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Cardiff is the largest city in Wales and became the capital city of Wales in 1955. It is a stylish town which has gained in confidence since the recent establishment of the Welsh Assembly (devolved power for Wales) in the regenerated Cardiff Bay. It also has the best shopping in Wales: pedestrianised Queen Street is the centre, but the Victorian arcades which branch off St. Mary Street are more fascinating. The new St. David's Centre has just opened with its huge central gallery, and its incredible John Lewis store is probably the best department store you will find outside London.
The National Museum and Gallery is a bit of a jewel. A vast collection in a beautiful building, it effectively manages to combine exhibits of both art and science. The "Evolution of Wales" gallery is permanently on display and charts Wales over 4,600 million years using robotics and audio-visual effects (too many rocks, but good dinosaurs). Free admission.
The city skyline is dominated by the Millennium Stadium. One of the best sports stadiums in Britain was built for the 1999 Rugby World Cup. It has a retractable roof which proves handy for keeping the merciless Welsh sun off the athletes and spectators. It is possible to take a stadium tour. If you don't want to leave your computer, try the 360° virtual tour.
Cardiff Castle stands impressively in the heart of the city. The flamboyant design is actually a relatively modern creation (1867 - 1875). The Marquess of Bute, phenomenally wealthy from the coal fortunes of the Industrial Revolution, funded the reconstruction of the castle by the architect William Burges.
From the exterior, the extravagant design is clearly displayed in the 150ft high Clock Tower (shown left). The interior rooms are sumptuous if rather gaudy, reflecting the confidence and glory of the Victorian era.
It should be noted, though, that not all of Cardiff Castle is modern fakery: in the centre of the grounds stands the Norman keep dating to the 12th century.
And two miles south of the city centre ...
The redevelopment of Cardiff Bay has continued with the recent opening of the Wales Millennium Centre for the arts. This spectacular building stages musicals, opera, ballet, and dance. And the graceful Welsh Assembly building has recently opened. But best of all, the area features heavily in the new BBC Wales production of Dr. Who! When you're in Cardiff Bay, you might try taking a ride on the Waterbus, or go white water rafting along the 800-foot aqua race track at the International White Water Centre.
There are a lot of excellent restaurants in the area centred around Mermaid Quay, including the Pearl of the Orient and the spectacular Bosphoros Turkish Restaurant. I can also recommend Harry Ramsden's fish and chip shop. A luxurious setting, waiter service, and blinking good fish and chips.
I had great fun in Techniquest, a wonderland of scientific exploration for adults (well, it would be if all the children didn't get in the way). 160 interactive exhibits gives you the chance to learn about a range of scientific principles (or just muck around with water and a hammer).
And just outside Cardiff ...
Castell Coch (the "Red Castle") is a romantic fantasy - a piece of Bavaria imported into the Cardiff valley. It clings dramatically to a hillside overlooking the Taff river. It is especially dramatic at night as you drive past Cardiff on the M4 and you see it illuminated above you.
Your delight on initially encountering this castle is tempered by the fact that it is little more than one hundred years old - it's another Victorian construction created by our friend the Marquess of Bute.
If you fancy a break from all this fake stuff, try Caerphilly Castle. This vast, 30-acre fortress is only equalled in size by Windsor Castle.
Also just outside Cardiff you can find the Museum of Welsh Life at St. Fagans. This open-air museum traces Wales's journey from rural tradition to industrial powerhouse, from the recreated Celtic village to the 21st century Home for the Future. Over 40 buildings have been transported to the museum, stone-by-stone, from all over Wales. Free admission.
More Cardiff links:
BBC Guide to Cardiff
Cardiff - The City
If you want to experience our industrial heritage at first hand, warts and all, the valleys north of Cardiff are worth a visit. The valleys were created to house the miners whose coal powered the Industrial Revolution. Once one-third of the world's coal was produced here - it was the Kuwait of its day.
The valleys certainly aren't aesthetically beautiful in the traditional sense, and some areas are terribly deprived, but it is that untouched grittiness which creates the appeal. From the extraordinary Rhondda Valley in the west to Blaenavon in the east you will encounter a post-industrial environment unique in Britain.
