Ten years ago, a guidebook to Wales appeared with a cartographical calamity: the cities of Cardiff and Swansea, and every town of any importance in the Principality, was omitted. I don’t imagine the snarl-up caused too many problems for users, because the glories of Wales are to be found beyond its large towns and cities – and, in particular the nation’s remarkable coastline.
For a country the size of Wales, there’s an absurd amount of shoreline. The newly completed Wales Coast Path (walescoastpath.gov.uk) covers 870 miles, and the perimeter of Anglesey alone measures 125 miles. Sandy beaches, rocky headlands and dramatic cliffs are punctuated by the ports that helped Wales thrive in the Industrial Revolution.
Cardiff Bay, once decrepit dockland, has been transformed into a haven of excellence and entertainment, including a Norwegian Church, the Welsh Assembly and dozens of places to eat and drink. You might, though, save your appetite for Penarth, just along the coast, where you can look across to the islands of the Bristol Channel, the shore of Somerset and the newly restored pier from the Fig Tree restaurant on the Esplanade (029 2070 2512; thefigtreepenarth.co.uk), where Welsh lamb, beef and seafood are the specialities.
The main westbound rail line from London ends at Swansea, whose illustrious history as the economic powerhouse of Wales is evident in the handsome architecture. Swansea also has an impressive city beach. It claims to have had the world’s first fare-paying, passenger railway service, which opened in 1807 from the city out to the village of Oystermouth, also known as Mumbles.
The best place to appreciate Swansea Bay in all its glory is from Mumbles Pier and Lifeboat station. It’s also a very good place to begin a journey deeper into South Wales – from here, Britain’s first official Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Gower Peninsula, extends for a dozen miles.
Take a local train westbound from Swansea for the UK’s only coastal National Park, where Pembrokeshire wraps around Wales’s south-west tip from Carmarthen Bay to Cardigan Bay (with a few interruptions for less idyllic fixtures such as Milford Haven oil refinery). This is good bike territory; the Solva Festival of Cycling is held near St David’s (4-7 July), with options for sociable rides from 10 to 85 miles (solvacyclefest.com).
Cardigan Bay is enriched by dramatic forts such as the restored Cardigan Castle, whose slogan is “built for a prince, saved by the people”. Behind the medieval walls you’ll find nine centuries of history, including the castle’s role as venue for the first Eisteddfod (01239 615131; cardigancastle.com). Almost anywhere on Cardigan Bay provides a good platform to watch the sunset – “As the day goes over the hill into the deep sea,” to quote the poetic local hero Dylan Thomas. The fishing port of New Quay and the Georgian charms of Aberaeron are especially worthwhile.
Rail travel is a particularly good idea north of here; sample the scenery ahead, as the shore curves around to reveal a glimpse of Portmeirion here, the Llyn Peninsula there. You can change trains at Aberystwyth for a Pwllheli-bound service at a station with no road link: Dovey Junction.
Portmeirion: “a home for fallen buildings” (Visit Wales) On the fringes of Snowdonia National Park, the scenery becomes more muscular, and the activities more energetic: kite-surfing, kayaking and coasteering are offered by Outdoor Alternative (01407 860469; outdooralternative.co.uk) at Rhoscolyn on the shores of Anglesey.
From Bangor, the north coast offers enticing Victorian resorts such as Llandudno. Conwy Castle is a good spot to contemplate the assertion by writer, Jan Morris, that: “The history of Wales, one of the most extraordinary in Europe, is shot through with one unbroken purpose: the defence of Welshness against all odds.” Memorably, she also wrote “From Reykjavik to Ljubljana/Cheerful Cork to weird Tirana/No exotic route avails/To clear my homesick mind of Wales.”
It deserves to be on the map for all travellers.
Besides Anglesey and its continuation, Holy Island, Wales has two notable offshore isles. The ragged diamond of Skomer is home to half-a-million breeding seabirds: puffins, guillemots, kittiwakes, razorbills and a significant proportion of the world’s Manx shearwaters. Skomer also has a respectable population of grey seals. In summer, weather permitting, Dale Princess sails there from Martin’s Haven in Pembrokeshire three times daily, Tuesday to Sunday, and on bank holidays (01646 601636; bit.ly/SkomerBoats; £21).
Dangling from the Llyn Peninsula like a comma punctuating the north-west Wales coast, Bardsey Island could be a chunk of Snowdonia that broke off and floated out to sea. Bardsey’s moment came in AD516, when St Cadfan founded a monastery here and a Celtic church soon became a focus for early Christian pilgrims. It was said that three visits to Ynys Enlli – the Welsh name for Bardsey – could match a pilgrimage to Rome. These days, from most parts of the UK it is easier to reach the Italian capital than to get here.
The Bardsey Island Trust (01758 730740; bardsey.org) can advise on ferries, which have to negotiate some of the strongest currents on the coast of Wales. The trust also rents out simple accommodation on the island.
A day – or longer – allows you to explore the “Island of 20,000 Saints”, so named because of the pilgrims who came here to die; it was thought that Christians who died on the island automatically secured a place in heaven.
Wildlife abounds, including Manx shear-waters and Atlantic seals. There is also a good legend: Merlin is said to be buried on Bardsey.
