Wales, the waif of U.K. tourism, merits rare bit of reporting

Travel Weekly's Nadine Godwin recently spent a few days in Wales. Her report follows:

lived in London for 18 months but never once visited Wales. Why? It was not for lack of interest. But, first, there was the job, which interfered with my efforts to be a tourist.

More to the point, while I was interested in all of the U.K.'s attractions, many were in competition for my attention, including boatloads of them within shorter distances of London.

Little did I know that Cardiff is only about two hours' drive from Heathrow Airport and a shade more than two hours by rail from London's Paddington Station.

So, I took little notice of a piece of real estate that offers gorgeous green rolling hills, enough castles and other relics to satisfy the history buff and plenty of charming villages where English isn't even spoken all the time. (About 19% of the population speaks Welsh as well as English, and all signage is in both languages.)

Have you, too, overlooked this piece of geography? When was the last time you recommended Wales as an essential part of a U.K. trip?

Certainly -- because tourists have so many good choices or for any of a number of other reasons -- not everyone is selling Wales regularly. Only 3.8% of all visitors to the U.K. go there.

It is time for a review of this destination.

Hay and environs

Our trip began in Hay-on-Wye, a village of 1,200 noted for its nearly 40 bookshops, mostly selling second-hand items, and for its annual book festival.

Located in the southern third of Wales, almost due north of Cardiff on the northern edge of the mountainous Brecon Beacons National Park, the town is built around a hilltop castle that -- despite a wild and disastrous history -- does not offer much to lure a visitor today except the bookshop it houses.

But the village, with its bookstores, tiny old town hall and covered market, numerous appealing pubs and restaurants and pretty byways, all set on the Wye River, is considerably more enticing.

We visited during the spring book fair, which featured plenty of well-known authors and seems likely to do the same at next year's event (set for May 31 to June 9).

Our hotel, an attractive country property (the Lake Country House), could be up to an hour's drive away, which may be too far for comfort for travelers wishing to immerse themselves in the festival. It is important to book housing early for this event.

During one day's commute, we stopped for tea at the Llangoed Hall, an Edwardian country home with 23 bedrooms and suites; it is owned by the family of the late Laura Ashley, and it debuted as a hotel in 1990.

Here is a grand home that seems likely to provide the promised atmosphere of an Edwardian house party, with its broad entry hall, numerous sitting rooms (including a library dating from 1632), dining room, porches and a walled garden, all set in the sprawling valley through which the Wye River runs.

Like the Lake Country House, it is a member of the Welsh Rarebits Hotels of Distinction and bookable by fax at (800) 873-7140. For information, check out www.llangoedhall.com.

Our journeys to and from Hay, and one sightseeing day in the area, confirmed our guide's point: To see Wales to any extent, visitors need to travel by car. He did say there are local buses, though we did not see any; rail service is even less readily available.

Our sightseeing day began at Brecon (population: 15,000), on the edge of the national park; it is a market town most noted for its cathedral, which has its roots in the Norman era in the 11th century. The church seems rather small to be a cathedral, but is evocative of a long past.

My favorite spot was the Market Hall, bustling with the Friday produce market during our visit.

Also, the town once was the starting point for a canal that carried coal and iron to Wales' Newport; the dockside has been rejuvenated, and visitors can take canal cruises these days.

Overall, the town is pleasant enough, but cannot compete for charm with our next stop, the tiny Crickhowell, which is deep inside the national park and the setting for the Bear Hotel, a coaching inn dating from 1432 -- and also a member of the Welsh Rarebits group (www.bear-hotel.co.uk).

We lunched in the hotel's pub, tapped twice as the Best Pub in Britain, a place noted for good food and its character. The budget-minded could have a sandwich lunch for $6 or $7.

The pub also offers standards like homemade faggots in onion gravy and, yes, Welsh rarebit. It also serves venison burger, pasta and vegetarian dishes, including Japanese nori rolls. The fish and chip plates (using salmon fishcakes and scampi) did not look so traditional either. The low-ceilinged bar has tons of pub atmosphere just the same.

Mining tradition

Wales puts on a good show, looking -- on a sunny day -- as if the sky has always been clear, the plants always green, the buildings always colorful.

Of course, they haven't been, and indeed, even now, buildings in some villages retain a sooty hue.

Our initial drive into Wales took us through valleys once noted for coal production and through places famed locally for related accidents.

