The many wonders of Wales
Updated: Aug 19
NOT ONLY IS NORTH WALES HOME TO HISTORIC CASTLES, TOWNS AS OLD AS TIME, AND UNRIVALLED VIEWS OF LAKES AND SNOW-CAPPED MOUNTAINS, IT’S ALSO A CULINARY HEAVEN AND AN ADVENTURER’S PARADISE.
I had visited the south of Wales before, when I went in support of the boys in green and gold as they faced Wales at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. This was also when I discovered that the Welsh are arguably a more rugby-mad nation than us saffas.
But, when VisitBritain (the ultimate touring company and guide to Great Britain) invited me along on a press trip of the northern reaches of the country to celebrate Wales’ ‘Year of Adventure’, I had no idea what to expect, and couldn’t possibly imagine the spell it would cast over me.
After a lovely night spent in London, we boarded the train to Chester the next day, where Boutique Tours (boutiquetours.co.uk) proprietor (as well as our knowledgeable tour guide and driver) John Hadwin picked us up. We then made our way towards the north coast, taking in the trademark scenery of rolling green hills spattered with pretty bright yellow daffodils and dotted with grazing sheep, while John cheerfully entertained us with Welsh lore.
Arriving at Bodnant Welsh Food (bodnant-welshfood.co.uk), a food centre with a deli, dairy, wine cellar and restaurant, where we were to enjoy lunch and a cooking demo, I had absolutely no expectations to speak of. The Welsh are hardly renowned as world beaters in cuisine, after all. In fact, the UK has only quite recently shed the connotations of poor and bland food, which have hounded it for decades.
So, it was to my arrant surprise that Chef Andrew Sheridan delighted our taste buds with inventive and phenomenally delicate dishes during our lunch at the warm and welcoming Hayloft Restaurant. We were further impressed when he treated us to a demo afterwards, showing off Blumenthal-esque techniques. He also explained how the Welsh take pride in the fact that their ingredients are all locally sourced and produced, and boy, does their lamb give our Karoo variety a run for its money.
Our home for our first few nights in Wales was Conwy, a beautiful walled little town that stands sentinel near the mouth of the River Conwy, and home to Conwy Castle, a Unesco World Heritage Site and described by Unesco as ‘one of the finest examples of late-13th-century and early-14th-century military architecture in Europe’. Constructed by the notorious King Edward I (circa 1283), along with the majestic wall that surrounds the town to this day, it saw plenty of famous battles and was nearly impenetrable.
An eerie feeling and overwhelming sense of ‘if these walls could speak’ envelop you as you wander through what’s left of the castle. These include the king’s old chambers, servants’ quarters, chapel and prisoner pit, into which captives were chucked on to steel spikes and left to succumb to injuries or starvation.
But once you make your way to the tallest of the castle’s many bastions, you’re treated to astounding 360° views, including those of the quaint little houses, narrow lanes and surrounding walls of the town below; the river mouth and ocean on one side; and lush hills on the other.
If you decide to visit Conwy, stay at the Castle Hotel (castlewales.co.uk). The old coaching inn captures the spirit of Conwy perfectly with charming, comfortable rooms and old-world furnishings. The food is amazing too.
Our next port of call was Caernarfon, an even smaller and quainter town than Conwy, but site of the magnificent and arguably most famous Welsh fortress, Caernarfon Castle – another of Edward I’s constructions. The castle guards the mouth of the Afon Seiont river and was designed to emulate the Roman castles of old – apparent not only in the sheer scale of it, but also in the striking and fiercely effective design. Edward I ensured that his son was born here in 1284 so that he’d become the first English Prince of Wales, and centuries later, in 1969, Prince Charles’s investiture ceremony was also held here.
We stayed at the famous Black Boy Inn (black-boy-inn.com), a little hotel steeped in history, dating back as far as the early-15th century and bursting with character. If you stay here, make sure to try the ales at the bar. Wales has some of the best beer I’ve tasted – who knew?
Being the country’s Year of Adventure, we simply had to try everything Wales has to offer adventure seekers and, let me tell you, it has more than you may think.
