The medieval Pembroke Castle was the birthplace of King Henry VII of England. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
Feature image (above): The Ffestiniog Railway runs from Porthmadog to the slate mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog and offers great views of Snowdonia National Park. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
Scotland, Ireland and England overshadow Wales for no easily discernible reason. The mountainous country is filled with medieval castles, pastoral lands grazed by sheep, a unique culture and more than 1,000 miles of coastline. CIE Tours, the dominant tour operator force in Great Britain and Ireland, has even started offering tours that include nationwide visits in Wales. Following are five reasons to consider discovering Wales — all offered on CIE’s 10-day Taste of Ireland and Wales tour.
According to one of my Welsh guides, Wales is just like New Zealand — if New Zealand had castles. It turns out this is a pretty significant difference. The Wales Tourism Board claims that Wales has a history of about 600 castles, dozens of which are still in good condition for touring.
My personal favorite castle was Conwy Castle, the most expensive castle Edward I had built between 1277 and 1307 (costing about $25,000). It truly lives up to expectations with two barbicans (fortified gateways), eight huge towers and an epic bow-shaped hall. To feel like a king or queen and to enjoy spectacular views, climb to the top of one of the battlements. To get the picture of a lifetime, instruct a friend with a camera to stand at an opposite battlement and show off your best regal look.
While you’re visiting Conwy, don’t miss the Smallest House in Great Britain, also known as the Quay House, in addition to one of the best local craft beer spots in all of Wales, the Albion Ale House. Other fabulous castles include Caernarfon Castle — the location of the investiture of the Prince of Wales — and Pembroke Castle, the birthplace of Henry VII of England.
Cultural Experiences: Food, Crafts and More
To get a sense of what makes Wales unique from the rest of Great Britain, be sure to include some stops specifically for local flavor. Wales, which allegedly has four sheep to every human, is notably proud of its lamb. For lamb, as well as local dairy and even Welsh wine, head to the Hayloft Restaurant at Bodnant Welsh Food near Conwy, a restaurant and also a cooking school outfitted with large, up-to-date facilities.
If the quarry history of Wales is of interest, there’s also the National Slate Museum that offers live demonstrations, homes of quarrymen and more. Though there isn’t much to do there, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwyll-llantysiliogogogoch — yes, you read that right — is a must-visit for anyone who wants to truly appreciate the Welsh language or just have a wacky picture to share on social media (hey, no shame!).
Located on the Isle of Anglesey, the town boasts the longest name in all of Wales — and possibly the entire world. Romantics and art appreciators will adore the Lovespoon Workshop in Pembrokeshire, one of the few remaining places preserving the Welsh tradition of crafting decorated wooden spoons in the name of love. And don’t miss out on sampling Welsh cakes, palm-sized baked goods typically made of flour; butter; eggs; dried fruit such as raisins; and spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg. The seconds-off-the-griddle versions I ate at the Welsh Cake Company in Betws-y-Coed — featuring Welsh butter and eggs and a dusting of sugar — were my favorite.
Ffestiniog Railway in Snowdonia
I may never get to experience what it’s like to be a Gryffindor on the Hogwarts Express, but I bet it’s something like riding the 151-year-old Ffestiniog Railway through Snowdonia National Park in North Wales. Though Wales is home to several different tourist railways, the Ffestiniog claims to be the first railway in the world to adopt and use steam locomotives on a narrow gauge, introducing steam engines to help expedite the transfer of slate back in 1863.
Riding the narrow, twisty track through the picturesque mountainous terrain in a vintage bogie carriage is an unforgettable treat — especially when complemented by tea and views of Mount Snowdon, Wales’ tallest peak. The staff is made up of friendly locals such as Oliver, a buffet steward who has been volunteering on the train for 15 years.
St. David’s Cathedral
Two pilgrimages to St. David’s Cathedral are equal to one pilgrimage to Rome, and three pilgrimages to St. David’s are equal to one to Jerusalem. That’s how important the shrine of the fifth century patron saint of Wales was to Pope Calixtus II, whose 12th century decree turned the small town in the western point of Wales into a pilgrimage destination.
Even those who aren’t religious are bound to be in awe when viewing the cathedral, located on the site of St. David’s original monastery. Constructed on a valley, the massive building is virtually impossible to see until you turn the corner and walk through the entrance.
Walking the Wales Coast Path
Hiking and walking tourism is popular in Wales, which boasts 860 miles of walkable coastline. Some adventurous spirits might want to attempt the entire stretch, but most people choose sections to hike, depending on preference of terrain, difficulty level and desired sights. Castles? Beaches? Wildlife? Local culture? All of these experiences are just a walk away.
A charming seaside community such as Tenby in Pembrokeshire, with its beachfront boutique hotels and rental residences, is a great place to stop for a few days and a terrific launching point to experience Wales' many charms.