So often overlooked; overshadowed by its burly brother to the east (that would be England) and unfairly forgotten in favour of Irish charm and the rugged Scots, very few people realise that Wales can hold its own on the tourist playing field. With unfathomable natural beauty, more historic castles than woolly sheep, and an entire host of dare-devil activities, Wales is one magnificent day out after another.
1. The Wales Way. The road trip you don’t want to miss.
As of November 2017, The Wales Way is the country’s latest initiative to promote their glorious Welsh landscape by detailing three new national touring routes. Small yet mighty, Wales might be compact but it still packs an impressive 1400km of coastal routes - and the first continuous coastal path in the world, 50 islands, as well as a ready supply of castles (both gentrified and those succumbing to the soil) misty mountain peaks and 230 rugged beaches, including more blue flag beaches than anywhere else in the UK: A European ranking system which indicates high environmental and quality beach standards.
What to do: The trio of national routes, which can include one, two or all three of the following:
THE CAMBRIAN WAY
A craggy journey following the mountainous spine of inner Wales, from its northern tip to the southern capital of Cardiff, it crosses two National Parks (Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons), old slate mines, the country’s coal mining heartland, and an assortment of surprising yet charming vineyards and microbreweries.
THE COASTAL WAY
Running the entire length of Cardigan Bay, this 290km journey switches between cliff side and seaside, passing harbour towns and fishing villages, bays with secret coves and imposing mountains possessing more mystery than they do rocky mountain shale.
THE NORTH WALES WAY
From the set-like Victorian town of Llandudno, a place which inspired Alice in Wonderland, to the Island of Anglesey, this ancient trading route passes a trio of dramatic castles which have withstood their enemies (notably the English) for at least eight centuries. From the snow-capped peaks of Wales’ highest mountain, Snowdonia, to the wind whipped beaches of North Wales, history and harsh Welsh climates collide here.
2. It’s home to Britain’s smallest city.
By all characteristics, St Davids is little more than a sleepy Welsh village, with the stock-standard scattering of stacked terraced houses, stone pubs and a crooked village square. And yet, due to its enormous 12th century cathedral, it boasts city status. With just 1600 residents, it’s the birth and burial place of the nation's patron saint, St David, and sits by the sea on the far south west coast of Wales.
What to do: As the gateway to Wales’ much-loved hiking, surfing and acclaimed wildlife-watching, St Davids also boasts Whitesands Bay, a beach which carries the prestigious European Blue Flag Award, as well as the Gothic ruins of The Bishops Palace which holds open air theatre performances throughout the summer. In eye shot from there, the cathedral sits grandly; draped in dusky purple sandstone. Admire the external masonry, or step inside for nine centuries of history-etched secrets and religious whisperings.
3. The beaches are some of the best in the world.
From seaside promenades straight out of a period drama, to coves that boast concentrated pods of bottle nosed dolphins, to colourful beach huts and popular surfing spots, Wales is a buffet of beach picks.
What to do: For sheer beauty, Gower’s Rhossili beach was ranked the best in Britain by TripAdvisor in 2014, and commendably, the ninth best beach in the world. Wildlife spotting is fruitful in most places, with puffins, grey seals and even orca whales making an appearance, while Mwnt in Ceredigion is frequently visited by bottlenose dolphins, basking sharks and porpoises. Barafundle Bay in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park boasts caramel coloured sand, while Pembrokeshire as a whole is replete with coastal head-turners with Newgale Sands, also in Pembrokeshire, popular for surfing.
The northern township of Llandudno features lofty Victorian houses and a timeless promenade and then there’s Glamorgan Heritage Coast, one of the premier places in Wales to forage Jurassic fossils.
Charter a helicopter from Fly Heli Wales and admire the unforgettable panorama of Gower's coast from above. For the most glorious views of Llandudno's vintage seafront, take the Great Orme Tramway to the summit of the Great Orme headland.
A simple town with a complicated name, Llanfair (let’s call it that for short) sits on the charmed Island of Anglesey, just off North Wales. Famed for being the home of both Bear Grylls, Anglesey boasts Wales' greatest number of ancient sites, as well as jaw-dropping coastline, of which almost all of it has been designated as an 'Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty'.
What to do: Access from mainland Wales is via the Menai Bridge. Once in Menai itself you’d be wise to drop by The Straits Restaurant for slow cooked rosemary lamb rump (Welsh lamb no less) a lip-licking menu of farm-to-fork ingredients and mussels plucked straight out of the Menai Strait. From here, head to the impeccably perfect Georgian town of Beaumaris, complete with Beaumaris Castle, regarded the finest Edwardian castle in Wales, and a World Heritage Site. By sundown you’ll be cranky for more home cooked grub, so dive into a cosy pub and nurse a dark ale while devouring Welsh black beef with cennin – Welsh for leeks. Just be aware that many restaurants across Anglesey are closed on Mondays.
The A55 is the main dual-carriageway that crosses from the mainland into Anglesey, but it’s renowned for traffic jams. Once over the bridge, turn off at the next junction and take quieter - albeit windier - B roads.
5. Coasteering was invented here.
Coasteering is a physical activity that involves moving along Wales’ rocky coastline like a nimble and highly gifted mountain goat. By climbing, scrambling, cliff jumping and swimming, partakers traverse from one craggy bluff to the next.
What to do: Pioneered in the 80s on the Pembrokeshire coast, its birthplace is officially St Davids, but you'll find all levels of difficultly up and down the country's coastline. You'll need a wetsuit, flotation, jacket, helmet and a very good sense of adventure - along with a thick seal-like skin. You're going to be jumping into the unforgiving Irish Sea, which has never been hailed for its warm, welcoming temperatures. A sort of microcosm of NZ all round, Wales is the adventure capital of Britain. Once you've coasteered, head to The Surf Snowdonia Adventure Park for gorge walking, SUP boarding and the 'Crash & Splash Lagoon', a water assault course boasting the world’s longest surfable human-made waves. You can canoe along Snowdonia's icy blue lakes, or book a White Water Rafting trip on the temperamental River Dee. And then there’s social media’s fave hangout: Bounce Below. Housed in a former slate mine, it’s a series of giant trampolines located in below ground caves, with four slides and six levels of submerged bouncing fun.
6. There exists a little slice of the Mediterranean.
If you've been umming and arring between the UK and the Mediterranean for your next European escape, Portmeirion, a small township in North Wales is the perfect answer. A beautiful seaside village, with all the aesthetics of Italy, it was built between 1925 and 1976 by architect, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. Portmeirion boasts its own private peninsula built into the cliffs just south of Porthmadog and the brightly coloured buildings are akin to a sun-drenched Italian hotspot.
What to do: Portmeirion is open every day of the year from 9.30am to 7.30pm and during peak season (March - October) there are free walking and small train tours. A network of walking paths will alert you to the unusual (and rather out of place) existence of exotic plants, fed by the unique warm microclimate of the peninsula. A Portmeirion documentary screens on the hour in a building just above the central piazza, and the scaled-down “Italian” mansions feature an assortment of coffee shops, bijou stores and gift shops.
If you don’t fancy spending an entire day in The Welsh Med, admission is reduced by 15% after 3.30pm.