Cardiff: Small city, big plans for Welsh capital

Travel Weekly's Nadine Godwin recently visited Wales as part of a fact-finding trip related to the outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease there. This also afforded an opportunity to take a look at the Welsh capital, Cardiff. Her report follows:

ne look and you would call Cardiff, the Welsh capital, a 19th century city. With reason.

That's when the very rich 3rd Marquess of Bute poured money into the place, building the city's docks and making Cardiff the world's top coal- and iron-exporting port. He also underwrote construction of the expansive Civic Centre, a collection of white stone buildings that include university halls, museum facilities and City Hall. Today, they are overlooked by the considerably newer, but unobtrusive Hilton.

The 11th century castle Norman keep, located inside Cardiff Castle. But then, smack in the middle of town, there is Cardiff Castle. The marquess put a lot of money into that, too, but the site dates to the Roman times, when it was a military outpost.

The Normans, in the 11th century, adapted the Roman fort, building their still-extant keep -- or safe haven -- on a 40-foot-high motte, or mound. The castle grounds are surrounded by thick red brick walls and a shallow empty moat that date mostly from the Middle Ages, as well.

At the other extreme are recent and invigorating developments. Cardiff is on the ascendancy, proven in part by the fact that nowadays more Welsh young adults than ever stay here, rather than move on to London or elsewhere.

Cardiff Bay

The city's new Millennium Stadium, a shiny, modern facility located in the downtown, is the local pride and joy, especially among soccer fans.

Of more interest to most visitors is the redeveloped Cardiff Bay. Having become the top coal- and iron-exporting port, the bay fell on hard times with the end to Welsh coal mining.

The current regeneration covers nearly 3,000 acres of the derelict docklands, including the creation of a 500-acre freshwater lake by sealing off a former tidal estuary.

The lake is being surrounded by shops, restaurants, luxury housing and attractions, including the Techniquest, a hands-on science center.

It is the site of the St. David's Hotel & Spa, a Rocco Forte new-build, that is designed to look a bit like a ship. That theme, on the interior, means balconies that look like ship decks, tilted glass front pieces on the lobby desks and even glasses designed to stand at an angle. (This led us to wisecrack about the condition of the ship envisioned here!)

The bay is expected to be a mecca for water sports, concerts and other activities, and it is to be linked, in time, to the Cardiff city center by a light rail link and a bicycle path. There are public buses; a cab costs about $5.50 plus tip for the short ride from to St. David's from downtown.

Cardiff (population: 300,000), located two hours and change west of London, became the Welsh capital in 1955; before that there had been no capital. Now, in the wake of a recent devolution vote, it is at last about to construct a National Assembly building. That structure, to be completed by January 2003 at a cost of more than $40 million, will feature an all-glass design.

Finally, the bay will host a $112 million performing arts building, the Wales Millennium Center, scheduled for completion in 2003. The 1,900-seat theater will be home to the Welsh National Opera.

Cardiff Castle

But the ancient castle is the heart of this young capital.

The entry fee, for adults, is about $4, but that does not gain entrance into the must-see Castle Apartments, the residence for a long line of successive castle lords. The entry charge of about $8 covers the guided tour of these apartments, which hug the inside of the southwest section of the castle's exterior walls.

Portions of the apartments date from at least the 15th century, but these residential spaces underwent their most notable overhaul at the hand of the 3rd Marquess of Bute and his architect, William Burges.

The pair, both lovers of things medieval, planned their medieval dream of a castle. The effect is to remind visitors of the fantasies and castle of the man called Mad Ludwig -- Bavaria's Ludwig II.

Neither the Cardiff marquess nor his architect were mad, but they lived their fantasies and left us with an eyeful of architectural quirks.

For example, there is the day nursery. Upper walls are wrapped with paintings illustrating various nursery rhymes, with all figures shown in medieval garb.

In the case of the Arab Room, the rich decor, enveloping ceiling and walls, is imitative of medieval design in the Islamic culture.

My favorite was the Banqueting Hall, decorated with scenes representing 600 years of the marquess' family history. This grand hall, and the adjoining Library, are located on the site of the real medieval great hall. In the 1940s, the Butes gave the castle to the city.

Parting thoughts

A few final points seem in order:

Visitors will enjoy, as we did, lunching at the Celtic Cauldron, a wee eatery across the street from the entrance to Cardiff Castle. It features a raft of shepherd's pies and other traditional Welsh fare.

Tour literature highlights a couple of very enticing attractions near Cardiff.

One is the Museum of Wales Life at St. Fagans. A living history museum, it offers a chance to look at a collection of rural dwellings and other traditional mementoes from all over Wales.

And not least, there is the double-moated Caerphilly Castle, dating from the 13th and 14th centuries. Located a short distance north of Cardiff, it is the largest castle in England and Wales after Windsor and the most powerful medieval castle ever built, according to my booklet on Cardiff Castle.

My trip did not include these excursions, but I would recommend them, on the grounds that I would go seem them myself, given the option.

Room Key: St. David's Hotel & Spa

Affiliation: RF Hotels; member Leading Hotels of the World

Ownership: Sir Rocco Forte & Family (Cardiff Bay) Ltd.

Address: Havannah Street, Cardiff Bay, Cardiff CF10 5SD Wales

Phone and fax: (011-44) 29 2045 4045; for the spa, (011-44) 29 2031 3084; fax: (011-44) 29 2048 7056

E-mail and Web: [email protected]; [email protected]; www.rfhotels.com

Reservations: Code LW in CRSs; (800) 223-6800 at Leading Hotels

Rack rates: About $210 to $488 for a suite, single, $255 to $533, double

Commission: 8%

Opened: January 1999

Location: On the new waterfront development, Cardiff Bay; a few minutes by taxi from downtown Cardiff; across the bay from the planned site of the Welsh assembly

General manager: Debbie Taylor

Phone and e-mail: (011-44) 29 2031 3026; [email protected]

Leisure and corporate sales manager: Paula Ellis

Phone and e-mail: (011-44) 29 2031 3020; [email protected]

Rooms: 132 units, including 19 suites, all with balconies overlooking the bay

Restaurants: Tides Bar & Restaurant; Terrace

Business facilities: Function suites for 12 to 270; 24-hour business center

Signature amenities: Multilevel spa with wide range of options including seaweed wraps and other beauty treatments; two salt-water hydropools; exercise pool; sauna; solarium; gymnasium; dance and exercise studio, and spa dining room overlooking the bay

Rants: Location outside of downtown (but handy for those doing business in the Cardiff Bay area); comforter too hot to sleep under; cold, unattractive lobby.

Raves: Gourmet dining in a lovely bayside setting; friendly staff; offers more services than most guests ever thought of.

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