The United Kingdom is one of my favorite countries to explore and was actually the first place I visited as a solo traveler at the tender age of 22. Because of that and so many other reasons, the UK will always have a special place in my heart, but there are certain regions within the UK I love a little more than others. Honestly, I never expected Wales to be one of those places, but after a couple trips exploring this small country, it has quickly become a personal favorite. Whether it’s the stunning coastline and countryside that give Ireland a run for its money, or the storied culture and cuisine, traveling through Wales is always a joy. Looking back at my travels though I thought I’d share some of my favorite experiences in Wales that, I hope, show why it’s such a fun place to visit.
At first the adventure sport of coasteering seems like the bad result of a drunken wager gone wild. But it’s not and even more surprising, it’s insanely popular and a lot of fun. Coasteering is defined as “a physical activity that includes movement along the intertidal zone of a rocky coastline on foot or by swimming, without the aid of boats, surfboards or other craft. It can include swimming, climbing, scrambling, jumping and diving.” It sounds great in the middle of a hot summer, but I was there in March when the water temperatures were anything but encouraging. Located along the Irish Sea, the beauty of Anglesey can’t be denied though and I soon found myself lost in the beauty of the craggy landscapes surrounding me. The extreme experience was just as advertised and not even my two wet suits could fully keep the freezing waters at bay. In spite of the conditions though it was fun, a lot of fun and diving along the coast, swimming across the white-capped waves and pushing myself in ways I didn’t know I could was as personally gratifying as anything I have ever done. Ultimately, that’s the real thrill of adventure travel; pushing one’s comfort zones in ways you didn’t know possible.
Cardiff Food Walk
For the last couple of years my favorite way to explore a new city is through a well-executed food tour. When done well, there’s no better way in my opinion to quickly learn about a city’s history, culture and of course food. In Cardiff that meant joining a fun exploration of the city with the company Loving Welsh Food. The company offers several options, but on that sunny early autumn morning I met my guide in front of Cardiff Castle for a Food and Drink Safari around town. It may be easy for foreign tourists to look at a map and assume that Welsh cuisine is similar to what’s found in neighboring England and it can be. But Wales also has a long and proud history and along with that very distinct culture also comes a very unique culinary heritage. Cardiff is the largest city in Wales, but the downtown center is very compact making it exceedingly walkable and perfect for food tours. Enjoying a traditional tea service, snacking on famous Welsh cheese and cured meats, learning more about traditional pub culture, watching as others enjoyed the uniquely Welsh laverbread and of course salivating as classic Welsh cakes were served up hot from the griddle, the day spent eating my way around Cardiff was undeniably fun, but it was also really interesting and informative. It was my first time in this beautiful city and I learned a lot that day about its history and the people who call it home. Even better, I saw a lot of the city itself, from the downtown core near the castle to the vibrant waterfront area around Cardiff Bay. I could not imagine a better way for visitors to quickly learn about Cardiff, but to also begin the slow process of really understanding what it is that makes Wales so very special.
One of my favorite aspects of traveling around Wales was exploring all of the beautiful small towns and villages dotted around the country, but my favorite is undoubtedly Hay-on-Wye. I don’t think I’ve ever visited a more lovingly unusual town anywhere in the world and it’s certainly a place I’d like to revisit and continue to explore. What makes it so special? Well, the first thing I noticed was all of the bookstores strewn about town, dozens of them running the gamut in style and interest. Turns out that Hay-on-Wye is the very unofficial used bookstore capital of the world, and residents have firmly latched on to this moniker. Like all great book loving peoples, the residents here are also a little different. Years ago they self-appointed a king and went on to make slightly outrageous proclamations like establishing home rule and Hay-on-Wye passports. At its core though, this town really is all about the books and the annual Hay Literary Festival has been fondly described as the Woodstock of Books. Now you see why I want to return so badly.
Biking in Snowdonia
All right, I couldn’t help but throw in a bike ride on this list, but in Wales nothing is as simple as an easy jaunt on a bike. Snowdonia National Park is one of the world’s great parks, with beautiful forests and of course the famous mountain for which it’s named. The local bike company, Biecs Bewys in the village of Betws-y-Coed offers guests the chance to live out their mountain biking dreams with the ease of a tour. Biking is one of the best ways to really experience the beauty of Snowdonia, while at the same time navigating rocky paths and mountain trails. There are a variety of different bike routes for every level of rider, from the novice to the pro mountain biker. The novice course was enough for me though as I enjoyed the beautiful show put on by Mother Nature that chilly morning.
While Wales may be a relatively small country, there are more than 600 castles, or remnants, strewn across its hilly lands and exploring them is a lot of fun. You find them everywhere and before long they become commonplace, although they never lose their inherent beauty. One of my favorite Welsh castles though is also one of its most famous, Cardiff Castle. Like most castles, it’s a large property with many different buildings that have been added over the years. At the heart of it though is the 11th century Norman keep built over the remains of a still older 3rd century Roman fort. So, something of importance has been on this very site for a very long time, a fact that boggles the mind. The castle though really saw an amazing revival in the 19th century when the owners used their incredible wealth to remodel it to resemble what Victorians romantically thought the medieval times to be like. It was over the top, it was ornate, it was ridiculously expensive but it was also beautiful. And it still is; the entire castle is open to the public and walking around was a fun way to spend the afternoon, but my heart was with the oldest part of the castle, this beautiful relic to a time and era we can scarcely imagine.
I love experiencing a new city by enjoying it from different vantage points and for me, on the water is the most fun. There’s nothing better than spending some time floating along on a boat, noticing things from the water that you would never even be able to see on land. Fortunately, a boat ride out to Cardiff Bay was included in the aforementioned food tour, providing me with that opportunity I often seek when traveling. The Aquabus runs hourly service between the Castle grounds and the Bay, with commentary on the sights as well as some history along the way. On a late summer’s afternoon it was the perfect opportunity to sit back, relax and enjoy the time out on the water. Even better, the end point was a part of town I probably wouldn’t have visited on my one, but which quickly became a highlight of my time in Cardiff. Decades ago, Cardiff Bay was the nearly forgotten docklands area of town. A place where no one went for any reason ever. Then an intensive effort to bring it back started in the 1980s, creating a barrage that diverted water flow and ensured that the docklands were no longer tidal. This meant development could finally take place and take place it did. Today Cardiff Bay is a bustling neighborhood of shops, restaurants and the first true 5-star hotel in Wales. It’s also an important player in social life in Cardiff, as the National Assembly for Wales and the massive (and beautiful) Opera House also call Cardiff Bay home. Walking around the boardwalk and then through the modern but thoughtfully designed opera house, I couldn’t help but feel won over by the area. Maybe it was the sticky toffee ice cream talking, but it was as laid back and enjoyable an afternoon as I’ve enjoyed in a long time and I can’t wait to return to recapture that moment in time.