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Friday, May 6, 2016

A Trip to North Wales: Our Ten Day Itinerary

If you have been reading my blog for a long time, you know that the UK is one of my favorite places on earth. From London with its world-class museums and hip restaurants to towns like Oxford, York or Edinburgh that are brimming with beautiful architecture to the breath-taking views of the Highlands and the wild coasts of Cornwall, the UK sure isn’t shy of memorable experiences and I could probably happily spent all of my vacation days there for the rest of my life.

One of the things I love the most about the UK is just how gorgeous and picturesque the landscape is. For me, heaven isn’t a tropical island or a white-washed beach – it’s the British countryside. With rolling hills and quaint villages being just as much a part of the landscape as jagged coastlines and rugged mountains, I really couldn't imagine a place more enchanting and I am already longing to go back just putting together this post.

I like to think that my boyfriend and me have seen quite a bit of the UK considering that we’re not British, but since neither of us had ever properly visited Wales, deciding where to go for our spring vacation was pretty easy. Wales is one of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom (the other being England, Scotland and Northern Ireland) and is famous for its stunning wild nature and impossible to pronounce town names.

While Wales is smaller than both England and Scotland, it is a very varied region with some of the highest mountains, most beautiful coastlines and historically significant castles in the UK. You could spent months exploring Wales and still not have appreciated everything it has to offer – and since we only had ten days, we therefore opted to concentrate our efforts on a small part of the country and visited the north coast and Snowdonia National Park.

We didn’t hire a car, opting to travel by bus instead, and while that meant that we couldn’t fill our days as jam-packed full as we could have with our own set of wheels, it forced us to slow down and really enjoy a calm time away from the city.

Public Transport is generally a convenient and easy way to get around the UK. You can obviously cover more ground if you drive yourself, but I enjoy not having to worry about driving on the left and some of my favorite UK travel memories have actually been made on bus journeys over the countryside. Relying on buses may mean that you have to give up some of your independence and it certainly also requires you to do a fair bit more planning (this website is god-send for this task!), but it’s a great way to experience local life as long as you’re not particularly pressured for time.

Day 1: Arrival in Wales

Since there is no international airport in North Wales, we flew to Birmingham in England and traveled on to Wales by train, arriving in the beautiful harbor town of Conwy three and a half hours later. Our final destination of the day was Betws-Y-Coed, a small town at the edge of Snowdonia National Park, but we had an hour before our bus was leaving and therefore decided to take advantage of the beautiful sunny weather with a little walk to Conwy’s harborside, vowing to return the next day to properly explore.

I spent the entire bus ride drooling over the lush rolling hills of Conwy Valley, elated to be back in Great Britain again and checking out potential future real estate, and by the time we arrived in Betws-Y-Coed I was already fully reminded again why I love this island so much.

Day 2: Conwy

Unfortunately, the weather did a complete turnaround overnight and so when we returned to Conwy the next day, the sky was shrouded by a thick cover of clouds, the constant threat of rain in the air. Hoping that the sun would make an appearance again soon, we first visited Plas Mawr – one of the best preserved Elizabethan Town Houses in the UK – but eventually found that we would just have to contend with the weather.

Conwy Castle - the town's landmark sight - was magnificent enough to make us forget all about the rain, though, and while the wind did its best to blow us away when we went on a walk to Morfa Beach, the coastal scenery was more than worth the struggle. Despite the less than ideal conditions, Conwy ended up being our favorite town in Wales – and next time I visit I am looking forward to enjoying some ice cream at a sunny pier!

Day 3: Beddgelert

The weather grew even worse on our third day in Wales. We had originally planned to go on a mountain hike, but the strong rain did its best to dissuade us – standing on top of a mountain when you’re all wet and cold and there isn’t even a view doesn’t sound all that appealing to me – and so we decided to take a bus to Beddgelert and look for a more leisurely walk. Beddgelert is a pleasant village and while there is not much else to do in the town itself than look at the grave of a legendary dog and have tea, its surroundings are really quite striking.

