What gives Wales the wow factor?
GO WALES:The ‘Lonely Planet 2012 Guide’ has named the All Wales Coast Path as the world’s greatest region for a holiday. MAL ROGERStries a small section of the 1,400km routeIN A SURPRISING departure, the travellers’ tome The 2012 Lonely Planet Guidehas named the Welsh coastline number one in its Best in Travel for 2012. This 1,400km of walkable Welsh seaside is up there with a stroll in the Alps, a dander in the Dolomites.
So far, I’ve managed some five of those 1,400km. Two of them were on the Pembroke Coast Path, an integral part of the National Welsh schlep. Pembroke – perched at the very edge of Britain, indeed at the very edge of Europe and looking across at Ireland – is a place apart: British yet strikingly different from the rest of Britain; European yet mystically and poetically Celtic; ruggedly rural, yet sophisticated and surprising too.
St David and (probably) St Patrick both called this home, as indeed did St Elvis. No, not the King across the water in Tennessee. This Elvis (again, probably) came from Munster and fetched up here on the Lonely Planet coastal route circa the 5th century.
In fact, there are more saints hereabouts than you could reasonably shake a pilgrim’s stave at. Whitesands Bay at the very tip of St David’s Peninsula, looking as if it had been ordered in from central casting with its gull-draped rocks, curls of silvery sand and secluded rocky coves, is an extremely sainted place.
According to legend, St Patrick – who, as we know, was either a Welshman or a Roman from the Gloamin’ – had his vision to convert Ireland to Christianity here. Accordingly, he set sail for Ireland. The site of a Celtic chapel on the bay, dedicated to the Apostle of Ireland, is believed to have been the embarkation point for pilgrims to St David’s Cathedral.
Britain’s smallest city is required viewing – and well worth a visit, to use travel writers’ parlance (WWAV from now on). Only 1,797 souls live in St Davids, but the day we visited, no more than about 11 were out and about. They must take it in turns.
Incidentally, the town of St Davids tends to come unapostrophised, unlike the cathedral or peninsula, and indeed the apostrophised baked “potatoe’s” that I thoroughly enjoyed in the excellent Farmers Arms.
As regards the cathedral, it’s just beyond the Farmers. In true religious, showbiz fashion St Davids is positioned to provide maximum visual impact. Suddenly, as you crest a small hill, there she stands: a monster of a barracks, surely big enough to hold all of St Davids’ 1,797 inhabitants. Definitely WWAV. Always has been, these last 10 centuries.
NEARBY IS Solva, and St Elvis’s Farm. Here you’ll find a stone shrine to St Elvis – probably a 6th century missionary from Ireland, a man called Elvis of Munster. Probably, the very man who baptised St David.
Due east of Solva, deep into the Pembroke National Park, is a range of hills which rises to some 536m. The Welsh word for these is Mynydd Y Preseli or Y Preselau; in English they’re known as the Preseli Hills. But you’ll probably already have guessed that.
The next two miles of our coastline walk is just down the road in Carmarthenshire.
Laugharne (pronounced Larne, somewhat to my Ulster surprise) was home to Dylan Thomas. Mother Nature and the National Trust have jointly conspired to ensure that Carmarthen remains one of the most beautiful places on Earth. The former has created a coastline in which grassy dunes and stern mountains shelve down to idyllic beaches – while the National Trust has thrown a protective arm across the coast, preventing bungalowed carbuncles from erupting along its hilltops.
The result is a holiday haven of unspoilt seaside towns, crumbling castles, golden stretches of sand, and jaunty fish-and-chip harbours. Laugharne itself is fully equipped with weapon-grade castle, church, salt-marshes, international rugby out-half, male voice choir, etc.
Dylan found it a strange town, an English-speaking outpost in the heart of Welsh-speaking Wales. Its inhabitants are said to have formed much of the inspiration for the townsfolk of Llareggub – “bugger all” backwards.
