The north-west of Wales has steep, wooded valleys, wind-blown moorland, clean air and vast tracts of unspoilt land - reason enough to go. In addition, it boasts tongue-twisting place names, stormy weather, steam trains and music festivals. A weekend will do, but it really invites longer stays. You may even decide to move there.
When To Go
It's difficult to predict what the weather will be in any given month. In summer the beaches can be as warm as anywhere in Britain, but the rain can suddenly descend. For example, Llanberis, at the foot of Snowdon, gets twice as much rain as nearby Caernarvon, and is always a few degrees cooler.
How to get there
Train: There's a fast rail service between London and Bangor, costing from pounds 32 return. From other cities you'll need to change. Call National Rail Enquiries on 0345 484 950 for further information.
Coach: National Express (0990 808080) has coaches connecting the area with the rest of Britain. The most useful services go along the coast to Bangor and Pwllheli. A return from Manchester to Bangor will set you back only pounds 15.
Car: The A5 is perhaps most convenient for those approaching from the south, but the best road is the A55, which runs along the North Wales coast to Holyhead, where ferries link Wales with Ireland. Call Stena Line on 0990 707070.
How to get around
The rail branch to Blaenau Ffestiniog from the main line at Llandudno Junction is well used by visitors. From here the steam train to Porthmadog provides an interesting way to explore the region.
There are numerous buses from Llandudno and Conway up the valley to Betws- y-Coed, and buses to Llanberis from Caernarvon and Bangor. There are good connections such as Porthmadog to Beddgelert and Blaenau Ffestiniog, and within Snowdonia, Sherpa minibuses visit smaller towns every hour or so. The free Gwynedd public transport maps and timetable have details of bus routes and times. A Day Rover ticket costs around pounds 5.70.
Roads are well surfaced and cycling can be a real pleasure on the less busy thoroughfares. Hitching is popular, but the sparsity of the traffic can make it time-consuming.
During spring and summer you might well run into the Eisteddfodau, cultural events unique to Wales. Meaning "a meeting of bards", nowadays the term covers everything from the small village fete, to the huge Royal National and International Eisteddfodau.
The roving Royal National, which takes place in early August, is an impressive celebration of Welsh language and culture involving bardic competitions, theatre, arts and crafts and heaps more. It doesn't come to the north-west again until 1999, but it's well worth making the trip south to Bridgend next year.
The hugely enjoyable International Music Eisteddfod is held every July in Llangollen. It features some of the best choirs, dancers, folk singers, groups and instrumentalists from all over the world.
Less highbrow local events include the Llandudno Beer Festival at the end of February, and late July's Ras yr Wyddfa - a one-day race to the top of Snowdon for confirmed masochists.
What to see
Your biggest problem will be deciding what to miss out.
The Snowdonia National Park is best explored by putting the map away and getting lost. No matter how well you think you know the area you'll always stumble upon new and interesting things, such as a deserted sandy cove or some idyllic village tucked away in the middle of nowhere.
Snowdon Mountain Railway. Beginning in Llanberis, steam trains have been struggling up to the summit in just under an hour for over 100 years. Although at pounds 14 it's a little expensive, it's a worthwhile one-off novelty, if only to place your postcards in Britain's highest post box. Clever- clogs can walk to the summit and catch the train down, but be warned, round-trippers get priority.
Gold Mining Tour which begins and ends at the Welsh Gold Visitors' Centre in Dolgellau, is a fun walk through the mines. It gives you the opportunity to see real gold diggers at work. Visitors are also invited to chip away.
Llugwy Valley Walk is one of the best family jaunts in the area. A path follows the twisting, plunging River Llugwy up the gorge to Capel Curig from Betws-y-Coed. On the way you catch a glimpse of the famous Swallow Falls. One way takes about two-and-a-half hours and involves a 600ft ascent.
Ffestiniog Railway. You don't have to be a rail buff to enjoy what is arguably the best narrow-gauge railway line in the country. Starting from Porthmadog, you chug past broad estuarine flats andbushy undergrowth before arriving among the surreal mountains of slate waste at Blaenau Ffestiniog.
Portmeirion. This wacky white elephant is a complete Italianate village, set on a small rocky peninsula in Tremadog Bay. Designed around a Mediterranean piazza, with loggias, grand porticos and tiny terracotta roofed houses, it's a great place either to wander round for a couple of hours or stay for a weekend break.
Black Rock Sands, three miles west of Morfa Bychan, is a swathe of golden sand which makes a good spot for a bracing walk or swim.
Dinorwig Pumped Storage Hydro Station offers an exciting hour-long minibus tour through tunnels to the bowels of the mountain and its high- tech power house. Call in at Dinorwig Discovery on the A4086 to book a tour.
North-west Wales is unbeatable for walking, climbing and canoeing. What's on offer tends to vary depending on the time of year, so it's best to phone ahead to check. The following are well placed to offer sound instruction and advice:
The National Mountaineering Centre (01690 702214) near Capel Curig has courses in canoeing, skiing, climbing and orienteering.
Clogwyn Mountain Bikes (01690 720210) of Capel Curig hires out well- maintained bikes from pounds 18 per day.
