate concentric castle; despite 2,600 men engaged the first year in its construction, the castle was never finished.
Denbigh Castle at Denbighshire, likely occupied long before the Middle Ages, is located at the end of a long, narrow road up through town. A castle guide will point out the highlights of the fortress for you, and you can wander through the ruins, with excellent views of the town and surrounding countryside below. On a walking tour through the ruins, you can just about imagine how it was to live there.
Conwy Castle in Conwy is well preserved, and one of the greatest fortresses of medieval Europe. Eight identical towers of the castle remain today, with many portions still relatively intact. You can walk on the upper reaches and walls of the castle, construction of which began in 1283. From the top, you feel like you're on top of the world, and there's a good view of Conwy bay.
Castles and ruins are part of the attraction of Wales, somewhat like visiting the many old cathedrals of continental Europe—they each are authentic monuments of the history of the country. They tell a story about the past, and it's fun to learn about why they were originally built, what they were used for, and who built them.
SLATE PLAYS BIG PART
When you think Wales, you should also think slate, coal and copper, and even gold. Minerals and stone played a huge role in the creation of jobs and the industrial heritage of Wales at one time.
National Slate Museum, Llanberis
At Llanberis you can visit the very interesting and large National Slate Museum and see the vast Dinorwig quarry, closed for mining since 1969, but now open to the public. Its ancient Victorian workshops remain intact, and guides at the museum show visitors how the slate was quarried and split. Staffed largely by ex-miners, a visit here can easily take a half day. The old belt-run machines are relics of a very different era. Demonstrations, movies and talks highlighting the slate industry are given throughout the day. When you leave the museum, note the thousands of slate roofs throughout Wales and Britain that came from this and similar quarries in Wales.
At Blaenavon, in southeastern Wales, the National Coal Museum explains the history of coal and coal mining in Wales, and offers tours underground with a miner, as well as exhibits in the various museum buildings showing machinery, sawmill equipment for the underground timbers, and explosives.
Ffestiniog Railway passenger car
RAILWAYS and CANALS OF WALES
Railfans have likely heard of the Ffestiniog Railway at Porthmadog, known the world over for being the first narrow gauge railroad anywhere to use steam locomotives. Now celebrating its 150th year (1863-2013), the 13 1/2-mile line proudly displays and operates its diminutive, highly-polished engines that run through tunnels, over streams and valleys and through forests. Passengers are welcome to a ride for a small fee; you don't have to be a kid to enjoy this diversion.
Four of the original steamers still operate: the Prince and Princess will join sisters Palmerston and Welsh Pony for special excursions this year. The railway joins up with the Welsh Highland Railway at Porthmadog and completes an additional 24-mile journey to Caernarfon. Wales excels when it comes to small steam-operated railways, and many more such as the Talyllyn Railway, the Llyn Padarn and the Welshpool & Llanfair also offer live steam trips.
Canal near Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
Called “a stream in the sky,” the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct near Llangollen at 1,007 feet long and 126 feet high is the longest and highest cast-iron aqueduct in the world. Designed by Thomas Telford in 1805, the World Heritage Site is part of 11 miles of canals built to haul coal. Today you can walk over the aqueduct, or take a guided boat tour, or rent your own boat at the Horse Drawn Boats Center at Llangollen Wharf. You can also take a 45-minute or 2-hour horse-drawn boat ride from here. I can guarantee riding in a boat over a 126-foot-high aqueduct is not something you'll be able to do in most countries of the world.
World's longest railway station sign
Also, visit the town of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, which has the longest station name in the world. The name does mean something, as well, but even that's too long to describe. Situated as one of the first towns you come to when you enter the Isle of Anglesey at the northern tip of Wales, be sure to go to the visitor's center and get a stamp that certifies you visited the station. You'll want a photo next to the signboard—bring your wide-angle lens.
MORE FUN THINGS TO DO
- Drive to Holyhead Mountain and walk part of the Coast Path by the all-white South Stack Lighthouse and tiny Ellen's Tower, clinging to the cliffside. Great views abound from Holyhead's lighthouse area. Ferries depart Holyhead for the 99-minute trip to Ireland.
- Visit Snowdonia National Park, Wales' largest park, with 823 square miles of diverse landscape: wild moorlands, snow-capped mountains and miles of coastline. Snowdonia is the highest peak in Wales and England. See what the glaciers carved. While driving the roads in this part of the country, you'll spot a number of intriguing places to stop for lunch or tea, or take a stroll in the moors. Take your camera because once the trees and grass green up, the countryside starts to sparkle. A picnic at Swallow Falls near the village of Betws-y-Coed, gateway to the park, would make for a fun afternoon, followed by a visit to Llanrhychwyn Church, the oldest in Wales (and possibly the first church in Britain).
