This city, as all of Wales' cities, is a mix of old and new. Centuries-old sites are next to pubs and office buildings.We walked to Cardiff Castle, www.cardiffcastle.com, passing a huge mall and many great shops, including the famed John Lewis Department Store. Cardiff Castle traces its beginnings to the Romans, who built a fort here in AD 60. Not too far is Millennium Stadium, home to the Welsh rugby team and host to the first event of the London 2012 Olympic Games, a women's football match.
Later, we took a cab to Cardiff Bay, a busy place for sightseers, shoppers and home to many civic buildings. The Victorian Pierhead Building (1896) and the white Norwegian Church (1868) are dramatic landmarks. The Wales Millennium Centre, home to the Welsh National Opera and The Senedd (the National Assembly), which was opened in 2006, is situated in a prime position on the waterfront in Cardiff Bay. We had dinner at the upscale and hip Mimosa Kitchen & Bar, www.mimosakitchen.co.uk. The risotto was the best of our trip. Welsh specialties on the menu include cockles fritters and laver bread, Glamorgan sausages with rocket salad and red onion chutney, fresh mussels and Welsh lamb cawl served with Gorwydd Caerphilly cheese and granary bread. Cockle fritters are traditionally served for breakfast – these are minced cockles stirred into batter and fried. Laverbread, or seaweed, is a traditional Welsh breakfast. We especially loved the Caerphilly cheese and happily took every opportunity to enjoy it thereafter.
Day Two: A rare and precious gem awaits you at the National Museum Cardiff, www.museumwales.ac.uk, where a permanent collection housed in this magnificent building stuns visitors. The art collection at National Museum Cardiff is one of Europe's finest. See 500 years of magnificent paintings, drawings, sculpture, silver and ceramics from Wales and across the world, including one of Europe's best collections of Impressionist works. Free.
Caerphilly Castle, www.caerphillycastle.com, the largest castle in Wales and the second largest in all of Britain (only Windsor Castle is larger.) It is known for its design of concentric circles and moats that kept many invaders at bay. We wandered into the interior and shopped for a moment in the friendly gift shop. The castle is impressive.
In Caerleon, we stopped in the National Roman Legion Museum, www.museumwales.ac.uk. This small but historical village has deep connections to King Arthur. Delve into the legend, find how it developed and trace its links with Caerleon, www.caerleon.net/history/arthur/Arthur, who famously pulled a magical sword from a stone, went on to lead the Knights of the Round table in Camelot and save England from invaders. It is said he rests nearby, ready to rise and save his country again when the time comes.
We checked into The Hardwick in Abergavenny, www.thehardwick.co.uk, for the night. The Hardwick is a comfortable, country inn and restaurant owned and run by chef Stephen Terry, along with his wife, Joanna. Together, they make it a priority to bring fantastic seasonal menus mostly prepared with local produce, to their customers. The ambiance was perfect and dinner was good; the restaurant is a casual, homey place renovated to look old.
Day Three: Early on this day, we explored the ingredient that made Wales famous – coal – at the Big Pit: National Coal Museum, www.museumwales.ac.uk/en/bigpit, Blaenafon, Torfaen. The museum is set in a unique industrial landscape, designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2000. Big Pit is a real coal mine and one of Britain's leading mining museums. The museum won an award for its design which utilizes the actual coal mine operations. It is not a whimsical reincarnation.
Food writer and cook Lindy Wildsmith runs the courses with chef and consultant Franco Taruschio OBE, patron of the Abergavenny Food Festival and founder of the legendary Walnut Tree restaurant. Wildsmith created a wonderful menu filled with all local ingredients. We cheerfully helped cook as she wove directions and Welsh history and her personal memories together in a spell-binding afternoon. It is worth the drive to spend the day with her.
