By Cynthia Dial for JustLuxe.com
What do Catherine Zeta Jones, castles and zip lining have in common? If you answer Wales, you’re right.
Wales is the birthplace of actress Zeta Jones; home to more castles per square mile than anywhere on earth; the country of Europe’s longest, highest and fastest zip wire and the land of my recent visit.
“We’ve crossed the River Severn, so I can officially say ‘Croeso i Gymru,’ Welcome to Wales,” greeted our guide, less than three hours after my arrival into Heathrow. Changes seemed gradual during our journey from the UK capital. On approach to Great Britain’s westernly country, we see just a few of its natural aesthetics – rolling hills, the faint silhouettes of mountains and a scattering of sheep (only a sampling of the country’s 14 million). But the mother tongue, Welsh, is readily apparent in the bi-lingual signage appearing like surround sound. Spoken by about 20 percent of its people, a linguistic perk for visitors is the 24/7 exposure to such terms as cas or castell (castle), afon (river) and cwm (valley).
At first glance Wales seems an intriguing balance of contrasts: its national flag is a fiery red dragon, its national flower is the delicate daffodil, its national sport is the rugged game of rugby and the March 1 birthday of its patron saint, St David, is a countrywide celebration. Though smaller than the state of New Jersey, Wales’s superlatives are larger than life. The Royal Mint is the world’s oldest company (Guinness Book of Records), its narrow-gauge railway is earth’s oldest, the Swansea-to-Mumbles passenger train line is the world’s first and Welsh inventions include radar, the radio, portable phones and the equals (=) sign.
Wales’s plant life and wildlife are equally impressive. With three national parks and seven RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), the tiny nation features more than 30 species of butterflies, almost 1,000 breeding pairs of the once-near-extinct red kite bird, thousands of orchid-blanketed meadows and approximately 16,000 puffins on the country’s sister islands of Skomer and Skokholm.
Cardiff is the epicenter of activity. Curiously glamour-resistant, Wales’s capital city showcases the country’s rich past and vibrant present. Serving up such icons as Cardiff Castle, Millennium Centre and the Millennium Stadium – with an event calendar to rival any European capital – the city is full of cultural, recreational and culinary possibilities. To become best acquainted with Cardiff, begin at its castle. Projecting more than 2,000 years of history with its collection of towers and turrets, this former Roman fort was occupied until 1947. “Cardiff revolves around it,” said a resident of this ancient home to many royal families. Today’s beloved landmark belongs to its people, with all locals issued entrance cards (aka keys to the castle).
Pleasures of the pedestrian abound in Cardiff. Here’s a peek of a walkabout. Its day begins at Cardiff Market, an old-style, glass-roofed arcade with fresh seafood, local produce and baked goods (specialties include Welsh cakes) . . . alongside haircuts, watch repairs and pet rabbits. You’ll pass Cardiff City Hall and its clock tower. National Museum Cardiff tells 4.5 million years of Welsh history through the world’s largest collection of Welsh pottery and features one of Europe’s finest art collections. Inspired by the country’s landscape and raw materials, Millennium Centre arts and cultural venue is glass and slate, with a bronze-colored wave-like roof and a bi-lingual phrase massively displayed above its entrance. Unmistakably Welsh, it’s so architecturally balanced, it seems the flawless strand of pearls. Described “acoustically perfect,” Andrew Lloyd Webber considers its theatre the best to be built in 50 years. The quintessentially complete Welsh farewell would include a rugby or football match at Millennium Stadium, UK’s only arena with a retractable roof.
Cardiff’s restaurants equally beckon. Chapel 1877 (a church built in the year of its name) is a luxurious, multi-level, fine-dining restaurant, where a seat near the railing of its top tier is a premium one. Clink, an outside-the-walls prison restaurant staffed by inmates, continually tops Cardiff’s list of most popular eateries.
Slow down, take a deep breath and it gets better. Though two of the nation’s three million in population live in Cardiff, Swansea and Newport, outside the cities, it is pure country. Far from the tourist track, the air is sharper, crisper, cleaner; and in contrast to Cardiff, moves at a decaffeinated pace.
Here’s only part of the rundown.
Among 600-plus castle choices, Carreg Cennan Castle is a Welsh favorite. Reached by trekking a relatively steep trail alongside a herd of sheep to the hilltop citadel, you’ll possibly be the sole visitor. Your reward: a 360-degree view from the fortification, the same lookout its once-upon-a-time residents coveted.
Overlooking the River Tywi, Llandelilo is renowned for its colorful side-by-side, palette-like assortment of buildings. While the churchyard sits at one end of town’s King Street, among its red, blue, lavender and yellow structures are clothing boutiques, specialty shops, cafes and taverns. Heavenly is known for its chocolate brownies, Toast for the clothing, Peppercorn has cookery and the White Horse Tavern is the local version of Cheers.
Called “the strangest town in Wales” by native son Dylan Thomas, Laugharne has changed little in 50 years. It’s where the author-poet lived when writing “Under Milk Wood” and is said to be the inspiration for the fictional town Llareggub (backward it spells “buggerall,” which translates to ‘nothing at all’). Described as “stepping back into a simpler, slower time,” the best way to emulate a day in the life of Dylan Thomas is with a drink at Brown’s Hotel. My choice: Merlyn, a Welsh cream liqueur, sipped near the fireplace while surrounded by Thomas memorabilia.
Located in southwest Wales, the county of Pembrokeshire touts Britain’s only coastal national park – one that passes through 58 beaches, 14 harbors and the UK’s smallest city, St. Davids. Traveling along narrow, cliff-top paths, running over the headlands and sometimes down to the sea – every view postcard perfect – I felt like Morgan Freeman should be narrating my short portion of the 186-mile trail. Our destination, St Davids, revealed a tiny, cozy, comfortable town, complete with specialty shops, art galleries and tea rooms. But it is St Davids Cathedral (one of Britain’s oldest) that is its most popular draw, with pilgrims and visitors alike.
Photos by Cynthia Dial
Chocolate lovers shouldn’t bypass Wickedly Welsh Chocolate in Haverfordwest (Pembrokeshire). Greeted with a cup of freshly melted chocolate, owner Mark Owen guides chocoholics to their best choice – from a Penderyn Whisky truffle to the ever-popular Strawberries-and-Cream bar to Smugglers Spice (the rum, raisin, dark chocolate winner of the Taste of Pembrokeshire).
Happily secluded in Pembrokeshire’s Porthgain is the Sloop Inn. Known for regional ales, nautical memorabilia and its PFA (Porthgain Fisherman’s Association) Members-Only Table, this is the type of haunt that conjectures thoughts of foggy nights and weary sailors. It’s where I sipped cold cider and ate fish pie as a recording of Welsh-born Tom Jones’s “It’s Not Unusual” played in the background.
Should you go: Train travel via RailEurope is the effortless transport from Wales’s major cities to London.
What do Dylan Thomas, St David and Merlyn have in common? If you answer Wales, you’re right.
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