Wales boasts one of Britain's oldest degree-giving universities, while the South-west has a wealth of natural resources
Reputations, however unfair, can be hard to shake off, and for many people Wales and the West Country will be forever a remote land of Wurzels and green wellies. Not that this will necessarily put you off. If you're as interested in wildlife as a wild life, its wealth of natural resources is undoubtedly one of the West's great selling points - as are the cream teas; warm, fresh scones; strawberry jam; and thick yellow clotted cream, probably one of the best hangover cures known to man.

So when it comes to the West's natural assets, where to start? If you think life is a beach, you're really spoilt for choice. Dorset, Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, Wales, each has some of the best and cleanest beaches in the whole of Britain, and most can boast enough surf and sand to satisfy both the lazy and the hopelessly energetic. Swansea, near Wales' great coastal beauty spot, the Gower Peninsula, is particularly popular with Baywatch types; with more than 16,000 students spread across the university and institute of higher education, you'll never be short of someone to hang out with.

Bournemouth, on the other hand, offers some racier alternatives on its seven miles of golden sand stretching from Poole to Christchurch. From most parts of the university the beach is just a couple of minutes walk away, along with all the attractions of windsurfing, jet-skiing, water- skiing and powerboat racing. Serious water sport enthusiasts should head for Southampton, which boasts one of the largest universities and higher education colleges in Britain - totalling over 30,000 students - and what with the English Channel and the River Itchin, has enough water to make Venice look dry. Not surprisingly the university produces some top ranking sailors, while the institute turns out champion windsurfers.

If that's not enough to have you packing your bags and heading West, at Exeter University you've got what is reputedly one of the most lovely campuses in the country, and all the natural beauty of Dartmoor and Exmoor on your doorstep.

Falmouth and Dartington Colleges of Art offer rival attractions of their own. Falmouth, in Cornwall, is set among palm trees in eight acres between the town, beach and harbour, while Dartington has an idyllic setting nestling in the rolling Devon hills surrounding the valley of the River Dart.

"I came on a nice day and just fell in love with the place," says Andrew Clarkson, student union president at Dartington. "The countryside is so lovely and the lifestyle here has more appeal even though there are not so many facilities. When I thought I could either live in London for three years or study down here, it was no contest."

For many, being out in the sticks is just what they're after. While the smaller Welsh universities - Bangor, Lampeter, Aberystwyth and the University of Glamorgan at Pontypridd - may not offer the most scintillating nightlife, the small-town ambience can more than make up for it. All have a reputation for being laid-back, with a slower pace of life and none of those big- city stresses. They are friendly, cheap and very safe to live in. The sort of place where you can nip out to the pub and be sure to find someone you know to share a pint with.

The Welsh institutions also have more than their fair share of historical culture. At Bangor, Welsh is still the natural language for many locals, but with 8,000 students matching the number of natives, you'll still feel entirely at home if you don't understand a word. Trinity College in Carmarthen in the south west of Wales is surrounded by medieval castles, in an area rumoured to be the birthplace of Merlin, and at Lampeter, you're steeped in mythology. Situated near the Preseli Mountains, reputed to be the source of the Stonehenge stones, in an area littered with ancient burial mounds, the university itself has a venerable tradition, having awarded degrees for longer than any UK institution outside Oxford and Cambridge.

Not that Wales is all about living in the past. Cardiff is one of the fastest growing capital cities in Europe, with arguably one of the most attractive city centres in Britain. Its residents enjoy a quality of life deemed to be the highest of any university city in England and Wales, according to research looking at the indicators like housing, the cost of living, the shopping facilities and the crime rate.

Just across the Severn, Bristol has plenty of big-city atmosphere, with more clubs, bars and restaurants than you can shake a stick at. But for a large city, it still has a small town feel to it, says Matt Springett, incoming president at Bristol student union. "The Clifton area, where the university is based, is quite a small place so you bump into people all the time whom you know." Nearby University of the West of England has a reputation for being seriously `cool', with possibly more mobile phones per student head than any other campus in the country.

But, for sheer gorgeousness, Bath is a hard act to beat. Enjoying the rare status of a world heritage city, one of its greatest attractions is the wealth of its Georgian architecture and Roman history. It is so beautiful, says student Vicky George, that people regularly come to open days, set eyes on the place, and fall in love with it.

Bath Spa University College has an atmosphere that befits its refined setting; three-quarters of its students are women, and nearly half are mature. Similarly blessed is Plymouth's College of St Mark and St John where two-thirds of the undergraduates are female, and around 40 per cent are mature students.

And don't forget, nowhere in the West is that far out in the sticks. Bristol and Southampton are just two hours from London by express train, and Exeter and Cardiff just two-and-a-half hours.

There are airports at Bristol, Cardiff, Exeter, and Southampton, while Southampton and Plymouth also run ferry services to France and Spain. And not to mention Bangor, where, in just two hours, you can be in Dublin, sinking a pint of stout in a genuine Irish pub.