Next we stopped in at Blaenavon Cheddar Company, www.chunkofcheese.co.uk, owned by Susan Fiander-Woodhouse. You will have the opportunity to learn about the one very distinctive cheddars and four varieties of goat cheese all handmade at the shop in Blaenavon. As we hovered in the tiny shop, shopper after shopper popped in for some of the best cheese in Wales. We were stuffed to the gills but had to run in at least for a moment to visit the Penderyn Distillery, The Welsh Whisky Company, in Penderyn where award-winning single malt whiskey is made. Whisky chases the damp away and goes well with almost everything. Penderyn can be found all over the U.K. as one of the best examples of Welsh products available. Tours are available daily and include tastings;reservations are recommended. The Brecon Mountain Railway,www.breconmountainrailway.co.uk, was a quiet and scenic little train that clearly delighted the large group of senior citizens riding along with us behind a vintage steam locomotive into the Brecon Beacons National Park along the Taf Fechan Reservoir to Dol-y-Gaer. The train runs frequently; there is a comfortable tea room in the ticket building and a concession stop during the ride. A perfect family experience.
A winding road led us to our accommodations that evening, the Peterstone Court Hotel & Spa in Brecon, www.peterstone-court.com. We parked along a fence guarding a pasture of sheep and gorgeous trees. The grand old home has been lovingly renovated. Our third floor room (no Internet or TV) was spacious and filled with windows. The spa provided the antidote to our busy day and dinner was amazing – our plates filled with local produce.
We drove on until we came upon Carreg Cennen Castle. Its magnificent ruins crown a rocky hill in a remote corner of the Park. Carreg Cennen, its origins shrouded in obscurity, is the ultimate romantic ruin. We walked up a path toward the ruins, mesmerized by our imaginations. What must it have looked like when whole? Who lived here? The restaurant serves freshly made soup, homemade bread and Welsh beer. We ate lunch while gazing out onto vast pastures and hills beyond, in the shadow of the mysterious Carreg Cennen Castle, www.cadw.wales.gov.uk.
The town of Carmarthenshire claims to be the oldest town in Wales and is also associated with the Legend of King Arthur. According to the legend, Merlin was born in a cave outside Carmarthen. Legend also had it that, when a particular tree called 'Merlin's Oak' fell, it would be the downfall of the town as well. Translated from Welsh, it reads: 'When Merlin's Oak comes tumbling down, down shall fall Carmarthen Town.' In order to stop this, the tree was dug up when it died and pieces are now in the town's museum.
Next we stopped in at Pemberton's Chocolate Farm, quite off the beaten path but well marked for tourists searching for it. Pemberton's Chocolate Farm, www.welshchocolatefarm.com, is located in Llanboidy, Carmarthenshire. We thoroughly enjoyed the personal demonstration, watching the handmade chocolates get poured, dipped, boxed and displayed. The gift shop is filled with beautiful chocolates in a large variety of shapes. This was once a farm but had been closed; today it has been renovated to create jobs and a diversion for tourists and school children. Worth the drive.
Late in the afternoon, we arrived at The Grove, www.thegrove-narberth.co.uk, a charming 18th century country house nestled on a small hillside in the heart of the rolling Pembrokeshire countryside near Narberth. Grove is one of the top-rated luxury hotels in Wales, with 12 individually designed guest rooms and four traditional cottages. Surrounded by lawns, flower borders, meadows and mature trees, The Grove enjoys colorful scenery throughout the year. The Grove was one of the more elegant inns we sampled. Our rooms were a suite at the top of a private set of stairs. Fresh flowers, windows on three sides of the suite, great TV and Internet and fantastic beds were a pure delight. The dinner and breakfast the next morning were focused on local products and served with professionalism. Joni Mitchell plays from the hotel stereo, oil paintings are on every wall, sparrows and butterflies float over a sloping hill full of purple and yellow wildflowers. We hated to leave.
Day Five: We started our day with a quick visit to the small city of St. Davids to admire its magnificent cathedral - a source of pride for the Welsh. St. Davids also has some excellent beaches and coastal walks along the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park.
