Scenic Wales enchants with castles, coastlines and quaint towns
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ANGLESEY ISLAND, Wales — "Fourteen years I've been here, and not a day goes by when I don't think how lucky I am," says Judy Brough in her proper Dame Judi Dench accent. Would she ever go back to England where she was raised? "Oh, no, no, no. Wales is home."
For Brough, Wales combines the best of Scotland with its mountains, and Ireland with its warm, open-mannered people. It's a place she's passionate about. A registered Blue Badge Guide, Brough knows which one-lane road to take for a shortcut across farm fields, the most scenic route over the mountains, the best time to stop at a charming little teahouse for scones with clotted cream. She shares her encyclopedic knowledge of Wales with gusto, as well as her inside take on the local chitchat. But there's one piece of information she won't divulge:
Getting there: American Airlines has nonstop service from O'Hare International Airport to Manchester, England, about 40 miles from the North Wales border.
Best time to go: April through October.
Getting around: Blue Badge driver/guide Judy Brough offers guided tours for groups or individuals; guidenorthwales.com. If you rent a car, stick to the "A" roads; the "B" roads are often winding, narrow and one lane. For rail travel, visit arrivatrainswales.co.uk.
Where to stay:
Ÿ Plas Rhianfa, near Beaumaris, was built as a private home resembling a French château and opened as a five-star hotel last year. June bed-and-breakfast rates from about $213; plasrhianfa.com.
Ÿ Ruthin Castle Hotel, Ruthin, built within the ruins of a 13th-century castle, offers a medieval banquet and last year opened an indoor/outdoor spa in what had been the castle's moat. Room 222 is rumored to be haunted. June bed-and-breakfast rates from about $280; www.ruthincastle.co.uk.
Ÿ Craig-y-Dderwen, Betws-y-Coed, four-star, family-owned, country house hotel on the banks of the Conwy River. June bed-and-breakfast rates from about $182, double; Snowdoniahotel.com.
Where to eat: All of the above hotels have excellent dining. In addition:
Ÿ Tyddyn Llan, Llandrillo, owned by Michelin-star chef Bryan Webb, uses high-quality seasonal ingredients, many from local sources. Six-course tasting menu, about $106. Billed as a "restaurant with rooms," this stone country house has 12 guest rooms from about $275 with breakfast; tyddynllan.co.uk.
Ÿ Ugly House Tea Room in Snowdonia National Park. This ancient stone cottage opened as a tea room last year. Tea and cakes from about $6.40 to $20, sandwiches and lunch plates $7.75 to $15; theuglyhouse.co.uk.
Ÿ Hayloft Restaurant, Bodnant Welsh Food center, near Llandudno, has entrees from $13 lunch, $20 dinner; live Welsh music on Thursday nights. Located on an 18th-century farm, the center also has a tea room, food store, cooking school, beekeeping center and guest rooms in a farmhouse from $120, double, with breakfast; bodnant-welshfood.co.uk.
Ÿ Bison Café, on the Rhug Farm Estate near Corwen, is known for its burgers made from organic meat raised on the estate. It also has a food shop and take-away counter; rhug.co.uk.
— Kathy Rodeghier
Where do William and Kate live?
The Welsh are fiercely protective of Prince William and his wife who live somewhere on Anglesey Island where William is a helicopter pilot at RAF Valley. Known here as Wills and Kate, they've been spotted in the White Eagle Pub near Holyhead and dedicated a new lifeboat station at Treaddur Bay. After the honeymoon, Kate settled into housewife mode by shopping at Waitrose supermarket, which locals promptly dubbed the "Kate Rose."
But ask where to find their house, and the normally sociable Welsh shut up.
The royal couple may miss their quiet life here once their baby is born this summer and the spotlight shines on them with renewed intensity. And one day they may look back fondly on the early years of their marriage in this tranquil corner of the U.K. with its patchwork quilt of rolling green hills divided by 300-year-old stone fences; baby lambs gamboling after their mothers.
With a population of 3 million — and 9 million sheep — Wales is smaller than New Jersey, but boasts an amazing range of terrain, from broad, sandy beaches to snow-capped peaks climbed by toylike narrow-gauge trains. Towns set in valleys look like the inside of a box of chocolates, the stone houses lined up in rows along winding lanes. And then there are the castles, 641 of them, more per capita than any other place on earth.