Pandarn Water Sports and Activities Centre (01286 870940), Llanberis, offers half-day courses in canoeing, orienteering, abseiling and windsurfing, starting from pounds 18, and will hire out equipment.
Enigma Paragliding in Llanberis offers solo flights from pounds 45 and hair- raising tandem flights, strapped to the instructor, from pounds 30.
Dolbarn Pony Trekking Centre (01286 870277) rents out horses and ponies, which can be taken on to the lower slopes of Snowdon, from pounds 10 per hour or pounds 40 per day.
FOOD AND DRINK
You should find good Welsh lamb served with mint or thyme, fresh fish and game, bara lawr (laver bread), bara brith (fruit bread), and, of course, Welsh rarebit - all best washed down with real ale.
Ty Gywn (01690 7103383) on the A5 just outside Betws-y-Coed is probably the best restaurant in the area; it's sited in an old beamed coaching house. Clients can choose either the table d'hote or staple pub fare, with menus typically including local game or fish.
Buffet Coach Cafe in Betws-y-Coed serves homemade snacks, including bara brith, from a 1940s railway carriage in the station.
Byrn Tyrch Hotel (01690 720223), up the road at Capel Curig, is a favourite haunt of walkers and climbers from the nearby youth hostel for several good reasons. The food is inexpensive, there's lots of it, and they cater for vegetarians (who'll be pleased to know there's not a vegetable lasagne or mushroom stroganoff in sight).
The Prince of Wales pub's claim to fame is that it is the only good place to eat in Llanberis. On Saturday evenings everyone can join in a Welsh singsong, accompanied by the resident organist.
Cadwalader's serves rich, traditional dairy ice-cream, which alone is almost worth the trip to Wales. Branches can be found in Porthmadog, near the station, and at Criccieth, just down from the castle.
WHERE TO STAY
Many people choose to bivouac or camp out in the hills. If you're going on a short break soon, you might decide to opt for one of a plethora of campsites, youth hostels or comfortable B&Bs - or even splash out on something a bit more luxurious.
Riverside Caravan and Camping Park (01690 710 310) is a clean site by the river at Betws-y-Coed. Charges for staying seem to vary depending on the lunar cycle, but as a rough guide two people with a car and tent should expect to pay about pounds 8.
Pen-y-Pass Youth Hostel (01286 870428) is a wonderfully relaxed hang- out for outdoor types. Situated at the start of two of the most popular walks to the summit of Snowdon, it is well placed, with free parking and a good information board. Beds start at pounds 8.50 per night and rooms at pounds 19, with breakfast an extra pounds 2.50.
Bron Eryri Guest House (01690 720240) is a simple but inviting and convenient place (if you have a car) just outside Capel Curig, where B&B costs from just pounds 18 per night.
Hotel Portmeirion (01766 770288) offers elegant suites either in the hotel or the village. Doubles start from pounds 90, but will drop by 10 per cent after 12 October. There are luxurious self-catering bungalows available for weekend breaks after 25 October from pounds 184.
Among the best are George Borrow's Wild Wales, an account of his 1854 walking tour of the principality. Edward Thomas's 1905 classic, entitled Wales, gives thoughtful consideration to the country, its people and their struggle. Wales - An Anthology, edited by Alice Thomas Ellis, beautifully combines poetry, folklore and stories on everything from magic to mountain climbing and rugby.
The best places to buy books on outdoor pursuits are the camping and climbing shops in Capel Curig, Llanberis and Betws-y-Coed. One to look out for is Bob Allen's On Foot in Snowdonia, which details the 100 best walks, ranging from strolls to hard scrambles. Perhaps the best general book is the Rough Guide To Wales.
deals and packages
Visitors find it simple enough to arrange their own break. However, for those on a budget but who fancy travelling in a group, Hairy Hog Backpacker Adventures (01453 751009) offer a three-day minibus tour from pounds 70 (not including accommodation).
The more adventurous should contact High Trek Snowdonia (01286 871232). They offer weekend breaks, including walking, climbing and mountain adventures. Prices range from pounds 189 to pounds 249 and include three nights' accommodation, meals, a guide/instructor, equipment and collection from Bangor station, if necessary.
In a move seemingly designed to discourage tourism, the Wales Tourist Board's head office in Cardiff accepts only written requests for information. The address to write to is: WTB, Dept WM1, Davis Street, Cardiff CF1 2FU. Its regional off-shoot, North Wales Tourism (01492 531731), is more user- friendly and almost every town is blessed with a local tourist information centre.
CRASH COUrSE IN WELSH
The north-west is the heartland of the Welsh language and native speakers will appreciate your efforts to learn some words and pleasantries. Even if they don't understand you, you'll at least give them a laugh and break the ice.
Bore da = Good morning
Brecwast = Breakfast
Cymru am byth = Wales for ever
Da = Good
Diolch = Thank you
Drwg = Bad
Gwely = Bed
Nos da = Good night
Os Gwelwch yn Dda = Please
P'nhawn da = Good afternoon
Pel droid = Football
Sut ydych chi? = How are you?
Tafarn = PubReuse content