We stopped in Tenby, a seaside town on Carmarthen Bay and walked through the medieval town where the 13th century walls still stand. Visitors today walk through the Five Arches, dating from the 15th century. Victorian revival architecture and light pastel colors create a scenic and peaceful coastal experience. There is a large promenade winding around the bay. Shopping and charming restaurants fill the old town. We would go back to Tenby any day. We savored our experience at the St. Brides Spa Hotel, www.stbridesspahotel.com, where our room had a huge balcony overlooking the spectacular Saundersfoot harbor with elevated views over Carmarthen Bay. We enjoyed a cocktail as the tide rolled the bay back more than 300 feet. The St. Brides offers rooms and two-bedroom apartments. Breakfast and parking is included. Our meals at the St. Brides were probably the best we had in Wales. Floor to ceiling windows provide stunning views. This experience is not to be missed.
Day Six: Is there a better way to begin a day than with a spa treatment at the St. Brides? The Ocean Breeze treatment was in a beautiful room with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the bay. All you can see is the gorgeous view and slip into serenity with the breeze floating in.
After breakfast, we regretfully left and drove to Llanelli, home to my daughter's great-grandmother. We drove around the seaside town, enjoyed lunch and wondered what made her ancestor leave Wales for Louisiana more than 125 years ago? Originally a coal mining town, and later a world-famous center of tin production, today the town is being developed as a tourist destination. The Llanelli Scarlets, the rugby team, is tremendously popular. That afternoon, on the way to Swansea, we visited Dylan Thomas' Boathouse Laugharne, www.dylanthomasboathouse.com. Thomas is probably the most famous writer from Wales and a giant in the 20th century. He was born in Swansea but his family roots were in Carmarthenshire. He lived at the boathouse for the last four years of his life during which he wrote many of his most famous works, including Under Milk Wood. The Boathouse, where Dylan and his wife, Caitlin, lived with their children from 1949 to 1953, is now a heritage center. On the outskirts of Laugharne is a Norman church and Thomas is buried in the Graveyard, his grave marked by a simple white cross.
That evening, we pulled up to the interesting Morgans Hotel in fun and lively Swansea. The fabulous and ornate red brick building was once the Port Authority office building. Today, it is a luxurious hotel where all the rooms are different, but each equipped with free Wi-Fi, a plasma TV, DVD player and Egyptian cotton bedding. The hotel lobby bar jumping with excitement, while across the street, was filled with partiers, walking from one pub to the next. Morgans Restaurant serves Welsh lamb, Carmarthen ham and fresh, local seafood.
Day Seven: Around the corner from the hotel is the Dylan Thomas Centre, www.dylanthomas.com. This small but poised museum pays great honor to Thomas. “And death shall have no dominion,” “Do not go gentle into that good night” and other famous words from Thomas' works adorn the walls. Photos, first editions and tributes haunt visitors. Did you know that singer Bob Dylan changed his name from Zimmerman to Dylan in honor of the Welsh poet? With a few minutes left in Wales, we admire the condos and marina along the waterfront. Swansea is a vibrant happening place and we would return here in a heartbeat.
Our train to London left right after lunch. We watched Wales slip away as the train rushed past. Wales – historic and slow-paced, but deliberately. Caroline Frampton makes bread in her rural home, content to sell it locally. Susan Fiander-Woodhouse makes a handful of cheeses but they are the best you can get. Allan and Elizabeth Jones use his grandmother's recipes to produce Pemberton chocolates in what used to be an old cow shed. The Llewellyn Family own Carreg Cennen Castle, which has been in the family since the 1700s. All could be living a faster life, and no doubt a more lucrative one, in London. But they choose Wales – with its sheep and castles and one-lane roads. You won't find many who, after a visit to this land of enchantment, would argue that the beauty of Wales is enormous. There is power in the rich tapestry of its countryside and magic steaming from the castles, woods and winding country roads.
For great advice and information on visiting Wales, go to www.visitwales.com
Wales Packs a Wallop of Family-Sized Fun
Whether descending 300 feet below ground to the bottom of the Big Pit coal mine or ascending 3,560 feet to the peak of Mt. Snowdon, Wales delivers amazing, affordable family-sized fun.