Our first escapade was a two-wheeled adventure into the mountains of Snowdonia. Betws-y-Coed, a little village in the Snowdonia National Park, is now something of a Mecca for mountain bikers from all over the world, with the demanding 25 km Marin Route probably the most popular. The Marin snakes through the dense Gwydyr Forest and poses challenges including sheer descents, tough climbs, impossibly narrow paths (in places), and rocky and rooty obstacles around every turn.
We only did about four kilometres, but still had an immense amount of fun on the mostly downhill track, not to mention the incredibly picturesque panoramas we were served up from the various lofty vantage points we took a stop at for a breather.
You don’t even need that much experience mountain biking to enjoy the trails Snowdonia has to offer, and there are routes for everyone’s skill level, from novice to experienced. I would recommend making use of the services of Beics (pronounced ‘bikes’) Betws (pronounced ‘betus’), as guide Sion Parri really knows his way around (bikewales.co.uk).
If you haven’t been on a RIB (rigid-inflatable boat) ride, you’re missing out. Fortunately, you don’t have to travel to North Wales to experience this, as it can be done in various places in South Africa. However, a RIB ride on the fast-flowing waters of the Menai Strait, doing breakneck speeds and white-knuckle turns, is something to behold. Cruising around the little islets off the coast and underneath the centuries-old postcard-pretty bridges that span the strait, including the Menai Suspension Bridge built by famous engineer Thomas Telford, serves as the icing on this thrill ride of a cake.
Our other water-based adventure took us back to spectacular Snowdonia, to Llanberis Lake, a gorgeous, mirror-smooth body of water surrounded by snow-bedecked peaks. Surf-Lines (surf-lines.co.uk), a water adventure company based at the lake, does everything from kayaking, canoeing and stand-up paddle boarding (SUP), to hiking tours on the Snowdon slopes. The more cautious of our press group opted for kayaking, while some of us decided we’ll risk tumbling into the icy waters by choosing SUP boards. We were given wetsuits, after all.
It all went smoothly, at first – SUP-ing is not as difficult as some people would have you believe – and we paddled out confidently on the glassy surface, marvelling at our incredible surroundings. It was when our instructor encouraged us to try a few tricks on the paddle boards that things went south rather swiftly. Needless to say, all the SUP-ers were drenched by the time we reached shore again, while the kayakers looked on smugly from the dry safety of their cockpits. I can highly recommend it, though, especially in this dreamy fairy-tale-like place.
VisitBritain saved the best for last – zip-lining at the famed Zip World (zipworld.co.uk), where we would experience the longest zip line in Europe and the fastest in the world.
Naturally, I was first to go, and my 100 kg body weight meant I would likely reach the highest speed – somewhere around 165 km/h. To say I was nervous would be understating it. Nevertheless, there I was, hanging horizontally in my harness and at the mercy of the operator. Then the countdown came: 3 ... 2 ... 1 ... click. The clasp opened and off I zoomed into the abyss.
The Zip World Velocity runs from the top of a humongous slate quarry, over a bizarrely blue lake and continues for a mile, affording views of snowy Snowdonia in the distance. ‘The nearest thing to flying’ rings the tagline of the Velocity, and I can confirm that I’ve never come closer. I’ve skydived, bungee-jumped and hang-glided, but the rush I felt on the Velocity was in a league of its own. You simply can’t leave Wales without doing it.
We truly lived the adventure in Wales, but it is something more, something intangible that made me fall for this tiny corner of Britain. It may have been a combination of a few things: the warmth and hospitality of the Welsh people, the musical tones of the accent, the diversity and incomparable beauty of the landscapes, the hearty food, the fact that it’s not as unaffordable as the rest of the UK.
All I know is it made for a magical and forever memorable experience, and North Wales will certainly see me again.
Getting there Visiting the UK andnot at least stopping off in London would be a crime. I would recommend flying to London and takingthe train either to Chester or straightto Llandudno in North Wales.
Getting around If you’re a big enough group to be able to afford it, getting a van with a tour guide like John Hadwin is totally worth it. If not, either hire a car, or use trains and buses.
Currency Wales is part of the UK, so the currency is the pound sterling. It’s not nearly as expensive as other parts of Britain, though. A beer in a pub would set you back about four pounds and a sandwich, five.
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