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Wales, United Kingdom 72-Hour Vacation

Wowed by Wales
Land of Myths and Legends
By Mary Anne Evans

Bodysgallen Hall
Bodysgallen Hall

What do you conjure up at the mention of North Wales? A land of myths and legends, soaring mountains and a glorious coastline? A land of people who sing beautifully but speak a mysterious impenetrable language? Add to this a turbulent history with the English, a series of superb defensive castles and an industrial past involving slate mines that produced a people as rugged as the material they dug out of the mountains, and you're on the right track.

The traditional Welsh Marches, the boundary between England and Wales, very roughly followed Offa's Dyke, an 8th-century earthwork built by Offa, King of Mercia still visible and marked today. This was rough frontier land, dotted with English castles designed to hold back the Welsh raiders who represented a real threat to England. The Welsh, a mix of the original Britons, Celts, Romans and Scandinavians, were conquered by Edward I between 1277 and 1282. Determined to keep Wales subdued, particularly in the North, Edward embarked on a truly ambitious plan. Over the years and at vast cost, he built a series of massive castles integrating town and castle that has left Wales with an internationally important legacy of medieval military architecture.

North Wales is a beautiful, remote part of the world that rewards those who take the tiny roads that appear to lead nowhere, through a changing scenery of small rivers, fields enclosed by dry stone or slate walls inhabited by herds of sheep and small, one or two-story houses that cling to the hillsides against the elements. There's plenty for the adventurous to do here, canoeing and kayaking centers, pony trekking, bicycling, and game, coarse and sea fishing. In Snowdonia, the National Park is dominated by the jagged peak of Snowdon. It's wonderful walking country; bring stout shoes, buy a good walking guide and plan to walk one of the marked routes. But be sensible; the weather can change very fast and the mountains can prove treacherous.

Welcome to North Wales.


Land of soaring mountains
Land of soaring mountains

There are various alternatives for your start to a stay in North Wales. The first option is to extend your visit to the Cotswolds. Join the M5 north to Birmingham, transfer to the M6 north, then take the A54 signposted to Chester at junction 18. A second option is to take a Virgin train from London Euston to Chester (about two hours). Chester is a 40-minute drive from both Liverpool John Lennon Airport and Manchester International Airport, both of which are served by transatlantic flights. You can hire a car from either the railway station or from the airports. Remember when you plan your trip that most attractions are only open from Easter to September/October.

Chester is a lovely, historic city, with medieval walls that follow the outline of the original Roman city, a cathedral that spans the centuries from 11th century Norman beginnings to 19th-century High Victorian, and half-timbered 'rows' or arcades which form first-floor passages along the old, black-and-white half-timbered shops and houses. If you want to stay overnight here, choose the Chester Grosvenor, with a top restaurant and spa.

From Chester, drive west on the A55, turn off towards Flint past the ruined castle and drive along the North Wales coast. Long sandy beaches run from Prestatyn, which makes a good center for walkers who make their way either along the coast or who walk south following Offa's Dyke, the vast earthwork built by King Offa (757-795) to mark the westernmost border of his territory. The coast is packed with holidaymakers in the summer, but it's worth stopping along here for a walk along the beaches.

Bodnant Gardens
Bodnant Gardens

Take the A55 to Llandudno Junction, and then follow the River Conwy south to Bodnant Gardens, where a good coffee shop gives you a mid-morning break. The 80-acre, all-season garden was started in 1875 by the Aberconway family and stretches out from the house (not open to the public) in a series of Italianate terraces, formal lawns and herbaceous borders down to a wooded valley. The dramatic views are matched by spectacular displays of plantings; its huge flowering laburnum arch in late May is a sight that people will travel miles to see.

The nearby Groes Inn at Tyn-y-Groes makes a top lunch spot. To find it, go south from Bodnant Garden and turn off at Tay-y-Cafn to the white-washed, 16th century inn with its views of Snowdonia. There's a formal restaurant and a more casual bar; both serve outstanding food.

Or drive up to Conwy and turn off the A55 for Conwy Marina for lunch at the Mulberry pub and restaurant overlooking the moored boats bobbing in the harbor.

After lunch, park your car outside Conwy's medieval city walls that protected Edward I's castle and town. Conwy Castle is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. An outstanding example of medieval military architecture, it was built between 1283 and 1287 with two barbicans that defended the entrance gateway and eight massive towers which offer superb views out to sea. Walk around the town's walls (around ¾ mile long) which you can access at various points for a view of the higgledy-piggledy streets below. Plas Mawr, built between 1576 and 1585 by Robert Wynn and outstanding for its elaborately plastered ceiling and rich dark wood screens, gives you a tantalizing glimpse of the life of the Welsh aristocracy. It was far removed from the life of the poor people like the fishermen who lived in the smallest house in the UK (on Conwy Quay), a much-photographed, tiny red-painted one-up, one-down home. Complete your look at the class system with a visit to the 14th century Aberconwy house, built for a merchant of the town and with a charming decor that encompasses the Jacobean, Georgian and Victorian ages.

Conwy Castle
Conwy Castle

North of Conwy lies the pretty seaside town of Llandudno with its broad streets, long, elegant pier and splendid, old-fashioned grand hotels that line the sea front Promenade. It's easy to imagine the Victorians stepping off the trains that arrived first from Chester in 1848 then from London in 1858 for their annual holidays. The bay is enclosed by two headlands, the Little Orme and the Great Orme to the west which juts out, protecting the town from the often wild weather off the Irish Sea. A trip to the top of the Great Orme, or around the headland (4.5 mile circumference) is a must. You can drive, turning off at the first major left hand turn to make your way up to the top for its glorious views. Or you can swing up on the Cable Car from Happy Valley in the town. The Great Orme Tramway built in 1902 leaves from Victoria Station in Church Walks and stops at the Halfway Station where you take a second tram to the summit. Or take a pair of stout walking shoes and walk. Back in town, afternoon tea at Badgers Café, with waitresses ('Nippies') dressed in period costume, and generous Welsh cream teas, keeps you in Victorian mode.

Stunning coastline
Stunning coastline

You can continue to live the aristocratic life by staying at historic Bodysgallen Hall. The original 13th century Tower (ask a member of staff to take you up) was built as a watchtower for Conwy castle, but the present building dates back to the 17th century. Additions through the centuries now meld together into a beautiful historic country house setting with large bedrooms (ask for one looking over the hills to floodlit Conwy Castle), an imposing restaurant with mullioned windows and splendid roaring fires. The hotel also has a beautiful garden, a first-class spa and a second restaurant, 1620, which is ideal for a pre-theatre meal if you want to make an evening of it at the North Wales Theatre (Venue Cymru) in Llandudno. Their imaginative program runs from the Drifters to the Northern Ballet, from Evita to a much sought-after annual season of the Welsh National Opera. For a touch of Llandudno, color down a pint at The Cottage Loaf pub.

Continue to Day 2


* Bodysgallen Hall hotel courtesy of the hotel. All other images© Crown copyright (2009) Visit Wales
(Updated: 05/06/09 SG)

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