Mother of Wales
Unlike other Welsh islands Anglesey, known as Mam Cymru (“Mother of Wales”), is easy to reach – not least by Thomas Telford’s Menai Suspension Bridge (guided walks by appointment; £5; 01248 715046; menaibridges.co.uk) and, by train, via Robert Stephenson’s Britannia Bridge.
The best way to take in its shoreline is on the 125-mile Anglesey Coastal Path, with a range of organised options from Anglesey Walking Holidays (01243 713611; angleseywalkingholidays.com). The waters around the island make for excellent fishing; Starida Sea Services (01248 810251; starida.co.uk) in Beaumaris offers the chance to catch pollock, sea bass and conger eel.
Just off Angelsey’s north-west coast is Holy Island, which travellers know as the departure port for ferries to Dublin. Travellers who pass straight through on their way to or from Ireland are missing out on some real treats. The RSPB protects South Stack (01407 764973; rspb.org.uk; bus 22 from Holyhead), a swathe of heather and gorse that yields to some spectacular cliffs. Birds include the stone chuff, the lapwing and the rosebill. The visitor centre occupies Ellen Tower, a 19th-century folly built by Lord Stanley for his wife, Ellen, who sketched birds from the tower.
Sir Clough Williams-Ellis had a mission. The Welsh architect yearned “to recover some of the elegance of the past”. So, starting in 1925, he brought fragments of endangered buildings, stone by stone, to a hillside above Tremadog Bay, known as Portmeirion – “a home for fallen buildings” as he described his delectable Italianate folly.
The resulting architectural menagerie, rich with Baroque twirls and daubed with slabs of pastel colour, cried out to be either a film set or a tourist attraction. It proved to be both. In the 1960s, it was used as the location for the cult TV series The Prisoner.
Today, it is one of the prime attractions on the north-west coast of Wales (01766 770000; portmeirion-village.com; £10). You can also stay in one of the properties on site. The current “Spring into Summer Break” costs £225 for two, including dinner, bed and breakfast.
Many of the cottages can also be rented out.
Dotted around the coast are thousands of places to stay, from boutique hotels to campsites. On the beach in Pembrokeshire is Newgale Camp Site (01437 710253; £7 per night; newgalecampingsite.co.uk), one of the best of the latter.
An even more picturesque budget location is the former lifeboat house at Port Eynon, in the south-west of the Gower Peninsula. This youth hostel (yha.org.uk) offers beautiful views over a lovely beach and across Oxwich Bay and twin rooms for £42.
One of the first boutique hotels in Wales has a fine maritime history. Morgan’s in Swansea, occupies the former Port Authority HQ close to the revitalised waterfront (01792 484848; morganshotel.co.uk). Today, it is extravagantly furnished, with an award-winning restaurant and comfy double rooms from £45, room only.
In Britain’s smallest city, St David’s, a 200-year-old former windmill is to open later in the summer as “a luxury contemporary art hotel”. Twr y Felin will have 20 rooms with panoramic views over the peninsula (01437 729 900; twryfelinhotel.com).
The brashest seaside resorts in Wales are those that are close to the English border; on the north coast, Prestatyn and Rhyl are convenient for visitors from Liverpool and Manchester, while Barry Island in the south attracts people from the Midlands as well as Cardiff and Newport. But if you stray further afield the rewards increase.
In Pembrokeshire, Tenby is a picturesque fishing port with a rich history evident in its Norman walls and Georgian mansions as well as the appealing Castle Beach.
Cardigan Bay is basically one long beach, with Aberystwyth the most developed resort; Aberdovey, a short way north, is more alluring, and also offers opportunities for catching crabs from the harbour walls.
The Llyn Peninsula is more rugged, but Pwllheli (where the railway ends) is a former Butlin’s venue with lots of family attractions. Abersoch is worth the extra eight-mile drive for its gentle surroundings and lovely views.
On the north coast, Llandudno is the real star. It was created as a 19th-century holiday resort in the shadow of the Great Orme, which rises nearly 650ft above the Irish Sea – and is accessible by either the old tramway or the newer cable car from beside the handsome pier. The beach is wide and safe. One of Wales’s leading B&Bs, Escape, brings a boutique feel to the resort (01492 877 776; escapebandb.co.uk; from around £95 double, minimum stay two nights).
Getting there (Visit Wales) Getting there and getting around
Rail: the main operator is Arriva Trains Wales. The fastest approaches are along the north and south coasts of Wales. Virgin Trains runs services from London via Chester, Rhyl, Llandudno and Bangor to Holyhead in the north. First Great Western runs from London, Reading, Swindon and Bristol to Newport, Cardiff and Swansea, overlapping with Arriva.
West Wales has fewer services, with only seven trains a day from Fishguard to Carmarthen.
The east-west line through mid-Wales begins in Shrewsbury (with links from London, Coventry and Birmingham) and runs through to the west coast of Wales, where trains split: one half making the short run south to Aberystwyth, the other taking the long haul to Pwllheli.
Air: Cardiff Wales airport is at Rhoose, close to the southern tip of Wales and near Barry Island. The country’s only other commercial airport is Valley in Anglesey, which has weekday flights to and from Cardiff – a spectacular way to see the coast. Book well ahead and you could pay as little as £19 one way (0844 800 2411; linksair.co.uk).