DAY 2: Snowdonia National Park, Harlech Castle, Portmeirion and Caernarfon
The rivers, hills, villages and castles in the south of Wales offer plenty of charm, but for jaw-dropping views, Snowdonia National Park is a must. To get there, head west to the coast on the A44, turning north at Aberystweyth and continuing on to the quaint, hillside village of Harlech — still dominated by a mighty medieval fortress built by Edward I. For those strong in Welsh spirit, Harlech Castle is a symbol of resistance. The stirring song "Men of Harlech" recounts a seven-year siege in the mid-15th century that the Welsh eventually lost.
Much less fearsome today, the castle overlooks the Royal St. David's Golf Course and bustles with tourists, history buffs and photographers eager for a view of the sunset from the ramparts. If you're in the area around dinnertime, the boutique Castle Cottage hotel serves splendid meals. The property is also a great place to stay for the night.
An altogether different experience lies less than 10 miles to the north, inside the sandy estuary where the River Dwyryd flows into the sea. Here you'll find Portmeirion, a village that remains one of the world's great oddities. Built between 1925 and 1975 by the eccentric architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, it combines Jacobean and Gothic, Norwegian and Regency architecture with a Mediterranean spirit and no small amount of whimsy. Called by the BBC "Britain's most bizarre village," Portmeirion gained its greatest fame as the setting for the cult TV show "The Prisoner." Now it's home to the annual Number 6 Festival, one of Wales' largest celebrations of art, music and individuality. Stay for a night at the Hotel Portmeirion on the beach or at one of the cottages in the village.
Continue west along the coast through Criccieth, where you can explore a picturesque ruined castle on the hilltop and the grave of former Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Then head onto the Llyn Peninsula, ridged with glorious coves, headlands, beaches and bays all linked by a 90-mile coastal path. A portion juts up from north coast at Porthdinllaen, where a half-hour walk along the beach (there's no car access) leads to a jumble of old fishing cottages, as well as the Ty Coch Inn — rated one of the world's top 10 beach cafés and home to a popular open prawn sandwich.
From there, it's a short 20 miles along the coast to Caernarfon on the B4417 and A499. The site of yet another of Edward I's castles and walled towns, Caernarfon is built on the remains of a previous Roman fort. Caernarfon Castle is so large that you're advised to choose your climbs carefully, as your legs may be shot by the fourth (of eight) towers. If military history interests you, be sure to stop into the castle's Museum of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. In town, the dubiously named Black Boy Inn, a former brothel dating to 1522 that's believed to be haunted, serves the best lamb shank you've ever tasted. The beds at the inn are superb as well.
Continue to Day 3