I’m pretty sure we passed Nogood Boyo, an old man now, coming out of the post office. Any Laugharne expedition begins at the massive 13th-century Norman castle – you can’t miss it really. Thence you rock along that coastal path again, hereabouts hugging the Taf Estuary. Dylan Thomas’s home, The Boathouse, eventually heaves into view. It’s now a small museum (WWAV), his writing shed ditto.
WITH MELANCHOLY thoughts of Dylan’s father and Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,it’s time to head down the coast to my last walked mile of this new tourist must-see.
Many would insist that Rhossili Bay on the Gower Peninsula – a dazzling, three-mile crescent of golden sand that makes the lists of Best Beaches in the World with tedious regularity – is the Gower’s chief glory. They would find few naysayers, not least, an old acquaintance of Ireland, Gerald of Wales.
April 14th, 1188, is an important date in travel writing. Giraldus Cambrensis finally finished his mammoth 600-mile trek round Wales, a journey that led him to write Descriptio Cambrieae, one of the earliest travel books, a Lonelio Planetae of its day. His verdict on Wales was predictable enough (WWAV, in case you hadn’t guessed.)
This wasn’t Ger’s first travel book. He had accompanied Henry II to Ireland, penning his first tilt at the travel market, Topographia Hibernica. Not entirely impressed with the Irish (“barbaric” some of us, apparently), he did rate our harp playing, up ye boy ye.
As far as Wales is concerned, no bother. He totally chimed in with the Lonely Planet – a must, he reckoned, in the 13th century as much as the 21st.
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies from Dublin to Cardiff. Flybe (flybe.com) flies from Belfast to Cardiff. Stena Line (stenaline.ie) sails from Dublin to Holyhead and from Rosslare to Fishguard. Irish Ferries (irishferries.com) sail from Dublin to Holyhead and from Rosslare to Pembroke. Fastnet Ferries (fastnetline.com) sail from Cork to Swansea.
Wales where to . . .
Value:Greenhills Country House, St Florence, 00-44-1834-871291, greenhillshotel.co.uk. In the historic 12th-century Norman village of St Florence, Greenhills is close to coast and countryside. Doubles from £70 (€81).
Mid-market:Ramsey House, Lower Moor, St Davids, 00-44-1437-720321, ramseyhouse.co.uk. A guesthouse that has eased into boutiquery, it’s in the centre of St Davids. Double rooms, BB £110 (€127).
Upmarket:Hurst House, West Marsh Farm, Laugharne, 00-44-1994-427417, hurst-house.co.uk. Not too long ago, Wales could boast more singers than bakers. Which is all very well if you’ve had your breakfast. All taken care of at Hurst’s; meals come with home-baked bread, afternoon tea is served with traditional Welsh cakes, there’s a sing-song at the piano at night, and dancing in the bar goes on till half past eejit in the morning, with let’s say, an atmosphere of conviviality. On the flat marshes of Carmarthen Bay, the contemporary élan of this impressive boutique hotel is striking. And, I’d venture, a place where the craic is seriously in excess of EU-approved limits. Extremely WWAV. Doubles from £175 (€202), BB.
Value:Park Road Fish Chip Shop, 1a Upper Park Road, Tenby, 00-44-1834-844240. Tenbys best chipper by far; somebody once said that upscale restaurants are slightly embarrassed about chips; chips are side orders, usually given a pseudonym (“Namur frenched potato wedges”). But in a chippie, everything else is a side order. In Park Road FC shop in the glorious old Norman town of Tenby, chips are king.
Mid-market:Fairyhill, Reynoldston, Gower, 00-44-1792-390-139, fairyhill.net. Salt-marsh lamb, generous portions of meltingly good beef and scores of distinctive cheeses make Fairyhill a top choice. As for desserts – get thee behind me Satan, as someone once said (although in a different context).
Upmarket:The Cors, Newbridge Road, Laugharne, 00-44-1994-427219, thecors.co.uk. Hidden from the main street in Laugharne behind its exotically landscaped grounds, The Cors, according to popular culinary wisdom, is one of the finest dining experiences in Britain. Chef-proprietor Nick Priestland has made house, garden and food all works of art. It was also, the night we attended, the scene of much music, food, laughter, libation and general debauchery. We’ve seldom felt more at home.