Wales is one of those under-the-radar destinations that rarely rises to the top of one’s travel bucket list unless A) Welsh heritage is involved or B) friends or family live in the country. With the good fortune to fall into categories A and B, we finally made our way to Wales for the first time this year. Our only regret was that we didn’t go sooner. Simply put: Wales floored us. We weren’t prepared for its natural beauty, nor did we expect to encounter so much genuine kindness and joy in the Welsh people.
With three short days to explore the country, we relied on my husband’s cousin Norman to guide us to the top spots within reach of the capital city, Cardiff. And Norman did not disappoint. Here are my 4 favorite places to see in Wales if you have limited time and budget (and don’t have a cousin Norman to lead the way):
Crown Jewel: I tend to favor hikes over museums, and for that reason Wales scored a perfect 10 in my book as an outdoor wonderland. The Welsh landscape is simply stunning. My favorite destination by far was the town of Rhossili, located on the Gower Peninsula, which is about two hours by car from Cardiff. It is within a region designated as the first “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty” in the U.K., and on a clear day it may top your list of the most awe-inspiring places on earth. As luck would have it, we were blessed with the most pristine weather possible. From green rolling hills and amazing lookout points over the turquoise bay, to grazing sheep, colorful flowers, cobblestone streets and charming shops – Rhossili is breathtaking. After hiking the trails that line the coastal hillside and promontory, and taking a quick dip in the bay, we stopped for a well-earned beer at the pub overlooking the water. It was a day I’ll never forget.
Picturesque Villages: Located on the east side of the Gower Peninsula on Swansea Bay is the town of Mumbles. You’ll quickly forget about its funny name as you descend the coastal hills and arrive in this scenic ancient village. As a Southern Californian, I would equate the setting of Mumbles to that of Laguna Beach, only without the overwhelming summer crowds and traffic — and with much more history. I fell in love with this city upon arrival. We immediately set out to walk across its cobblestone streets and snap photos of its historic architecture and quaint, colorful homes. The main coastal road is lined with shops and restaurants, and a Norman castle (Oystermouth Castle) dating back to 1106 is nestled in the hills nearby. Like Laguna, the views across the water are lovely: you almost feel as if you are part of a Monet painting. People were friendly and chatted with us amicably as we dined at a waterfront restaurant, seemingly intrigued that we came all the way from California to visit little old Mumbles. We felt like celebrities, if only for a few minutes. If I ever move to Wales, Mumbles would be my first choice for a home.
Tropical Paradise: Wales is abundantly green. In some parts of the country it’s almost like a tropical paradise, with rivers, waterfalls and lush plant life. We were able to experience the “tropics” of Wales on our way to Gower Peninsula, when we stopped and enjoyed a hike to Melincourt Falls. After a short distance up the trail we did not expect to come so close to the spectacular 80-foot high waterfall. The more adventurous hikers climbed up the slippery rocks to stand directly under the water. The rest of us stared in awe at the falls from a distance. There are many other waterfalls throughout Wales that are worth a visit as well.
Cardiff Area: As the capital of Wales, Cardiff exhibits all the tenets of a well-run city. If you’re arriving by way of London, there are easy flights and speedy trains that take you to Cardiff and other points east with ease and convenience. Because we had cousin Norman to turn to, we were able to hop on an inexpensive flight (less than $100 on Aer Lingus) from Cork, Ireland (the subject of an upcoming blog) to Bristol, England. From there, it was less than an hour’s drive with Norman (by car) to his home in the Cardiff suburb of Caerphilly, which is best known for its splendid castle.
We spent a day with Norman in the downtown area of Cardiff, which was preparing to host the European football championship just days after our arrival. The city was abuzz with excitement, and banners featuring the players on the opposing teams lined the streets. In contrast to the more subdued Welsh city of Swansea further north, Cardiff is vibrant and electric. Dining options were abundant, and we settled on a natural foods restaurant with outdoor seating adjacent to the stadium. The people watching was magnificent. From Cardiff, it’s a short drive west to Penarth, another enchanting seaside town much like Mumbles. Perched on a hill overlooking Cardiff Bay, the city’s hub is the Penarth Pier Pavilion. Penarth is peaceful and picturesque — the perfect spot for a glass of wine after a day in the hustle and bustle of Cardiff.
I can’t sign off without giving a nod to the wonderful staff at Premier Inn Caerphilly Crossways, our home away from home for three nights. We had the most comfortable stay and their team went out of their way to make us feel welcome. Great rates, too! And while the wonder and beauty of Wales will always stay with me, what I’ll remember most is the warmth of its people.
For more photos, see below.