Looking for a hiking vacation that’s off the beaten track but guaranteed to delight with an array of trails for all skill sets, amazing views, quaint accommodations, a wealth of history and top-notch cuisine? Consider Wales.
The mountainous country, part of the United Kingdom, is bordered by England in the east, the Irish Sea to the north and west and the Bristol Channel in the south.
There are several world-class hiking regions, all distinct, all worth seeing – and situated close enough to one another, by Canadian standards, that most of Wales can be explored in as little as a week via rental car.
There are no direct Canadian flights to Wales, but fly into any of the major London airports and connect to either Cardiff, Swansea or Liverpool. From Liverpool, it’s a quick jaunt into the northern reaches of Wales, where we started our hiking vacation in the Llandudno and Colwyn Bay area one recent June.
The hiking highlight of the region is the Great Orme, a coastal landmark more than 200 metres above sea level with Stone Age origins.
There’s a circular walk around the headland that starts and finishes at the summit, providing spectacular views of Liverpool Bay and the Irish Sea, the Carneddau mountains, the island of Anglesey and the Menai Strait – a stretch of which is called the “swellies” by locals due to its hazardous whirlpools and surges.
History lovers shouldn’t miss Conwy Castle, built by Edward I during his conquest of Wales between 1283 and 1289. It’s among the best-preserved medieval fortifications in Britain and visitors can wander its battlements at will.
From Colwyn Bay, veer southwest into the grandeur of Snowdonia.
The famously stunning region is dotted with picturesque villages. Stop at Betws-y-coed on your drive in, an impossibly pretty riverside hamlet with a cosy pub located at the Ty Gwyn Hotel and featuring an excellent menu. The local steamed mussels and salt-marsh lamb shouldn’t be missed.
To work off your lunch, there are trails for hikers of all capabilities. Expert climbers can take on the seven-hour hike up Mount Snowdon, the highest peak in south Britain, via the Crib’s Goch knife-edge ridge, but there are plenty of other shorter, less hair-raising hikes through the dramatic hills of the region, abundant with burbling rivers and cascading waterfalls.
From Snowdonia, veer back northwest to Anglesey. The highlight of the island is the spectacular South Stack Lighthouse, perched on another rugged, windswept isle joined to Anglesey by an aluminum bridge and open for exploration by tourists.
There are plenty of hiking trails in the area, including an hour-long hike that starts in Breakwater Country Park in nearby Holyhead and leads to South Stack. The Anglesey Coastal Path also passes by South Stack.
Next stop? The Llyn Peninsula, southwest of Anglesey. While the hills are gentler than those in Snowdonia, the hiking in Llyn is every bit as scenic.
Head to the Yr Eifl region, the highest point on the peninsula. There are three peaks, but we tackled the challenging Tre’r Ceiri because it has one of the best examples of an Iron Age hill fort in northern Europe.
Just prepare for what feels at times like a full-on vertical climb to the rocky summit, although it’s well worth the effort – the panoramic views atop the peak are phenomenal.
Reflect on the splendour over some fantastic Welsh craft beers at the nearby beachside pub at the Ty Coch Inn, located in the picture-postcard seaside village of Porthdinllaen.
Featuring a hearty menu ranging from garlic mussels to bangers and mash, it was named one of the world’s best beach bars in 2013. But be prepared: you have to walk about a kilometre along the beach, or alongside a golf course on top of the headland behind the village, to get to the pub.
From the Llyn Peninsula, take a quick jaunt east to Portmeirion, a popular tourist destination designed and built by an English-born Welsh architect in the style of a somewhat gaudy Mediterranean village, complete with gilded statues of naked men and ornate buildings painted in pastel colours.
Located on the estuary of the River Dwyryd, Portmeirion has served as the location for dozens of films and even music festivals, though it was most famously the setting of the 1960s television show The Prisoner.
From the weird and wacky Portmeirion, head south to Pembrokeshire, home to some of the most awe-inspiring beaches you’ll ever set eyes on.
Get onto the Wales Coastal Path near St. David’s and make the two-hour hike northeast to the tiny former quarry town of Porthgain for lunch or dinner. The seafood on offer at two pubs there, including crab and fresh catches of the day, is so amazing that I may never live down the fact that I ordered a chicken curry.
Along the hike to Porthgain, the wide sandy beaches nestled amid the majestic fjord-like rock walls along the rugged coast will shock and awe. They’re popular among local surfers; for those who haven’t mastered a surfboard, the body-surfing is awesome too.
The final leg of the journey is the Gower Peninsula, no stranger itself to world-famous beaches. The sweeping, golden Rhossili Beach, on the southwestern tip of the peninsula, is eye-poppingly long and wide, surrounded by steep cliffs where sheep graze precariously and some even topple to their deaths.
There are plenty of accommodation options at every price point along the way of your Welsh hiking adventure.
We stayed in everything from bare-bones B&Bs that cost as little as 30 pounds a night -about C$53 – to one night in an opulent five-star inn in Pembrokeshire, the Crug Glas Country House near St. David’s, to treat ourselves after days of challenging hikes.
The only possible downside to a Welsh hiking vacation? The rain. Pack rain gear, because all-day sunny hiking weather is rarely a guarantee.
If You Go…
- Check out the Visit Wales website at www.visitwales.com for accommodation options, including cottage rentals, working farms and so-called “camper vans,” and hike recommendations.
- Wales Tourists Online, www.walestouristsonline.co.uk, also has an extensive database of accommodation options.