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 fairy tale. There are green hills and valleys, a pristine sea coast, tiny villages speckling the landscape and, for extra panache, castles — although these castles can appear more grim and forbidding than the benign fairy-tale version.
With a pastoral setting reminiscent of an 18th-century landscape painting, and 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. On a recent visit, I hit a few highlights in each region.
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 shops and pubs. A lipstick-red house is reputed to be the smallest in Britain.
Time spent quay side might include stopping in for a pint at a centuries-old pub and trying Conwy’s famed mussels.
Conwy’s piece de resistance, however, is 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, Conwy Castle (cadw.gov.wales/daysout/conwycastle), with its eight massive towers, definitely invokes a sense of power and might. Conwy is but one of the “iron ring” of castles he built to humble the rebellious Welsh.
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.
To taste the best of Welsh produce, stop for lunch at Hawarden Farm Estate (hawardenestate.co.uk), whose 20 acres showcase local fruit and vegetables.
Where to stay: If you fancy yourself a modern-day Lord Grantham and Lady Cora on holiday from Downton Abbey, book a room at Bodysgallen Hall (bodysgallen.com). This regal 17th-century mansion hotel is in proximity to Snowdonia National Park (eryri-npa.gov.uk/home).
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 (erwoodstation.com). 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 Brecon Beacons National Park.
If ever there was a monument to British eccentricity, this is it. Hay-on-Wye has a population of just under 1,500 — and 35 bookstores. 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 (late May/early June, hayfestival.org).
Where to Stay: Y Talbot, on the town square of Tregaron, is a 17th-century drovers’ inn-turned-pub with rooms (ytalbot.com). 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. If you stay for dinner, however, you may think you’ve stumbled into a trendy London restaurant: Y Talbot’s chef, Dafydd Watkin, 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 velouté.
Mid-Wales is also home to the country’s most luxurious hotel, stately Llangoed Hall (llangoedhall.co.uk). It’s a frequent stop for Charles, Prince of Wales, when he comes here to do princely things.
It’s an easy drive from Cardiff, Wales’ 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 (cadw.gov.wales/daysout/tinternabbey), founded in 1131.
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 amid 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 (angelabergavenny.com) in the town center, or its sister property, the Michelin-starred Walnut Tree, two miles from town (thewalnuttreeinn.com).
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.”