We drove through the town where a mountainside mine collapsed, bringing enough of the mountain into the valley to bury a school, killing all the children inside.

Nowadays, the no-longer-economical mines are closed and the environment is in recovery.

And the mining past is fodder for tourism. We visited the Big Pit Mining Museum in Blaenavon, where tour guides -- all former miners -- lead visitors 300 feet below ground and through a maze of tunnels and demonstrate how work was done. Entry is free.

For safety reasons, we were required to leave all battery-powered items above ground, meaning watches, cell phones and cameras. Big Pit is as vulnerable as when it was a working mine to anything that is flammable or might cause a spark.

The former miners were amusing and gracious hosts, but they were in agreement: They would rather return to real mining than lead us around.

Welsh coast

In Wales, it is not far from mountains and river valleys to equally enchanting seaside towns.

We headed to the Pembrokeshire National Park, which meanders along the country's southwestern coastline and is the only coastal park in the U.K. The towns on our itinerary, Tenby and St. David's, are in the park.

On the south coast, Tenby (population: 7,000) looks the part of a Mediterranean seaside resort with its color-washed houses wrapping themselves around a sandy beach and a small harbor.

It is easy to see why this harbor, lined with small leisure boats, is described in literature as probably the most photographed and recognizable view in Wales.

While the abiding sensation is of a place to play, the town boasts remnants of a 12th century castle and 13th century town walls. The Tudor Merchant's House is an intact tourist attraction.

It is the setting for an annual nine-day arts festival, always the last week of September, and a new Tenby Cafe Culture, highlighting food, launched this past June; it may be repeated next year.

The westernmost town in Wales, St. David's (population: 3,500), is even older, described as the birthplace of St. David, who lived in the sixth century Celtic "Age of Saints." Now deemed the Welsh patron saint, he is buried in the local cathedral.

Not only that, Edmund Tudor -- Henry VIII's grandfather -- is buried here, and that saved this 12th century cathedral from Henry's depredations as he grabbed or destroyed plenty of Catholic property.

Of interest, too, is the slight tilt in the heavy Norman pillars; our guide said it is not known if that tilt was intentional. The church floor also slants significantly, so that between the slant and some steps, the cathedral's floor elevation varies from end to end by 16 feet.

The Bishop's Palace next door, sadly, is not so well-preserved. Nevertheless, for an entry fee of $3, visitors can walk through great halls, the kitchen and other spaces for a good idea of how lavishly its 14th century builder and his successors lived.

Our group arrived for the annual music festival (next year's is set for June 1 to 9). The festival events take for their setting this weathered cathedral with its bulky Norman features, Gothic windows, 16th century wood ceiling and 21st century organ.

All the more reason to be pleased Edmund Tudor rests in the back.

Room Key
Lake Country House
Affiliation: Independently owned, but allied with Pride of Britain and Welsh Rarebits, Hotels of Distinction 2001
Address: Llangammarch Wells, Powys LD4 4BS, Wales
Phone: (011-44) 1591 620202/620474
Fax: (011-44) 1591 620457
E-mail:[email protected]
Web:www.lakecountryhouse.co.uk
Rates: About $143 for a single; $195 to $323 for a double, both including Welsh breakfast and VAT
Commission: 8%
Reservations: Pride of Britain, in U.S., (800) 98 PRIDE; e-mail: [email protected]; Welsh Rarebits, fax (800) 873-7140; e-mail: [email protected]
Location: South central Wales; nearest town of any size is Builth Wells; Hay-on-Wye is about 45 minutes' drive to the east
Owners/proprietors: Pierre and Jan Mifsud
Origins: Built as a hunting lodge around 1820; became a hotel, about 1840; enlarged around 1900; last renovation, ongoing with annual upgrades
Floors and rooms: Three floors, 19 rooms, many of which are suites
Amenities: Hair dryer in room; tea served each afternoon
Facilities: One dining room; large lounge with fireplace; three-acre lake and River Irfon for fishing; nine-hole golf course; tennis court; croquet lawn; billiards room
Business facilities: Can accommodate conferences for 20
Unique amenities: Guests will be met if arriving by rail at Swansea or Shrewsbury
Rants: Must climb stairs to most rooms, no elevator; cannot change money; limited dining hours; not located near any town or activity
Raves: The above rants are not rants for those who love country houses; the grounds are gorgeous and interior decor attractive and appealing; new bathrooms; gourmet dining and large, well-regarded wine cellar

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