Do you want jagged peaks or rolling hills? Nature or nightlife? In an extract from our online guide, TOM HUTTON offers a beginner’s guide to Wales.
Snowdonia is home to the tallest mountains in England and Wales and, while they’re modest in height compared to the Alps or Rockies, these peaks still have teeth. The highest, Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa) has become something of a sacrificial lamb, with a train running to its summit and a café on hand to quench the thirst of those who alight there.
Just as Mid Wales is soft, rolling and green, the mountains of North Wales are jagged and rough, with far more bones showing through. Check out the Vale of Ffestiniog for its beauty, or Ogwen or the Llanberis Pass for something a little more spectacular.
Although this is actually spoken in the West and in Mid Wales, you’re certain to hear it in the shops and pubs of the north. It’s reputedly the oldest currently spoken language in Europe and, while less than a quarter of the population speak it, it is currently experiencing a resurgence.
North Wales’ beaches can be conveniently split in two: those on the western coast, including Borth, the Llyn Peninsula and Anglesey, remain generally wild and under-utilised, while those lining the north coast, such as Rhyl or Llandudno, provide a full-on, kiss-me-quick, seaside holiday experience for the sprawling conurbations of Merseyside.
Cardiff is also the nightlife capital of the country, with plenty of clubs and bars in the main city centre and also a good few out on the new waterfront developments. Creation is the largest and best known of the clubs, but the smaller venues can go off, too. For live music, there’s the scruffy but affable Barfly.
The valleys are the true heartland of South Wales, although the industries they propped up are now long gone. The pits alone once employed over a quarter of a million people and their villages and towns still cling to the perilously steep hillsides. There are museums and memorials everywhere, but none are more informative than Blaenavon’s Big Pit Mining Museum, and none more heartwrenching than the memorial arches at Aberfan.
As enigmatic as the country he came from, Dylan Thomas was Wales personified: spirited, passionate, sensitive, patriotic, talented and artistic. He started life in Swansea, an ugly, lovely town” that still associates itself with the great man at every opportunity; and lived out his later years further west, in a small village called Laugharne, where there’s a museum dedicated to him and his work.
The Brecon Beacons National Park
Overshadowed by the mighty mountains of Snowdonia, it would be easy to miss the Brecon Beacons, but if time is tight, it’s easier to get in and out of here than the mountains further north. Pen y Fan is the highest ground in southern Britain and a challenging walk for anybody, yet it’s barely a few hours by car or train from London. The ‘waterfall country’ in the south of the park is spectacular beyond words, and the lakes are tranquil and pretty.
The West Wales coastline is one of the most beautiful in Europe. From the Gower – a nominal dividing line between south and west – right up to Cardigan and beyond, you’ll find towering cliffs, crashing surf and absolutely stunning beaches.
Dolphins share the seas with porpoises, seals and even the occasional basking shark, while seabirds crowd onto the offshore islands and towering cliffs. Rarer species thrive in this quiet corner, with choughs and peregrine falcons almost commonplace. In the summer the clifftops come alive with the pinks and yellows of heather and gorse. Take a boat trip to the islands of Ramsey or Skomer for the full experience.
This whole coast was made for surfing, perfectly placed, as it is, to feel the full brunt of every Atlantic storm. Like most of Britain, things can be a little tame in summer, but when the winter swells start rolling in, even the most hardcore will stay stoked. The choice of spots is endless but head for Llangennith, Whitesands or Freshwater West to set the ball rolling.
• For TNT’s online guide to Wales, see www.tntmagazine.com/uk/guides.