For a spectacular approach to the Rhondda, try the mountain roads of the A4061 or the A4107. The Rhondda is an extraordinary high-density strip. For the history of the area try the Rhondda Heritage Park. Once a working mine, this site is now aimed at giving a "simulated" experience of life at the coalface. Multimedia displays and simulated thrill-rides makes this excellent for children. For a good base try the Heritage Park Hotel.
If you want to go down a real coal mine you'll have to go to Big Pit mining museum in the World Heritage Site of Blaenavon. This is no theme park - this is a real colliery which produced coal for 200 years. Kitted-out in helmet and cap-lamp, you descend in the lift for 300 metres to the real coalface with an ex-miner as your guide. I was struck by the total darkness, darker than anything we normally experience. Don't be surprised when you encounter the stables deep underground: the poor pit ponies spent their entire lives in the mine. Take warm clothing. Free admission.
The Heads of the Valleys road (the A465) connects the north end of the valleys. The road passes through the unofficial "capital of the valleys", Merthyr Tydfil. Merthyr played a vital role in Britain's industrial past: once it had the world's largest ironworks at Dowlais (very little remains), and Richard Trevithick created the world's first locomotive railway (all that's left is a tunnel). The destruction of its industries has left Merthyr a depressed town with little to show of its former glory, the exception being Cyfarthfa Castle, another impressive 19th century castle with excellent museum set in pleasant parkland. The castle was built by the steel magnate William Crawshay who lived in luxury while his workers suffered.
More valleys links:
Official Valleys Site
The Collieries of Wales
Tribute to the Rhondda Valleys
You could not imagine a greater contrast than that between the industrial valleys and the glorious scenery of the 500 square mile Brecon Beacons National Park. The high, sandstone mountains are enlivened with ice-age sculptured ridges. Patches of limestone in the landscape mean there are also sparkling plummeting waterfalls, caves, and crags. Couple that with pretty villages and welcoming small towns perched alongside rivers.
The Beacons start immediately to the north of Merthyr. The Brecon Mountain Railway would make a pleasant introduction as it passes the impressive Ponsticill Reservoir with views of Pen-y-Fan in the near-distance.
Pen-y-Fan is the spiritual and geographical heart of the Beacons. The highest point in Britain south of Snowdonia, it is a perfect day's walk to the summit. Start your climb from the big lay-by half-a-mile south of the Storey Arms on the A470. You'll easily see the route - it will be packed with walkers. For a less congested route start from the hauntingly beautiful Neuadd Reservoir on the west side of the mountain (for details of the walk, see here).
The Mountain Centre provides inspiring views of the peaks. It has information about the local wildlife and geology, and is a good place to stock-up on maps.
The attractive town of Brecon lies under the shadow of Pen-y-Fan and is most famous for its jazz festival in August. Another base could be the pretty village of Crickhowell, surrounded by mountains, on the River Usk.
Located in the west of the Beacons, the Dan-yr-Ogof caves are the largest caves in Western Europe, recently voted Britain's Finest Natural Wonder. They are truly vast and awe-inspiring, especially the 70-foot high Cathedral Cave. You can explore the caves on your own. My advice? Mind your head!!
I can recommend a very pretty campsite in the trees near the caves (Tel. 01639 730284). After a trip round the caves, cross the road and have a pleasant walk in the grounds of the Craig-y-nos Castle, now turned into a country park. The castle was built in the 19th century by the opera singer Adelina Patti. You might have seen it in the scary werewolf story of Dr. Who (see here).
More Brecon Beacons links:
Brecon Beacons National Park
Brecon Beacons Tourism
Brecon Beacons Holiday Cottages
Swansea is Wales's "City by the Sea" - the second-largest city in Wales is situated right on the broad sweep of sand that is Swansea Bay (the beach is within easy walking distance of the city centre). Once a large, industrial port, the city has been cleaned-up and is now making the most of its maritime heritage.
