A hiker pauses for a view in Brecon Beacons National Park. ©Visit Wales
A Few Facts About WalesAs part of the United Kingdom and the island of Great Britain, Wales, www.visitwales.com, has a population a little over three million and 1,680 miles of picturesque coastline. Wales is a great destination for nature lovers with its well-marked trails to encourage walking, hiking and biking, and for sea-bound day excursions to learn about local marine mammals and sea birds.
Wales has a distinctive culture including its own language, customs, holidays and a globally-recognized gift for singing. Although Wales closely shares much of its political and social history with the rest of Great Britain, and the vast majority of its population speaks English, the country is officially bilingual with over 560,000 Welsh language speakers living in Wales.
1. The City of Cardiff Cardiff is a capital city with a rich heritage and a contemporary vision; its 1,000-year-old castle sits alongside buzzing nightlife and outstanding restaurants. Located just two hours from London by train, Cardiff has it all. Looking for culture? Head to its wealth of museums, ranging from the National Museum of Wales with the largest collections of Impressionist paintings outside of Paris, to St Fagan’s Museum just outside the city, that has re-created more than 40 original historic buildings to show you how Welsh families lived through the centuries. Or else you can catch a major sports event (don’t miss a game of Wales’ favorite sport, rugby!) at the iconic Millennium Stadium.
With a modest population of 346,000, Cardiff is the capital and largest city in Wales. ©Visit Britain
2. National Parks in Wales Wales is home to three National Parks: Discover the highest mountain in England and Wales and the largest natural lake in Wales, plus beaches and wetlands too at Snowdonia National Park in north Wales. In picture-perfect villages such as Betws y Coed and Beddgelert more than half the population of the area speak Welsh. Hike, bike, white water raft or simply soak up the incredible scenery, at the same time as discovering Stone Age burial chambers, Roman forts, and medieval castles.
At Whitesands Bay, now in Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, it is said that St Patrick had a vision to convert Ireland to Christianity and set sail from the bay in the fifth century. ©Visit Wales
Pembrokeshire Coast National Park in west Wales is Britain’s only coastal national park and boasts spectacular beaches; the long stretches of golden sand of Freshwater West have served as a backdrop for films such as Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood and you can explore tiny villages and Britain’s smallest city, St David’s, while the attractive walled seaside town of Tenby is one of its must-sees.
Brecon Beacons National Park in south Wales, about an hour’s drive from Cardiff, is a treasure trove of natural beauty, industrial heritage, secretive caves, and an enigmatic Dark Sky Reserve, perfect for stargazing its glorious clear skies. The park is a breathtaking place to hike and has an abundance of waterfalls that enhance its charming walking routes. The Park is also home to two world-renowned festivals – the Hay on Wye literary festival and the Abergavenny food festival making it a perfect destination for culture lovers and foodie fans.
3. The Castles of Wales Wales could easily be named the castle capital of the world – it has 641 castles! From Raglan in the southeast to Pembroke in the southwest of Wales; from Beaumaris Castle on the Isle of Anglesey in north Wales to Powis near the mid-Wales border, wherever you go you will be near one of these important slices of history! The capital Cardiff has its own fortress that dominates the city center – its plain medieval exterior belies a surprisingly sumptuous interior.
Begun in 1295, Beaumaris Castle is considered an unfinished masterpiece, the last of the ‘iron ring’ of castles built by the English monarch, Edward I. ©Visit Britain
Up in north Wales, you’ll find many a medieval castle – England’s Edward I built a number of castles in the region to protect his interests, often described as his ‘ring of iron’ – which becomes explanatory when you see them. They include the mighty Caenarfon Castle, a World Heritage site, while the dark stoned fortress of Conwy Castle also sits majestically on Wales’ north coast.
4. Wales Coast Path Whether you’re a weekend walker, a holiday hiker or an intrepid trekker, with 870 miles of stunning coastline that boasts this designated pathway running through it all, there’s something for everyone to enjoy along the Wales Coast Path. Ramble across this beautiful coastal landscape and discover Wales’ culture and heritage, encounter wildlife at more than 30 Wildlife Trust Reserves en route, and visit picturesque villages and harbors. There are quick easy walks or more challenging routes, in addition to stretches that have been designed especially for wheelchairs, prams and strollers.
A local red kite is an elegant bird of prey with a 175-179 cm/69-70 in wingspan. ©Visit Wales
5. Welsh Cuisine Fresh, delicious and seasonal are the bywords for Welsh produce. You’ll certainly eat well all year round, whether that’s feasting on Conwy mussels, mountain-reared lamb, Caerphilly Cheese or the traditional Welsh delicacy of laverbread (which is made of nutritious seaweed harvested from rocks off the Welsh coast).
Wales has a reputation for first-class food, annually celebrated in a food festival in Abergavenny with excellent restaurants and gastropubs dotted throughout the destination. Did you know that Wales has a growing reputation for excellent wine? Taste the award-winning Cariad wines at the Llanerch Vineyard in south Wales or venture to near the border town of Monmouth for a taste of the delicate wines created at the Ancre Hill Estates vineyard.
6. Golf Courses Galore! All eyes turned to Wales when it hosted The Ryder Cup in October 2010 at the Celtic Manor Resort. It was the first resort in Wales to host this world-renowned sporting event. Yet throughout Wales you’ll find more than 200 golf courses, both 18-hole links courses and picturesque nine-hole courses.
7. Heritage Trains are for Riding Along coastlines, up mountains or through valleys, a gentle trip on a steam train is a wonderful way to experience Wales’ diverse countryside with a slice of heritage to enhance the journey. The world-famous Ffestiniog Railway, in the heart of Snowdonia National Park in north Wales, is the world’s oldest narrow gauge railway at nearly 200 years old. Step on board for a journey that takes you from Porthmadog harbor to the slate-quarrying town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. This railway is part of the Great Little Trains of Wales, ten others that encompass picturesque rail travel along idyllic scenes, such as north Wales’ Snowdon Mountain Railway and the Llanberis Lake Railway.
8. Welsh Nature Experiences You do not have to go far afield to immerse in nature. Along the coast of the Isle of Anglesey in north Wales, there is a rich profusion of marine life. Take a boat ride out to see Atlantic grey seals swimming off shore, while there’s every chance of seeing harbor porpoise, bottlenose dolphins and seabird colonies of puffins, razorbills and guillemots. The coast of west Wales is also home to about 5,000 Grey seals, mostly in Pembrokeshire and Skomer Island – a 15-minute boat ride from the mainland – where you can also spot puffins. Basking sharks and leatherback turtles are also seen regularly off the Welsh coastline.