We asked the local tourist information for walking recommendations and then headed off on an easy path to the tiny hamlet of Rhyd Ddu. In the rain, the landscape exuded the kind of mysteriousness that you would usually associate with Marion Zimmer Bradley novels and I wouldn't have been completely surprised if a fairy had suddenly appeared in between the trees. When we arrived in Rhyd Ddu, we were completely drenched, but we found the cutest tea shop run by a British – Dutch husband and wife team where we warmed up with some Dutch pancakes and steaming mugs of tea before we headed back to Betws-Y-Coed.

Day 4: Betws-Y-Coed

On our last day in Betws-Y-Coed, the weather had finally started to clear up again and so I breathed a sigh of relief that maybe our vacation wouldn’t be completely lost to the rain after all. We decided to spend our day exploring some of the sights around Betws-Y-Coed, because we hadn’t yet visited any, and after fueling up with a hearty breakfast at the Alpine Coffee Shop – a bit of a local instution and excellent for special dietary needs, should you require it – we headed off to the Fairy Glen.

The Fairy Glen is a little gorge south of town that I probably discovered on Buzzfeed and really does look like it has come straight out of a fairytale. Aside from a family that was gearing up to leave just as we arrived, we had the entire Glen for ourselves which made for a very special experience and I’m happy to report that the pictures online actually do accurately portray this place.

After nearly falling into the water trying to set up my tripod (and subsequently obviously taking all of my favorite photographs out of hand), we went back to Betws-Y-Coed and followed a little path along the town’s river to Swallow Falls. The walk to Swallow Falls was a lot busier, but also much more attractive, than the concrete street to the Fairy Glen, and the scenery would have very much have been worth a visit alone, with or without the waterfall. I took a few long exposures, made my boyfriend pose for a picture for the family album and then we slowly made our way to Llanberis where we would spend the next three nights.

Day 5: Llanberis

Because the soles of my walking boots had broken the day before, we headed to the town of Caernarfon in the morning to see if they could be fixed. The cobbler quickly squashed my hopes though and I felt really bummed, because we had planned to climb Snowdon - the highest mountain in Wales - the next day. I toyed with the thought of picking up a new pair, but the rational part of me knew that this was not the kind of purchase that should be made spontaneously, no less the day before a big hike.

Even though we were going to spend the last three nights of our trip in Caernarfon, we decided to take advantage of the dry weather to visit Caernarfon Castle. While all the castles we visited in Wales were unique and interesting in their own ways, Caernarfon Castle was my favorite overall. Unfortunately I had forgotten my memory card at our guest house – I really didn’t have the best day – and so could only take a few pictures of the interior of the castle with my phone, but the exhibitions were very interesting and the views from the towers over the city and the sea were great.

In the afternoon, we headed back to Llanberis and went on a walk through the old slate quarries. The path took us from the lake through an indescribably magical oak forest and finally to a solitary lookout point over the abandoned quarries and the rising mountains. The views of Snowdonia were some of the best we had anywhere in Wales and seeing the majesty of nature meet the ingenuity of mankind was both a humbling and a unique experience. I really can only say that this is a place you absolutely do not want to miss! (Here’s a link to the hike!)

Day 6: Ffestiniog Railway & Portmeirion

I was obviously disappointed that hiking Snowdon was suddenly out of the question for us, but we quickly managed to drew up some new plans and decided to go on a scenic train ride with the Ffestiniog Railway. The Ffestiniog Railway is a historic steam train that takes visitors from near and far all the way from the mountains in Blaenau Ffestiniog to Porthmadog at the coast and affords some of the most stunning views of Snowdonia all from the comfort of a plush seat. The weather was absolutely gorgeous and so I happily snapped picture after picture of the passing scenery and didn’t feel sorry for our abandoned plans once. 

We got off the train at Minfford – one station before Porthmadog – and walked a short distance to Portmeirion, a tiny seaside village/resort/tourist attraction right by the coast that was build by architect Sir Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis over a period of fifty years as a sort of personal passion project. While it did feel like those artificial villages you usually find in theme parks, the quirky buildings and the sunshine created a very cheerful atmosphere and we found ourselves really enjoying our visit. Since we were visiting at low tide, we also had the opportunity to go on a long walk along the widespread beach – the dangerous waves of the sea seemingly far, far way – before we made our way back to Llanberis by bus. 