The old South Dock has been converted into a posh, architecturally interesting marina. The marina is now dominated by the 107m Meridian Quay Tower - the tallest building in Wales. You can have a meal in the Grape and Olive penthouse restaurant.
The National Waterfront Museum tells the story of Wales's industrial and maritime heritage. It's an impressive glass and steel modern buiding on the waterfront - and it's free to get in.
The Leisure Centre (LC) has a fantastic leisure pool with all the latest slides including the "Masterblaster" - a long roller-coaster ride which blasts riders uphill on jetted water. It's ideal for the kids on a wet day. It also has the "Surf Rider", the only artificial surfing ride in the UK (it's very difficult!).
Swansea's most famous son is the poet Dylan Thomas, and you can follow his life from his childhood in Swansea to his death in New York in the permanent exhibition at the Dylan Thomas Centre. There you will find unique archive material, original sound recordings (from famous works such as "Under Milk Wood"), and a "spelling wall" with magnetic words taken from Dylan's poems. Free admission.
Mumbles is a smart Victorian seaside resort which lies at the western end of Swansea Bay (check out the great panoramics in the virtual guided tour). It is a sailing centre with many small yachts. The walk along the prom is interesting and lively. The strip of pubs you will pass form the "Mumbles Mile" - a famous pub crawl. Try stopping for an ice cream at Joe's, or a coffee at Verdi's. At the end of the prom is the recently renovated Mumbles Pier.
Swansea's two classical family beaches are Langland Bay and Caswell Bay, which can be found just beyond Mumbles.
Swansea is the gateway to the Gower Peninsular. The Gower has some of the best beaches in Britain and would make an excellent holiday destination.
Probably the prettiest beach on Gower is Three Cliffs Bay (shown left). It actually gets my vote for the best beach in the UK. The view from the top was deservedly voted fourth best view in Britain. To get there, take the walk along the valley from Parkmill village - there's a big car park in the field opposite the shops.
Perhaps the most extraordinary and spectacular campsite in Britain in situated on top of a cliff overlooking Three Cliffs Bay (Three Cliffs Bay Caravan Park, Penmaen, Tel. 01792 371218). Featured on the front cover of the August 2004 issue of Camping magazine (see here). A well-maintained family site.
The next beach on Gower is Oxwich Bay which has been named the most beautiful in the UK - see here. You might bump into Catherine Zeta Jones at the Oxwich Bay Hotel (apparently it's one of her favourites) - a top place for a meal and pint after a walk.
The Gower ends with the spectacular panorama of Rhossili Bay, as seen in a thousand tourist adverts. Halfway along Rhossili Bay is Llangennith. The drive down into Llangennith from the top of Rhossili Downs is breathtaking.
The area was recently used as a stunning location for the new series of Doctor Who (see here).
Llangennith is the surfing capital of Wales, and has a far-out (literally) surfing culture more akin to California. The Hillend campsite (Tel. 01792 386204) behind the dunes is the centre. The popularity of this huge campsite ensures it gets completely full with surf dudes in the summer - you absolutely must book in advance.
Learn to surf with the Welsh Surfing Federation or Gower Surfing Development or Swansea Surf School.
You can take a boat trip around the Gower on the Sea Serpent - a 10-metre inflatable boat exploring the dramatic cliffs and shipwrecks and the magnificent island of Worm's Head. The boat rides are organised by Gower Coast Adventures. Alternatively, explore the coves and woodland of Gower by pony trekking from a very attractive 19th century hunting lodge.
To the east of Swansea lies Porthcawl, one of the major seaside resorts on Wales's south coast. The wild, rugged, remote Rest Bay has beautiful sands and is another popular surfing location.
More Swansea links:
Welcome To Swansea Bay
BBC Guide to Swansea
The Pembrokeshire Coast National Park is Britain's only coastal national park. The coastline is made of up perfect sandy beaches (such as Barafundle Bay and Broad Haven South), hidden coves, and towering cliffs. It's like Cornwall - without the long crawl down the M5. I consider Pembrokeshire to be the best holiday destination in Wales.