- Visit the Ugly House—which is a tearoom—in Ty Hyll, with delicious scones, jam and crème. But it's also a historical—some would say magical—stone house on the edge of the woods that says, “Take my picture.” Visitors can explore a beehive and wildlife garden on the grounds, as well.
- Tune in to an all-male choir rehearsal in Wales. Wales is particularly known for its excellent male bass and tenor choirs, and with a phone call ahead of time, you might be invited to listen in. If you like good music, find out if a male choir is performing where you'll be visiting.
- Spend some time at Penmon Church where you can walk into the sanctuary, see priory ruins and a 17th century dovecote where priests used to “catch” doves for their meals. Also, visit the ancient 6th century holy well of St. Serio. Notice the 11th century font in the church, a 10th century cross and the 12th century pyramidal stone roof of the tower while you're there.
- Ride the Great Orme Tramway in 100-year-old cars, each one named for a saint. Catch the tram at Victoria Station in Llandudno. On the way up, you'll switch to a second tram for the final ride to the top where there are breathtaking views of the coast.
- Shop the quaint stores in Ruthin and view the Maen Huail stone in front of Barclays Bank, where King Arthur is reputed to have executed a rival.
THE FOOD OF WALES
Organic farms, small batches of jams made from home-grown fruits, rich and tasty cheeses, fresh lamb and plump, green vegetables are the norm in Wales. The Rhug Estate near Corwen in Denbighshire, managed by the Newborough family, is an organic farm which features a farm shop, butchery and cafe selling local Welsh lamb, Aberdeen Angus beef, Duroc pork, free range poultry and pheasant, duck, rabbit and deer. This large farm near the Berwyn Mountains also maintains a herd of buffalo, and offers Rhug Brown chickens, slow-maturing birds that range free on clover-rich pastures. These chickens live in a stress-free environment, and as a result, they are renowned for their flavor and texture.
The large, wooded Bodnant Estate in Conwy features not only guest houses you can rent, but fresh local milk, artisan cheese, yogurt, ice cream and butter, a national beekeeping center, a large farm shop brimming with local produce and meats, and a well-stocked bakery. The Bodnant Estate also offers food demonstrations and workshops such as learning to bone, stuff and truss a leg of lamb, or how to cook the perfect Welsh black steak. All the ingredients and foods offered in their shop can be traced back to the local area.Their inviting Hayloft restaurant on the property serves up dreamy mountain views, along with just-baked bread, Anglesey sea bass, farmhouse cheese and Conwy mussels.
Here's a tip: try the delicious Welsh cakes for a special treat, or the lemon curd steamed sponge pudding with freshly made custard. Or, take home a bottle of Tom Adamson's Coffee Cream Liqueur from their store; it's made in small batches right on Anglesey Island on Cae Owen Farm.
Both of these estates are top-notch examples of how the Welsh are using innovative ideas to insure their food is the freshest and finest available. At the Ruthin Craft Center, you can sign up for guided tours that will take you to the Patchwork Pate shop that produces pate for royalty, enjoy local Welsh food at the Cafe R Restaurant, visit the Llangollen Brewery and taste a sample of Rosie's Triple D Cider.
Wales is said to have been inhabited for thousands of years before the Celts came around 1,000 BC, with the Romans arriving about 48 AD. In 784 Offa, King of Meric, built a dyke from sea to sea, a permanent boundary between the Celts and the English. The Vikings invaded in 852, and the Normans invaded in 1066. Throughout it all, Wales has been shaped and formed into the diverse culture that it is today.
With a long, rich history, a vibrant people, fascinating mountains, hills, woodlands and coastline, Wales is a unique place still waiting to be discovered—by you.
If you go...
Tyddyn Llan Hotel, restaurant with rooms, Denbighshire country estate, www.tyddynllan.co.uk.
Ruthin Castle Hotel, Ruthin, with its old adjunct castle said to have been frequented by King Arthur.
Craig y Derwen Hotel, Betws-y-Coed, Victorian country house on the river, www.snowdoniahotel.com.
Plas Rhianfa, 21-bedroom Victorian castle-like hotel overlooking Menai Strait, www.plasrhianfa.com.
Castle Hotel, once an old coach inn, stands on the site of a Cistercian abbey in Conwy, www.castlewales.co.uk.
For a list of Tourist Information Centers, go to: visitwales.co.uk/contact-visit-wales.