Travel

Small country of Wales boasts a big list of attractions

Contributing Travel Writer

Conwy Castle, built by King Edward I to subdue the Welsh, overlooks the town of Conwy in northWales.
Conwy Castle, built by King Edward I to subdue the Welsh, overlooks the town of Conwy in northWales. Courtesy Visit Wales

A mountainous peninsula on the west coast of Britain, Wales is a country of such staggering beauty that at times it seems straight out of a fairytale. There are lush green hills and valleys, a pristine sea coast, tiny villages speckling the landscape and, for extra panache, castles — although in truth, these castles appear more grim and forbidding than the benign fairytale version.

With a pastoral setting reminiscent of an 18th century landscape painting, and with more sheep than people in many areas, it’s hard to believe that north Wales is an hour’s drive from Manchester, and south Wales is just two hours from London. The short distances make traveling easy; the history and culture makes it fascinating. On my most recent visit, I hit a few highlights in each region.

North Wales

The small coastal town of Conwy, situated on a picturesque estuary, is the kind of unspoiled village Americans love. Colorful buildings line the quay, many of them home to unique shops and pubs. But the most unusual is the lipstick-red house reputed to be the smallest in Britain. Only 6-feet wide by 8-feet high, it might be better suited to one of Tolkien’s hobbits than its original occupant — a fisherman who stood 6-feet, 3-inches.

Time spent quayside might include stopping in for a pint at a centuries-old pub and trying Conwy’s famed mussels, or the fish and chips eaten the British way: wrapped in newspaper.

All of this is window dressing, however, leading to Conwy’s piece de resistance: the immense castle built by King Edward I between 1283 and 1289. If Edward hammered the Scots (remember Braveheart?), he took a similar mallet to the Welsh.

Perched atop a rock overlooking the estuary, the castle, with its eight massive towers, definitely invokes a sense of power and might, which is what Edward intended. Conwy is but one of the “iron ring” of castles he built to humble the rebellious Welsh. No doubt it did, but if a rebel’s stay proved to be a long one, at least he had a room with a view: the sea on one side and rolling green hills on the other.

Along with the castle, Edward constructed a three-quarter mile wall with 22 guard towers to fortify the town. It is still intact today and offers the best views of Conwy, the sea and surrounding hills.

In other North Wales attractions, to taste the best of local Welsh produce, stop for lunch at Hawarden Farm Estate, whose 20 acres showcase fruit and vegetables produced here and in the neighboring English county of Cheshire.

Where to stay: If you fancy yourself a modern-day Lord Grantham and Lady Cora on holiday from Downtown Abbey, book a room at Bodysgallen Hall. This uber-regal 17th century mansion hotel is in close proximity to Snowdonia National Park.

Don your best duds for a pre-dinner sherry in the library, before dining on Welsh lamb, local lobster or salmon from the River Conwy.

Mid-Wales

The rugged spine of Wales has vistas reminiscent of the American West. Waterfalls tumble down granite cliffs to disappear in secluded pools, mountains are silhouetted against the sky and farms stretch to the horizon.

Here, you can visit Soar Y Mynydd Chapel, the most remote chapel in Wales, and imagine the devoutness of those who made their way here every Sunday by horse, or in many cases, on foot.

A kinder, gentler destination is Erwood Station in the town of Builth Wells. Once a stop on the Mid-Wales Railway, the depot now houses a tea shop and an art gallery showcasing the works of Welsh artists.

Mid-Wales’s most famous destination is the scenic market town of Hay-on-Wye, snuggled in the Black Mountains, the easternmost range in the Brecon Beacons National Park.

If ever there was a monument to British eccentricity, this is it. Hay-on-Wye has a human population of just under 1,500 and a bookstore population of 35. Known as the antiquarian and secondhand bookstore capital of the world, it attracts bibliophiles from around the globe, particularly during its annual Festival of Literature (last week of May/first week of June.)

Mid-Wales’s most famous destination is the scenic market town of Hay-on-Wye, snuggled in the Black Mountains, the easternmost range in the Brecon Beacons National Park.

