GOWER PENINSULA, Wales — "This is going to be an easy walk," assured Mandy, our guide for the two-hour hike along this spectacular stretch of coast in southern Wales.
Looking at Mandy, reed thin and without so much as a molecule of body fat, I could well imagine that she might describe an ascent to the top of Mount Everest as a moderate stroll.
About 10 minutes into the hike, a fellow hiker, Kristan, gave me a disbelieving glance, as if to say, "This is easy?" Mandy's definition of easy and ours appeared poles apart.
Still, during the hike, many of my gasps weren't from lack of breath, but from the gorgeous scenery. Steep hills covered in the yellow blooms of a European shrub called gorse, dunes strewn with blue and purple morning glories, beaches that have been voted among the best in Britain, and a sea that changes color — from deep sapphire to emerald green to slate gray — are why in 1956, the peninsula was the first spot in the United Kingdom to be declared by an arm of the British government to be an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
For that reason, the 19 miles of golden sand are devoid of any development save the occasional small kiosk where you may order an ice cream, or fish and chips wrapped in newspaper.
What the Gower Peninsula does offer is 10 nature reserves, 24 Wildlife Trust reserves, 32 sites of Special Scientific Interest and five Special Areas of Conservation, plus ruins of Roman hill forts, Celtic burial chambers, Norman castles and the prehistoric monument Arthur's Stone, said to have been formed from a pebble in the legendary king's shoe.
Lovely as it is, the Gower Peninsula is but one stop along the Wales Coastal Path, which when completed at the end of May will make Wales the only country where visitors may walk the entire coastline — a total of about 855 miles.
A little respect is on its way
For all its natural beauty, Wales must often feel like the Rodney Dangerfield of Britain, not getting the respect it justly deserves from travelers more enamored of England's cultural richness and Scotland's physical grandeur.
That's about to change. The impending completion of the Coastal Path has led travel publisher Lonely Planet to declare coastal Wales the world's top destination for 2012, and the country has gained a definite cachet since Prince William and the former Kate Middleton chose the Isle of Anglesey in north-central Wales as their home base.
On this trip, however, I would concentrate on the south, that part of the country below Snowdonia National Park. I began in Cardiff, a city that has been justifiably lauded over the past few decades as a model of thoughtful restoration. A once-grimy industrial city has risen, phoenixlike, to become a gleaming metropolis on its namesake bay.
Once one of the world's most important ports, Cardiff still looks to the bay, although today it's more for contemplation than commerce, and its cityscape is a blend of Victorian and Edwardian buildings and sleek modern designs.
The lovely red-brick Pierheads Building, erected in 1897 by a shipping company, falls into the first category, exemplifying the best of Victorian-era architecture. Formerly housing the Welsh National Assembly, today it is used as a visitors center.
The new National Assembly Building, or Senedd in Welsh, is in the second category. Circular glass viewing galleries above the assembly rooms make government transparent in the literal sense.
The most stunning of the new structures is the Wales Millennium Centre, opened by Queen Elizabeth in 2004. With the wavy lines of its architecture and glass walls overlooking the bay, the center resembles an enormous ocean liner. It is home to the Welsh National Opera and musicals imported from London's West End, plus shops, restaurants, bars and a cinema.
The miniscule Norwegian Church, named for the Scandinavians who came here as port workers, is the starting point of a 6.2-mile hiking and cycling path around Cardiff Bay. A favorite urban walk begins at the picturesque church and continues for nearly 2 miles to the seaside town of Penarth in the romantically named Vale of Glamorgan.
If Cardiff represents urban cool, two towns on the Pembrokeshire Coast, Saundersfoot and Tenby, offer the kind of laid-back charm that visitors have come to expect from Britain's hamlets.
Those walking the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path will stumble upon Saundersfoot, dominated by its picture-perfect harbor crammed with fishing and pleasure boats.
Should you find yourself in need of a pint after your hike, stop at one of the atmospheric pubs, such as the Old Chemist Inn or the Royal Oak Inn. Better yet, plan to stay overnight at St. Brides Hotel, which combines the homey — the Melin Tregwynt throws on the beds are made in a nearby woolen mill — with the glamorous — the infinity pool on the terrace overlooking the harbor is the perfect place to catch a sunset.
Tenby is a town where the mantle of history lies heavily. It began to flourish after the Norman Conquest in 1066, and many of the medieval walls remain, including the 13th-century barbican gatehouse.
Tenby residents have never been shy about picking a side, even when it involved something as turbulent as the Wars of the Roses — they were on the Lancastrian side — and the English Civil War — they backed Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarians against the Crown.
With such a prickly citizenry, it was no surprise that the town's fortunes waxed and waned until the Napoleonic Wars, when it reached its zenith as a seaside resort, favored by patriotic Britons who snubbed the Continent's watering holes.
Tenby remains in vogue, with visitors roaming the cobbled lanes and strolling sandy beaches, said to be the best in Wales for making sand castles. A ferry takes them to Caldey Island and its monastery, which is on the site of one dating to the 6th century.
Wandering through the Old Town, I came upon a busker playing Celtic melodies on a harp for the odd shilling. This was no ordinary street musician, I was to find out. Although he looked more like a rugby player than a harpist, he spoke with the authority of a man holding a master's degree in Welsh politics, which it turned out he was.
It's little wonder that Tenby has been voted "Wales' favorite place."
Dylan Thomas, of course
If ever a writer is associated with a location, it's Dylan Thomas and Wales. In his play Under Milk Wood, he describes the fictional town of Llareggub situated on its "fishingboat-bobbing sea."
Llareggub is a thinly disguised version of Laugharne in Camarthenshire, where Thomas lived in a boathouse perched above the Taf Estuary.
After his death in New York in 1953, he was brought back here to be buried in the graveyard of St. Martin's Church. Visitors may visit the grave, the boathouse and the nearby cottage, which he used for his writing.
Those wanting to make a pilgrimage to Brown's Hotel in the village, where Thomas would retire after a morning of writing to spend an afternoon of drinking, have been out of luck recently, but that will change soon. Closed for five years, Brown's is scheduled to reopen as a boutique inn later this year. It is to be restored to its 1950s appearance in time for 2014, the 100th anniversary of Thomas' birth.