What do Catherine Zeta Jones, castles and zip lining have in common? If you answered Wales, you’re right. It is the birthplace of the actress, the country with more castles per square mile than anywhere on earth and home to Europe’s longest, highest and fastest zip wire. It is also the destination of my most recent travels.
“We’ve crossed the River Severn, so I can officially say Croeso i Gymru or, Welcome to Wales,” greeted our guide, less than three hours after my arrival into Heathrow. Changes seemed gradual during our journey from UK’s capital. On approach to Great Britain’s western country, we saw just a few of its natural aesthetics—rolling hills, the faint silhouettes of mountains and a scattering of sheep (only a sampling of its 14 million).
At first glance Wales seemed an intriguing balance of contrasts: its national flag is a fiery red dragon juxtaposed against its national flower, a delicate daffodil. Its national sport is the rough game of rugby while on March 1, locals of celebrate their patron St. David. Though smaller than the state of New Jersey, Wales’ superlatives are larger than life. The Royal Mint is the world’s oldest company according to the Guinness Book of Records, its narrow-gauge railway is the earth’s oldest, the Swansea-to-Mumbles passenger train line is the world’s first. Other Welsh inventions include the radar, radio, portable phones and the equals sign.
Wales’ plant life and wildlife are equally impressive. With three national parks and seven RSPB groups (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.
Photo Credit: Cynthia Dial
Cardiff is the epicenter of activity. Curiously glamour-resistant, Wales’ 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 locals issued entrance cards (aka keys to the castle).
When exploring, there are a number of walking tours available to book. One excursion begins at Cardiff Market, an old-style, glass-roofed arcade with fresh seafood, local produce and baked goods. Its specialties include Welsh cakes alongside haircuts, watch repairs and pet rabbits. You’ll pass Cardiff City Hall and its clock tower before reaching the National Museum Cardiff. There you’ll learn about the 4.5 million years of Welsh history through the world’s largest collection of Welsh pottery. Inspired by the country’s landscape and raw materials, the Millennium Centre arts and cultural venue is designed with glass, slate and a bronze color theme. Unmistakably Welsh, it’s so architecturally balanced, it seems like a flawless strand of pearls. Described “acoustically perfect,” Andrew Lloyd Webber considers its theater to be the world's best, built within the last 50 years.
Cardiff’s restaurants are equally as impressive as its attractions. Chapel 1877, built the same year as 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.
Though two of the nation’s three million residents live in Cardiff, Swansea and Newport, outside of those 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. Among its 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, Llandeilo 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, cafés and taverns. Heavenly chocolatier is known for its chocolate brownies, while Toast boutique is best for clothing and the White Horse Tavern is the locals' version of Cheers.
Called “the strangest town in Wales” by native and poet Dylan Thomas, Laugharne has changed little in 50 years. It’s where Thomas 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 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, clifftop paths, running over the headlands and sometimes down to the sea, every view is postcard perfect. St Davids revealed a tiny, cozy, comfortable town, complete with specialty shops, art galleries and tea rooms. But it is the St Davids Cathedral (one of Britain’s oldest) that is its most popular draw, with pilgrims and visitors alike.
Photo Credit: Wickedly Welsh Chocolate Co.
Chocolate lovers be sure to visit Wickedly Welsh Chocolate in Haverfordwest (Pembrokeshire). Greeted with a cup of freshly melted chocolate, owner Mark Owen guides chocoholics through a Penderyn Whisky truffle to the ever-popular Strawberries-and-Cream bar and Smugglers Spice (a rum-raisin dark chocolate and 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 conjures up 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’ It’s Not Unusual played in the background.