An exhilarating way to explore the volcanic seacaves and rugged cliffs would be to take a trip in a jet-powered boat - the Thousand Islands Expedition. Take the cruises around Skomer Island (National Nature Reserve) and Grassholm to see seabirds (the 60,000-strong gannet colony on Grassholm is particularly impressive), porpoises, seals, puffins (April to July) ... and even dolphins.
Off Ramsey Island it is even possible to go on a whale watching tour! Apparently minke, fin, and orca (killer) whales are regular visitors which I never knew and I find quite astonishing.
If dodging rocks in speedboats is not exciting enough for you, you could always try coasteering, a new sport developed in Pembrokeshire which appears to involves climbing a cliff, jumping off the top of the cliff, then swimming to the next cliff (actually, it sounds like great fun). Preseli Venture run a wide range of thrilling activities. Alternatively, you could take a spectacular canter through the surf on horseback: beach riding.
For a great place to stay, Bluestone Wales is a major new eco-resort with timber lodges and cottages set in 500 acres of natural park. It's facilities include a sports club and spa, and a huge range of activities.
Other recommended hotels in the area include the Hurst House boutique hotel in Laugharne which has been called one of the best hotels in Britain, and Llys Meddyg in the sleepy coastal village of Newport. Also see Welsh Rarebits for a selection of the very best hotels throughout Wales. Also see Sheepskin or Under The Thatch for fabulous cottages, including Trehilyn Isaf, owned and renovated by Griff Rhys Jones for the BBC television programme A Pembrokeshire Farm.
Tenby gets my vote for the best seaside resort in Wales. Tenby is a medieval, walled town, with plenty of old-fashioned charm. Narrow streets wind between pastel-shaded houses and small, fascinating shops. During the summer months they close all the roads in the town centre (11am to 5pm) to create a continental "cafe culture" - it's really delightful. I can recommend the beer garden out the back of the Buccaneer Inn in the town centre (you can see the sign of the Buccaneer and the pub on the left of this super photo).
Tenby is also blessed with great beaches: the North Beach is based around the picturesque harbour and is the one you see in all the holiday brochures (see left), the Castle Beach is a smaller, sheltered spot, whereas the South Beach is a huge stretch of golden sand stretching far out of town.
Perhaps the only thing wrong with Tenby is the huge crowds it attracts in the height of the summer, and the resultant difficulty in parking. But I think it all just adds to the holiday atmosphere.
Outside Tenby, you can find all the stylish trendy shops in the market town of Narberth.
For a spectacular coastal walk I would recommend the path which starts at the Stack Rocks car park which you must approach through the Castlemartin military zone (follow the sign for "Stack Rocks" just past the army base in Merrion on the B4319). You will find awesome limestone columns and arches such as the Green Bridge of Wales and the Elegug Stacks. One wonder follows another!
End your walk at the tiny St. Govan's Chapel, tucked away in the rocks.
You might want to extend this walk to the full 186-mile Pembrokeshire Coast Path. Just don't ask me to come with you...
Take the A477 over the spectacular Cleddau toll bridge to investigate the interesting market town of Haverfordwest. Then take the A487 past the remote expanse of Newgale beach, and the picture-postcard Solva harbour until you come to the end of the road at the most westerly point in Wales: St. Davids. St. Davids is the smallest "city" in Britain, a village clustered around the starkly beautiful and extraordinarily ancient St. Davids Cathedral. This is the birthplace of St. David, the patron saint of Wales, and he founded a monastery on the present cathedral site in 589. The current cathedral dates to 1181, and you can see every year etched into its weathered stone. Also in St. Davids, the stunning new Oriel y Parc landscape gallery is brimming with treasures from the Welsh national collections, as well as work by local artists and celebrated painter Graham Sutherland.
Because of its popularity, the area around Tenby has many theme parks, including:
More Pembrokeshire links:
Official Tourist Site
Pembrokeshire Coast National Park
Welsh Cottages (coast & country)
Coastal Cottages of Pembrokeshire
Contact the tourist information centres for more information.