Over 10 days, some 250 authors (many of them heavy-hitters such as Bill Clinton and Salmon Rushdie) take part in 150 events in this charming rustic setting. If you’ve been to Britain’s Glastonbury or Isle of Wight Music Festivals, this is the literary equivalent.

I particularly love the Honesty Bookshop on the grounds of the town’s castle, where you select your books and drop your money into an Honesty Box ... honestly.

Where to Stay: You may have a difficult time choosing your Mid-Wales accommodations. Y Talbot, on the town square of Tregaron, is a 17th-century drovers’ inn-turned pub with rooms. Four hundred years ago, this was a stop for drovers herding their flocks from Wales to London, and the oldest part of the pub retains the character of that time.

Pull a chair up to the crackling fire and enjoy a pint while watching locals at their darts game, and you’ll feel like you’re in any country pub in Britain. If you stay for dinner, however, you may think you’ve stumbled into a trendy London restaurant.

That could be because Y Talbot’s chef trained under Marco Pierre White in several of his London establishments. The menu reflects that in starters such as tian of crab with basil, melon and carpaccio of cucumber and mains such as slow cooked pork belly, braised white cabbage, sage and onion mash, cider and grain mustard veloute.

You won’t have a better meal in Wales or a better night’s sleep in one of the unfussy, but extremely comfortable upstairs rooms.

Mid-Wales is also home to the country’s most luxurious hotel, stately Llangoed Hall. Formerly the country house of Sir Bernard Ashley and his fashion doyenne wife, Laura, this elegant property dates from the 1600s, and has extensive gardens and expansive views of the Black Mountains.

The current owner, Calum Milne, great-grandson of Winnie the Pooh creator A.A. Milne, has maintained the high standards begun by the Ashleys, as witness the objets d’art and paintings displayed throughout the house.

Llangoed Hall is a frequent stop for Charles, the Prince of Wales, when he comes here to do princely things. After my stay, I’m convinced that even someone used to the pampering at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle could find no fault.

South Wales

It’s an easy drive from Cardiff, Wales’s dynamic capital, to the lush Wye Valley, where the River Wye separates the Welsh county of Monmouthshire from the English county of Gloucestershire. On the Welsh side of the river bank looms the Gothic ruins of Tintern Abbey.

The first abbey in Wales devoted to the Cistercian order of monks, it was founded in 1131, and one of its early monks was a reformed thief who took the order’s vows of obedience, chastity, silence and, perhaps most difficult for him considering his past occupation, poverty.

During the Middle Ages, despite setbacks such as an outbreak of the Black Plague, Tintern Abbey flourished, and its prosperity continued until Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.

Today, the abbey’s shell, standing open to the sky, is an awe-inspiring sight, with its soaring arches and windows. It was a subject for many artists and writers, most notably William Wordsworth, who composed a famous ode, “Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.”

Must-do in South Wales: For those who love England’s chocolate box villages, know that Wales has one of its own, and it’s easy to combine a visit to Abergavenny with a tour of Tintern Abbey.

Nestled amidst seven hills and only six miles from the English border, the town is often referred to as “the Gateway to Wales.” A fort was built here during the Roman occupation of Britain, which gave way to a castle and walled town soon after the Norman conquest of 1066 (the imposing castle remains.)

Today, Abergavenny is a colorful market town with high-end specialty shops and top-notch restaurants, showcasing the town’s obsession with food (it hosts an acclaimed food festival every September.)

To sample some of that food, book a table at the Oak Room in the Angel Hotel in the town center, or its sister property, the Michelin-starred Walnut Tree, two miles from town.

Pick your spot in the north, central or south part of this beautiful country and you can be assured that someone will greet you with “Croeso i Cymru” — “welcome to Wales.”

Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel and food writer. Reach her at pnickell13@hotmail.com.

If you go

Wales

Where to stay: Bodysgallen Hall & Spa, Llandudno, Bodysgallen.com; Y Talbot, Tregaron, Ytalbot.com; Llangoed Hall, Llyswen, Llangoedhall.co.uk.

FYI: Visitwales.com; Visitbritain.com.

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