Day 7: Capel Curig

We only had one more day before leaving Snowdonia for good and so we were keen to breath in some mountain air for the last time. We found a walk online that promised to offer some great views and also seemed suitable to do in running shoes and so we headed off to the peaceful village of Capel Curig in the morning to tackle the Crimpiau. The first part of our walk was a breeze: It didn’t take us long to feel like we were in the middle of nowhere and the sun was shining dutifully upon us. But while the walk wasn’t long and the Crimpiau at 475 meters not exactly high, the weather took a turn for the worse eventually which made things a little harder. 

The rain – and occasional hail – turned the path down the mountain into a muddy mess, which wouldn’t have been too bad in most situations, but was less than ideal for me in my trainers. The views over Ogwen Valley and the Snowdon Horseshoe in the distance were still absolutely amazing, but I had to really concentrate during the ascent so as not slip. When we arrived back in Capel Curig, we were soaked again – I definitely recommend that you bring some solid rain pants with you when you visit Wales; a good rain jacket alone doesn’t do the job – but we were happy that we had finally managed to stand on top of a mountain again. 

Day 8: Isle of Anglesey

The next day, we were finally off to the coast and made our way to the Isle of Anglesey from our new home base of Caernarfon. The Isle of Anglesey is one of the largest islands in Great Britain and probably best explored by car, but picking out only a few points of interest at its southern shore, we had a leisurely day with a good combination of nature, culture and scones. We took the bus to Penmon from where we walked to Penmon Priory and then onwards to the lighthouse at the eastern-most point of the island. 

We breathed in the fresh air of the ocean and spotted Puffin Island in the distance, but eventually turned around and walked along the coast to the town of Beaumaris where we warmed up with a pot of tea and the afore mentioned scones. Beaumaris is famous for its castle that - while never finished - definitely could have been taken straight from a picture-book, but it's a lovely town in its own right with a beautiful harbor and any visit should definitely include a little ramble along the cute colorful houses that line the town's side streets. 

Day 9: Llandudno

On our last full day, we went to Llandudno, the largest seaside resort in Wales and a place that was so illustrious in the height of its day that it attracted people as eminent as the French Emperor Napoleon III. Like many seaside towns in the UK, Llandudno probably isn’t quite as grand anymore as it once was, but it’s a lively town where businesses seem to be doing well and that invites you for a relaxed stroll.

We began our day with a walk up the Great Orme, a huge limestone rock that struts away from the mainland like a peninsula, and enjoyed widespread views over the Irish sea from the top. Afterwards, we sauntered along the pier, soaking up the wonderful retro-vibe that every British seaside town seems to exude, and I decided to treat myself to a fresh donut. I’ve never had a better donut before – for some reason, freshly fried donuts don’t seem to be a thing in Germany – but unfortunately a brazen seagull seemed to think so too and tried to steal it from me. Let’s just say, that I now feel scarred for life!

Day 10: Returning Home

With multiple bus and train rides and one flight, it took us almost an entire day to get home to Germany from Wales. After our ten action-filled days, I was ready to hit the couch and just relax for a few days – am I the only one that often feels like needing vacation after vacation? – but it obviously didn’t take me long to wish I was back in Wales.

I’m going to tell you more about Wales next week, but until then I’ll finish this post with the closing words from Bill Bryson’t most recent book, The Road to Little Dribbling:

“I have said it many times before, but it really cannot be stated too often: there isn’t a landscape in the world that is more artfully worked, more lovely to behold, more comfortable to be in, than the countryside in Great Britain. It is the world’s largest park, its most perfect accidental garden. I think it may be the British nation’s most glorious achievement. All we have to do is look after it. I hope that’s not too much to ask.”

What more could I add?

Have you been to Wales before? Which places did I miss that I absolutely have to visit when I return?


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