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posted: 5/19/2013 5:00 AM

Scenic Wales enchants with castles, coastlines and quaint towns

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  • Queen Elizabeth invested Prince Charles as Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle in 1969, following a tradition dating back to the 13th century.

      Queen Elizabeth invested Prince Charles as Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle in 1969, following a tradition dating back to the 13th century.
    courtesy of Katherine Rodeghier

  • A broad, sandy beach stretches along the Irish Sea on the fringes of Newborough Forest in Wales. The mountains of Snowdonia National Park rise in the distance, often capped with snow until June.

      A broad, sandy beach stretches along the Irish Sea on the fringes of Newborough Forest in Wales. The mountains of Snowdonia National Park rise in the distance, often capped with snow until June.
    courtesy of Katherine Rodeghier

  • The last in a string of castles built by Edward I, Beaumaris Castle was begun in 1295 but never completed.

      The last in a string of castles built by Edward I, Beaumaris Castle was begun in 1295 but never completed.
    courtesy of Katherine Rodeghier

  • Houses line up in pretty rows in the town of Denbigh in the North Wales Borderlands.

      Houses line up in pretty rows in the town of Denbigh in the North Wales Borderlands.
    courtesy of Katherine Rodeghier

  • A moat surrounds Beaumaris Castle on Anglesey Island in North Wales. It's considered the most technically correct medieval castle in all of Britain.

      A moat surrounds Beaumaris Castle on Anglesey Island in North Wales. It's considered the most technically correct medieval castle in all of Britain.
    courtesy of Katherine Rodeghier

  • Lovers' Island is named for St. Dwynwen, the patron saint of lovers and equivalent of St. Valentine.

      Lovers' Island is named for St. Dwynwen, the patron saint of lovers and equivalent of St. Valentine.
    courtesy of Katherine Rodeghier

  • The Ugly House was headquarters of the Snowdonia Society until it opened as a tea room last year. The ancient stone cottage sits along the A5, the main route into Snowdonia National Park.

      The Ugly House was headquarters of the Snowdonia Society until it opened as a tea room last year. The ancient stone cottage sits along the A5, the main route into Snowdonia National Park.
    courtesy of Katherine Rodeghier

  • Wild ponies roam Ynys Llanddwyn, Lovers' Island.

      Wild ponies roam Ynys Llanddwyn, Lovers' Island.

 
By Katherine Rodeghier
Daily Herald Correspondent

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:

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.

Historic towns

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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