Here are 10 tips for a Wales family vacation like no other. Fasten your seatbelts, parents and kids:
1) Visit a castle, or two or three-- Wales has 641 of them - many haunted and all historic. Having stood for centuries and survived wars, the castle walls are indestructible, making them ideal for active families. King Edward I's Iron Ring - Caernarfon, Beaumaris, Harlech and Conwy -in North Wales is great for serious castle collectors.www.cadw.wales.gov.uk
2) Experience reality tourism at its best. The lessons of the industrial revolution come to life in a most thrilling way when you go underground to discover limestone, formed a mere 315 million years ago at the National Showcaves Centre for Wales in the Brecon Beacons National Park, or don a miner’s gear and travel back in time and 300 feet down a shaft at Big Pit National Coal Museum or traverse some of a 25-mile underground network at the slate mining Llechwedd Slate Caverns.
3) Follow the trail of King Arthur & the Knights of the Round to Table and decide for yourself if this story is fact or fiction. Either way, the trail enchants with places such as Caerleon, reputed to be home of the Round Table (sure looks that way), Carmarthen, said to be Merlin's birth place and the Dovey Valley, where Arthur is said to have fought his last battle. For suggestions on searching for the Holy Grail in Wales, you should check out itineraries at www.visitwales.com
4) Stay in ultra-cool accommodation. Under The Thatch's affordable, sustainable, authentic options are ideally suited for families. Just about everything has been converted to accommodation from gypsy caravans and barns to mills and cowsheds. Www.underthehatch.co.uk. Reserve a yurt at Graig Wen - a stellar option in magnificent Snowdonia. Www.graigwen.co.uk
5) Lower the family’s carbon foot print. Learn how at Wales' Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), a hands-on learning center that attempts to offer solutions to some of the most serious challenges facing the planet. Built in an old slate quarry in the foothills of Snowdonia, way before ‘green’ was fashionable, CAT puts sustainable living to the test with self-sustaining electricity and gardens built on grounds with no natural soil. Families can dig in and learn about organic gardening, energy conservation and the not-so-sexy subject of waste management. www.cat.org.uk
6) Take on the Family Tree Top Challenge in Pembrokeshire National Park, West Wales. This high-flying family vacation includes a self-catering cottage with on site tennis and swimming and the chance to swing in a high ropes course - tree top trails – that includes crossing rope bridges, balancing on beams and sliding down a zip wire.www.activitywales.com
7) Experience negative G-force with the family on Europe's tallest wooden roller coaster, Megafobia, at Oakwood Theme Park in Pembrokeshire, West Wales. Consistently ranked in the world's top five wooden coasters since it was built in 1996, families are assured shared air time.www.oakwoodthemepark.co.uk
8) Discover the Great Little Trains of Wales. Originally designed to transport Welsh slate from the quarries to the sea, the narrow-gauge steam trains travel through some of Wales' most stunning scenery at a decidedly leisurely pace.www.greatlittletrainsofwales.co.uk
9) Check out the cultural center and capital city of Wales, Cardiff. Among the family attractions are Cardiff Castle, a real stunner that is decorated to the nines, the Museum of Welsh Life at St. Fagans and Techniquest, a hands-on science museum in Cardiff Bay. Cardiff is also the home of the Dr. Who TV series. www.visitcardiff.com
10) Go to Wales with the family for a rugby match and tour at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, for a music festival in Llangollen, for a literary festival in Hay-on-Wye, for a storytelling festival at St. Donat's Castle, for a Dylan Thomas Festival in Swansea. Families seeking more quirky adventures can partake in the World Bog Snorkeling Championship or the Man vs. Horse and Man vs. Train competition. Check out the year-long events calendar at www.visitwales.com. For information about a vacation in Wales, visit www.visitwales.com www.visitwales.com and www.visitwales.com follow Visit Wales on Twitter -@visitwales.