The king's castles
William's father, Prince Charles, was invested as the Prince of Wales in 1969 at Caernarfon Castle. Like many of the most famous castles in Wales, it was built by King Edward I of England, also known as Longshanks who terrorized the Scots in "Braveheart." At the time, Wales consisted of a collection of principalities that Edward systematically sought to control. In 1282, he defeated the last Welsh prince and brought Wales under his rule. He told the Welsh he'd give them their own prince, and rushed his pregnant wife to Caernarfon to give birth. Edward II was born there and became the first Prince of Wales.
Built as a fortress as well as a royal palace and government center, Caernarfon's towers and walkways are rife with uneven steps and blind alleys, all part of its defense system. An arduous climb to the top of Eagle Tower pays off with a view of the town crowded around its thick stone walls.
The United Nations put Caernarfon and two other castles in Wales on its list of World Heritage Sites. Beaumaris, considered the most technically correct medieval castle in all of Great Britain, has a moat and murder holes for pouring boiling oil onto enemies trying to storm the gate. Begun in 1295, it was Edward I's last castle and left unfinished when he ran out of funds. Conwy, one of the first castles Edward I built, stands on a rock overlooking the Conwy River and Irish Sea to defend itself from attack by water. With eight huge round towers, and originally whitewashed, the castle was a gleaming show of strength, imposing enough to scare off invaders before the king's men could shoot a single arrow.
To establish his stronghold at Conwy, the king offered English families incentives to settle within the walled town he built around his castle. The walls and their 22 towers still stand. Walkers can make almost a complete circuit of the town from atop these ramparts.
Many of the castles in Wales lie in ruins. Denbigh Castle was one of the biggest. Now only a few walls and its huge, triple-tower gatehouse survive atop a hill with the houses in the town of Denbigh scattered below. Peacocks preen and strut around the ruins of Ruthin Castle where a 19th-century aristocratic mansion, now a hotel, was built inside the crumbling walls.
Ruthin is one of several charming market towns in the North Wales Borderlands. Narrow streets lined with whitewashed shops rise to St. Peter's Square with its clock tower, church and half-timbered buildings dating back 600 years. The Old Courthouse, built in 1401, still has the gibbet from which criminals were hanged.
In Llangollen, barges depart for excursions on a canal crossing the world's longest and highest cast-iron aqueduct. A World Heritage Site, the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct stretches more than 1,000 feet across a valley with the Dee River flowing 126 feet below. Traveling along this "stream in the sky" gives goose bumps whether making the trip on foot or by boat.
Motorists crossing through North Wales are usually on their way to Snowdonia and the mountains of Snowdonia National Park. Mount Snowdon, at 3,560 feet, is the tallest in England and Wales and often stays capped with snow until June. Whether driving, or riding on the narrow-gauge trains once used to transport slate from the quarries, Snowdonia is all about scenery.
Sightseers take time to shop in Betws-y-Coed, an artist colony begun in 1844 that's become a bustling gateway to the national park, and have tea in Beddgelert, a cute village of stone houses built around a rushing stream in the heart of the park. They tour the National Slate Museum in Llanberis that tells the story of the slate industry in the workshops of a now-shuttered quarry that once employed 3,000 workers. Like the coal mines of Wales, slate quarries have faded into history.
Island for lovers
Road signs throughout Wales appear in both English and Welsh, which is rife with double L's and absent of j, k, q, v, x or z. The letter y is always a vowel. This, and a penchant for stringing names together, makes for some tongue-twisting words. The longest name in Europe is given to a town on Anglesey Island: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. In English, the town name translates as: St Mary's church in the hollow of the white hazel near to the rapid whirlpool and the church of St. Tysilio of the red cave. Got it?
But Anglesey, and adjacent Holy Island, are known more for their dramatic coastlines than impossible-to-pronounce names. There's the Menai Strait and its 1826 iron suspension bridge, Holyhead Mountain looming over a solitary lighthouse 400 steps down a rocky coast, and Lovers' Island named for St. Dwynwen, the Welsh patron saint of lovers.
When the tide goes out the island connects to a forest and broad beach with views of the mountains in Snowdonia National Park. Wild ponies graze on its flanks and 10 miles of footpaths lead to a lighthouse and the ruins of a church. It's a romantic place for a picnic, or for two people to get lost for a few hours.
Did William woo Kate here? The Welsh aren't telling.
• Information for this article was gathered on a research trip sponsored by Visit Wales.
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