Wild and woolly Wales — where sheep are said to outnumber people 3 to 1 — has always been one of Britain’s most overlooked tourist destinations. As such, the semi-autonomous entity, which remained its own country until the reign of King Henry VIII, presents a congestion-free trove of historical, cultural and outdoor opportunities for Americans looking to wander off the traditional tourist routes.
Please note: Welsh, a Celtic language whose origins predate the Roman invasion, is highly phonetic. Unfortunately, many of the letters are not pronounced anything like they are in English, so be prepared to pronounce places names wrong — very wrong. But not to worry, all official signage, including road signs, are in both languages with English first. And everybody speaks fluent English.
CASTLES, CASTLES, EVERYWHERE
With 641 of them altogether, Wales claims to have the highest density of castles in the world. Most are mere remnants and serve only as romantic punctuation to the landscape. But there are also dozens that rank among the most architecturally significant in Europe. The moated and partially restored 13th century Caerphilly near Cardiff is second in size only to Windsor, among castles in the United Kingdom. Raglan, in southeastern Monmouthshire, dates to the 15th century. The four 12th century northern coastal “Iron Ring” castles — Caernarfon (investiture site of the Prince of Wales), Conwy, Beaumaris and Harlech — were built by English King Edward I to ward off the rebellious Owain Glyndwr. . For a more modern rendition, there’s Cardiff Castle, the Victorian-era showplace of the filthy rich (they made their money in coal) Marquesses of Bute.
INFO Admission prices vary; wales.com/castles
RIDING THE (SMALL) RAILS
Originally built to carry freight, particularly slate, from the source, Wales’ narrow-gauge steam railways began converting to accommodate tourists in the 1950s. Eleven are now members of the Great Little Trains of Wales consortium, with each offering slow, nostalgic rides through some of Wales’ most appealing scenery. Among the more rewarding lines are the 25-mile Welsh Highland Railway, the 15-mile Blaenau Ffestiniog Railway and the 12-mile Vale of Rheidol Railway. For a historical and mechanical look at narrow-gauge railways in general, chug over to the Narrow Gauge Railway Museum in Tywyn, coastal terminus of the Talyllyn Railway.
INFO Ticket prices vary; greatlittletrainsofwales.co.uk
SEA AND SEE
With 1,680 miles of coastline, there’s no shortage of beachfront property to enjoy in Wales. But of particular — and often peculiar — interest to 21st century Americans will be Wales’ surviving Victorian-era seaside resorts. Their hotel-lined seafront promenades, amusement piers, donkey and funicular rides, and raucous Punch and Judy shows provide an entertaining look into the distinctly British concept of “holiday making.” The undisputed “Queen of the Welsh Resorts” is sprawling Llandudno in the north, but also worth considering are Aberystwyth, along the central coast, and even older, more sedate Tenby in the south.
ON TOP OF OLD SNOWDON
The highest peak in the U.K. south of Scotland, Mount Snowdon (3,560 feet), dominates the North Wales countryside and irresistibly draws travelers to its exposed summit. A number of trails wend their way up from all sides. The most popular is the 9-mile round-trip Llanberis Path from the prominent lakeside resort (and slate-producing) center of the same name. Those reluctant to hoof it can ride the narrow-gauge Snowdon Mountain Railway, which first opened in 1896 (round-trip about $37-$47 for adults, $25.50-$34.50 for ages 3-15).
INTO THE BELLY OF WALES
Wales’ beauty lies above ground, but much of its wealth came from deep below. The once abundant coal and slate mines have almost all played out, but tourists can still go down and get a feel for how rough life was for the miners of yesteryear. Located in Blaenavon in the southern coal fields is the Big Pit National Coal Museum, where visitors journey 300 feet underground on a free 50-minute guided tour. A similar, walk-through experience can be had at the Llechwedd Slate Caverns in Blaenau Ffestiniog (about $25.50 per person). For something significantly more adventurous — involving scrambling, crawling and ledge-walking through original passageways — head for Corris Mine Explorers near Dolgellau in central Wales. A 50-minute tour is about $19; two-hour or half-day tours also are available.
Falling squarely in the “and now for something completely different” category is Portmeirion, a whimsical, miniature Italianate village overlooking the estuary of the River Dwyryd just south of Porthmadog in North Wales. Built by local architect Clough Williams-Ellis over a 50-year period beginning in 1925, immaculate Portmeirion is primarily for ambling, marveling and taking lots of artsy exterior photos. But there is a traditional hotel overlooking the estuary, and a Victorian castle hotel nearby. There are also a half-dozen restaurants and several shops, including one dedicated to the colorful Portmeirion brand pottery. Fans of the 1967-68 cult show “The Prisoner” will recognize Portmeirion as “the Village.”
INFO Admission about $14 for adults, $9 ages 5-15; portmeirion-village.com
READ ALL ABOUT IT
Literally hugging the English border is literary Hay-on-Wye, which bills itself as the “town of books” but is more accurately described as “the world’s largest used bookstore.” It all began in 1961 with just one enterprising bibliophile. Today, more than three dozen used and antiquarian bookstores, most of which specialize in a particular genre (e.g., mystery, children’s, natural history) line the streets of this charming medieval market town. They are complemented by dozens of “honesty bookstores” — covered outdoor shelves with cash boxes.
EAT, DRINK AND WELSH OUT
Fiercely proud of their culture, language and non-Englishness, the Welsh gather throughout the year to celebrate all of the above. The granddaddy of all such convocations is the annual Druidic-themed National Eisteddfod, held in early August. Others include Llandrindod Wells’ Victorian Festival (Aug. 21-27), the offbeat Festival No. 6 in Portmeirion (Sept. 7-10); the Abergavenny Food Festival (Sept. 16-17), the Llandovery Sheep Festival (Sept. 23-24), and the quintessentially quirky World Bog Snorkelling Championship (Aug. 28) in Llanwrtyd Wells.
A UNIQUE PHOTO OP
Many visitors to North Wales cannot resist the opportunity to detour through an otherwise nondescript town just across the Menai Strait from Bangor on the Isle of Anglesey. That’s because Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch — Llanfair PG for short — sports the longest place name in the world. There are several spots to capture this all on film (provided you have a wide-angle lens), including the train station and the bus stop, but the best is James Pringle Weavers clothing and gift store, because it also provides a translation: “The Church of Mary in the Hollow of the White Hazel near the Fierce Whirlpool and the Church of Tysilio by the Red Cave.”