North Wales is one of those parts of the world to which everyone should consider going at least once. Unlike so many tourist destinations, it has no target audience. There is something for everyone. The things North Wales has going for it cross a wide spread of interests.
1. Welsh Mountains.
Snowdonia National Park may be a pimple compared to the Alps or the Rockies, but what it lacks in height it makes up for in sheer beauty. Whether from your car or on foot, the hills and valleys of this landscape are easy to get lost in. In late August (the best time of year to visit) the moorland is spectacular with the deep purple of heather and the brilliant yellow of gorse. Numerous rights of way cross common grazing occupied by sheep and mountain ponies (not wild, as they are owned by local farmers, but allowed to run free for much of the year).
2. Castles in Wales.
Four of the finest examples of the very height of the castle builder’s art encircle Snowdonia. King Edward’s ‘Ring of Iron’ consists of the great castles of Conwy, Caernarvon, Beaumaris and Harlech, and all four are completely different. All four, thus, are worth visiting. Caernarvon, the site of the investiture of Charles, Prince of Wales, is perhaps one of the best preserved and restored of all Medieval castles and towers above the Menai Straits. Beaumaris shows the classic concentric design and even has a partial water moat, although it was never finished and gives a somewhat squat impression.
Beyond those four are numerous smaller castles, keeps, hill forts and ruins, enough to keep the amateur archaeologist busy for at least a week.
3. Narrow Gauge Trains.
Wales is known as a hotbed of railway preservation and some of the best examples are in north Wales. For something unique, go to Llanberis and board the Snowdon Mountain Railway, the only steam rack railway in the world. Although some trains now run under diesel power, you have a good chance of at least seeing a steamer. If you are feeling particularly energetic, buy a one way ticket and hike back down the mountain from the visitor center at the summit.
Also in Llanberis is the Llanberis Lake Railway, a two mile narrow gauge track along the side of a lake. This railway is all steam and its main terminus is across the street from the Slate Museum. With free admission, this is well worth checking out for the reconstructed slate worker’s houses, demonstrations of slate working techniques and huge collection of wooden molds for casting machine parts.
If you have a few hours and just want to relax, then the Welsh Highland Railway might be right up your alley. Take the train from Caernarvon, literally across the parking lot from the spectacular castle, through the Aberglaslyn Pass to Pont Croesor. Once in Pont Croesor, spend time birding at the nature reserve before catching the train back to Caernarvon. Look out for the classic Pullman carriages and enjoy the most powerful narrow gauge steam locomotives in current use. The Welsh Highland and Ffestiniog Railway holds the distinction of being the oldest operating railroad company.
4. Welsh Ponies.
Snowdonia is the original home of the Welsh Mountain Pony, examples of which might be glimpsed, if you are fortunate, while hiking in the mountains. From this breed comes the Welsh Pony, Welsh Cob and Welsh Pony of Cob Type.
It is hardly surprising, then, that one of the best ways to see the mountains is from the back of a horse. Any one of a number of pony trekking centers will take even novice riders for a pleasant ride through lanes and out onto the hills. All centers provide helmets and most offer basic instruction before setting out.
If your preferred contact with ‘the ponies’ involves betting, then drop by Tir Prince for a harness racing meet. Tir Prince also has a small amusement park and arcades.
5. The Grand Old British Seaside.
Although no Blackpool or Brighton, the Victorian resort of Llandudno is truly charming with its broad promenade. One of the best preserved Victorian piers runs out to sea from the ‘north’ promenade. The quieter west promenade is popular with locals walking their dogs. Between the two is the Great Orme, which can be accessed on foot or by cable car or funicular tram.
Bangor is also good for classic British seaside attractions such as rock candy and, of course, the beach, although the Irish Sea can be a little cold for swimming. Also, visitors to Llandudno are warned that attempting to walk across the Conwy estuary to Conwy is a bad idea…tourists need to be rescued every year from the dangerous sandbars, that rapidly vanish when the tide comes in. Llandudno also makes a great base of operations for exploring this beautiful part of the world.
A few final tips to enjoy a North Wales vacation. Be warned that if you don’t like the weather – wait five minutes or walk a mile. Even in July and August, good rain gear and sweaters are recommended. So are good hiking boots, especially if you plan on walking in the hills. Renting a car is essential, and Americans are advised to choose a major company so as to be sure an automatic vehicle is available. Most accommodation is in bed and breakfast, guest houses or very small hotels.
A bed and breakfast is the best recommendation, allowing a personal touch and saving money on food with filling British breakfasts. On the topic of food, North Wales proves the myth that you can’t get good food in Britain false with excellent ethnic restaurants and some great old pubs offering traditional pies and other ‘pub grub’.