Location: Southwestern shores of the UK
Official language: Welsh, English
Currency: British Pound
Population: 3 million
Climate: Moderate yet unpredictable
I’m just going to be frank. There’s no reason for Wales to be overshadowed by its northerly and westerly neighbors. Sure, Scotland has the kilts and Ireland has the luck of the Irish, but Wales can claim Welch actor Iwan Rheon (yes I am mildly obsessed with Game of Thrones) and cakes and flowers which translates to all things good in the world.
-2 hours by train from London (or 3 hrs by car). With that being said, Wales is the perfect add-on to London for some countryside vibes.
-1 hour by car from Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol and Birmingham
-Cardiff airport has direct flights from all over Europe
-Ferry from Ireland
Easy enough, right? Right. I opted for flying into Manchester and having a car drive me an hour to Castle Hotel in Conwy of North Wales.
Let’s just get to the good stuff first: Castles. I don’t know about you, but I like a good Castle. I don’t even know why I keep capitalizing them as if they are deserving of such proper noun status. Maybe in my book they are. Take that, APA.
Here’s a knowledge bomb. Did you know that to be deemed a Castle and a fort, they must be military affiliated, and Castles must also be able to host royalty? Here another: If you wanted to visit a different Castle every day for a year in Wales, you could make that dream come true. Seeing as how there are 641 total Castles here, you could could go far beyond a year. Wales has more castles per square mile than any other country. I know, I know…so much intelligence handed to you today. You’re very welcome.
My favorites can be seen below in a Castle roll call:
Conwy Castle: I woke up to a view of this Castle during my first full day in Wales. Seeing as this particular Castle would be taking my Castle virginity, I immediately went out to explore. Turns out, Conwy Castle has been impressively preserved since its completion in 1289. Arguably its most spectacular aspect is its wall that surrounds the entire city of Conwy, stretching 3/4 of a mile.
Photo by Kirsten Alana
Caernarfon Castle: Sorry I’m not sorry for bringing up GOT again. This Castle is grand, but most importantly, its got dragons. All hail Khaleesi. There’s even a ‘Game of Crowns’ exhibition on the ground floor. It’s also the most expensive Castle ever built by a King of England. Pro tip: Find the Eagle Tower that gives off the best views of the Castle and city. Edward I began building Caernarfon in 1283 and chose Eagle tower this tower to live in – hence why it’s the biggest with three turrets!
Dolbadarn Castle: Welcome to my favorite Castle! After walking through enchanting green moss for a few minutes, I was put in a Hansel and Gretel state of euphoria (a fairy tale with deception, hunger and abandonment undertones, however, the setting is beautiful!).
The path continued on until Dolbadarn materialized right in front of us in all its glory. I’m awed by its simplicity on the outside, but inside the tower encloses a complex series of chambers and three stories. Edward I’s army captured the Castle in 1283, shortly thereafter shifting his attention to constructing his own Castle: Caernarfon.
Cardiff Castle: If there was a trophy for most elaborate and gaudy Castle interiors out there, this Gothic fantasy palace takes home the cake. If you’re into gold ceilings, murals and wood carvings, this could have been all yours way back when.
On to my next favorite subject: National Parks. I like a good park because that usually means wide open spaces and a good photo opp. Nature is cool, and we were lucky enough to visit 2 out of the 3 National Parks in Wales.
Snowdonia National Park: With 840 square miles, there’s loads to see here. The most popular and highest mountain is Snowdon, hiked by about half a million people each year. Just try and make it on a pretty day, which will be somewhat difficult seeing as how it gets a fair share of rain and then some. During my day here, it was stunning. I have a knack for timing, what can I say?
Brecon Beacons National Park: Coming in at 520 square miles, the park is smaller than Snowdonia but packs in just as many adventure and photo opps. Think hiking, mountain biking, horse back riding and cave exploring. I’M IN. The countryside in and around this park is stunning on a pretty day when the sheep (which outnumber people here) come out to play.
Although I’m quite perturbed about not sleeping inside a Castle (like super perturbed), Wales does have some cozy inns, country houses, and hotels to rest your sleepy head after a day of feasting your eyes on Castle porn.
Castle Hotel: This Conwy hotel screams English Inn if I’ve ever seen one from its quaint vibes to its squeaky floorboards. The beds are comfy, but make sure to download a noise maker app on your smart phone if you don’t feel like being able to trace the guest’s footsteps above you.
Portmeirion: Not all hotels are created equal and WHOA. This ain’t your average hotel on the outskirts of Snowdonia National Park. More of a fantasy village, Portmeirion was the colorful idea of Clough Williams-Ellis back in 1926. George Harrison and Frank Lloyd Wright used to stay here. Guests can buy a day pass or take a tour here to adventure around the grounds.
Palé Hall: Dear Palé, ily. I ventured an hour and a half out of my way in order to eat lunch inside this establishment. That’s some dedication. The entire food & beverage program is overseen and advised by renowned Chef Michael Caines while food is prepared by Head Chef Gareth Stevenson. They are a team of food gods who knock it out of the park.
I also toured Palé’s rooms and grounds, and you Downton Abbey fans should make a visit. The Small Luxury Hotels member is complete with the boards from the show used to call the servants. Chelsea Handler stayed here the day after I left and probably relished in the bathtub pictured below – one of the finer ones I’ve ever laid eyes on!
-Rarebit: A cheese and bread mixture that is h e a v e n.
-Welsh cakes: My first morsel of food in Wales was a Welsh cake, and it set a great tone for the remainder of the trip. I bought an entire pack before leaving. Enough said.
-Penderyn Whiskey: I typically reserve whiskey for Georgia game day, however, Penderyn made its way down my throat and into my belly on a non-game day, and I was glad about that.
-More specialities include mushy peas (it’s an English thing), mussels, and the good ole’ staple of fish n’ chips.
–Skirrid Mountain Inn – This is the oldest pub in Wales dating back to almost 1,000 years, and some will say it’s the oldest in the world. While you can book a room here, I wouldn’t. I ordered chicken fingers and got the hell out of there after feeling spooked the entire meal.
-My road trip through Wales was jam packed with many sights, Castles, lodging options and eateries that would have been hard to keep straight if it weren’t for my iPhone Notes app. I definitely scratched deep into the surface here but like anywhere else, I could never say I fully know it. My wish list for next time includes Pembrokshire (swoon), Swansea, and hiking Snowdon Mountain.
-Welch is a tough language. Like, really tough.
-To be called the United Kingdom, there’s not much unity involved. England has something to say about Wales who has something to say about Scotland who has something to say about Northern Ireland. Even within Wales, people have a deep opinions on the north vs. the south. But then again, perhaps the same could be said about the United States.
-The power of social media continues to amaze me. I posted the below photo on my Instagram account with caption “I shall own the yellow one.”
The following day, I received a message that said, “Hi Lesley. The yellow house in Llanfairfechan is my family home. I live in Croydon presently, however the house is still my father’s. My sister and I will inherit the house one day (hopefully never of course). Perhaps I can put you down for first refusal? :)”
I was in shock. Out of all the people in the world, the man who grew up in the yellow house read my Instagram post. What are the odds?! He then went on to say how his dad was the first to paint his house a different color. They were all white and black or grey. All the neighbors hated it for the first year until one neighbor broke down and painted his blue. A pink house came next, and so on. I love a good trendsetter! Way to go, Mr. Yellow House.
-2017 is the Year of Legends in Wales. Not surprisingly for a culture stretching back to the Celtic Iron Age, Wales is rich in myths and legends full of lake monsters and red dragons. If you ever want more info on Wales, Visit Wales knows its stuff.
Photo by Kirsten Alana