Most people have this vision of South Wales as a place of rundown pit villages surrounded by slag heaps and Japanese transplant factories. But if you venture towards the south-west there's not a pit head or incongruous heap in sight, let alone a foreign factory. What you will find are vast tracts of enchanting countryside to romp across, dramatic castles above brooding villages to discover, clean sandy beaches to surf and swim from, the inspirational home of Dylan Thomas, a "little England beyond Wales", and gold. And if that isn't enough to tempt you, what about some rich and creamy Welsh cheese served on seaweed bread with a pint of good real ale?
WHEN TO GO
While Welsh summers rarely get very hot, the winters never get really cold.Obviously, if you are planning to go sightseeing or lie on a beach then your best bet is to go between June and September, although most of the outdoor pursuit activities can be done year-round. Whenever you come it's a good idea to be prepared for a little bit of rain.
HOW TO GET THERE
Car: The principality's only motorway, the M4, will carry you to the region's doorstep before petering out just short Carmarthen, the region's main transport hub.
Train: The rail network stretchesthroughout the region making travel by train a viable option. On most lines journeys made before 9.30am and on Fridays carry a surcharge. Call National Rail Enquiries on 0345 484 950 for ticket prices and timetables.
Bus: National Express (0990 808 080) offers the cheapest public transport to south-west Wales. Typical economy return fares to Carmarthen are pounds 27 from London; pounds 23 from Birmingham; and pounds 51.50 from Glasgow or Edinburgh. Expect to pay a surcharge to travel on a Friday.
If you want to cover a lot of ground in a short time, your own transport is a must. For all its inconveniences, though, the train is the most exciting way of getting around and if your feeling energetic you could always hire a bike for pounds 15 per day from Ar Du Feoc (01267 221182) at 20b Hoel y Brenin, in Carmarthen, and throw it on the train when you get tired. Local buses cover even the remotest rural areas but since privatisation services can be both infrequent and expensive. Hitchers can expect a fairly good lift rate.
WHAT TO SEE
q St David's is one of the most enchanting and peaceful places in the British Isles. Standing at the very western point of Wales on a windswept and barren peninsula, this unpretentious haven is the spiritual and ecclesiastical capital of Wales and was founded by the Welsh patron saint in ad550. The miniature city surrounds its purple and gold-flecked cathedral and the substantial remains of its medieval Bishop's Palace. It's worth investing in the cathedral and palace guidebooks (pounds 2.50 and pounds 2.25 respectively). The cathedral in particular has some noteworthy idiosyncrasies: the tower only has clocks on three sides because the people to the north couldn't raise the money for one, and the tomb of Saint Caradoc in the north transept has two pierced quatrefoils into which people would insert their diseased limbs in hope of a cure. At the end of May the cathedral is the venue for a classical music festival.
q Carreg Cennen (daily 9.30am to 8pm; adults pounds 2.20, children pounds 1.20) is the most dramatically situated castle in Wales. Rising from a pinnacle of limestone above a velvet green valley, with the Black Mountains as a backdrop, the castle is said to have been built by Sir Urien, one of King Arthur's knights. Records only go back as far as the 13th century but the place has been inhabited for thousands of years.
q Dylan Thomas's Boat House (daily, Nov-May 10.30am-3pm, June-Oct 10am-5pm; adults pounds 2, children pounds 1), overlooking the scenic Taf Estuary in Laugharne, was home to the poet and his family until 1953, when he died from "a massive insult to the brain", spurred on by 18 straight whiskies. In the house, which is now a small museum, you can enjoy the rich tones of the man himself reading his works via a period wireless set. A video presentation provides an interesting insight into Thomas's formative years. Along the lane that leads to the house is the solitary blue garage where Thomas sat and wrote. The cheap desk surrounded by curling photographs of literary heroes and scrunched-up balls of paper suggest that he has just walked out and may return at any moment.
q Dolaucothi Gold Mines (daily April-Sept 10am-5pm, pounds 1.50; underground tour and panning, daily May-Sept 10.30am-5pm, pounds 4.50) is reputedly the only place in Britain where the Romans definitely mined gold. After ad140 the mine was abandoned until 1888. Today the underground tour goes deep into the old workings and usually allows visitors to pan for gold themselves.
q Pembrokeshire Coast Drive is the best way to take in some of the sights of the famous 186-mile coastal path without the pain of walking. Even if you don't have time to travel all the way from Amroth in the south to St Dogmaels in the north, try to sample a section. Simply take every turn to your left and winding country lanes will steer you along precipitous cliffs past seal-basking beaches and down to tiny hollows, where ageing cottages huddle together for shelter from the westerly winds. This is Wales at its best.
q Whitesands Bay, just a couple of miles north-west of St David's, is one of the most popular beaches in Pembrokeshire. When the water is too cold for swimming, families are confined to the sandy beach and its rock pools, while the surfers take on the breakers. After 1 April this is also the place to pick up the Thousand Island Expeditions (01437 721686) boat for the trip around Ramsey Island. For pounds 16.50 you get an exhilarating two-hour ride: darting into caves, bobbing below towering cliffs and enjoying close-up encounters with seals, porpoises and sea birds. A thorough soaking is practically guaranteed.
q Tenby was colonised by Normans in the 12th century in their attempt to create a "little England beyond Wales," a title by which the town is still known today. It became a resort from the mid-19th century and remains a charming and popular place for visitors. Packed between the medieval city walls and two glorious sandy bays the old town is a thoroughly enjoyable place through which to wander. The attractive harbour area is fringed by pastel coloured Georgian and Victorian town houses and lots of good restaurants and pubs. Check-out the rambling Tudor Merchant's House (April- Sept, Mon-Fri 10am-5pm, Sun 1-5pm; pounds 1.60) or the interesting town museum (Nov-Easter, Mon-Fri 10am-noon & 2-4pm, Easter-Oct daily, 10am-6pm; adults pounds l children 50p) which also doubles up as quite an impressive art gallery.
q Nevern is a darkly atmospheric village just a mile from Newport in Pembrokeshire. High above the village on a bluff are the ruins of a 13th- century castle that sits on the site of an earlier Welsh fortress. Just inside the churchyard of St Brynach, the second tree on the right is the famous "bleeding yew", so called on account of the red sap that it continually oozes. Legend has it that the yew will bleed until a Welsh man is reinstated in the castle, which is unlikely given its dilapidated state. By the church's main doorway is the stunning Great Cross, an inscribed Celtic masterpiece. There are beautiful walks around the village.
Many visitors are drawn to the region for its excellent outdoor activities. The scattered population and large tracts of open countryside make it ideal for getting in touch with nature.
Cycling: Cycle Tours South West & Mid Wales (Ordnance Survey, pounds 9.99) is just about the best guide to cycling the regions highways and byways.
Surfing: New Gale and Whitesands Bay offer some of the best surf conditions - both are west-facing with sloping sandy beaches. St David's Adventure Days (0800 132588) organises surfing classes from pounds 15 per session. Contact the Welsh Surfing Federation on 01639 886246.
Walking: Pembrokeshire Coast Path is one of Britain's finest long distance paths. The best publication is Trail Guide (Ordnance Survey, pounds 10.99), which includes 1:25,000 maps of the route. For more information contact the information officer at the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority (01437 764591).
Yachting & Windsurfing: Dale is a popular watersports centre, and just down the coast is St Ann's Head, a place blasted by some of the highest winds in Britain and knocked about by some extraordinarily strong tide- races. Equipment hire and instruction on sailing and windsurfing is available from West Wales Windsurfing Sailing (01646 636642).
Sea Kayaking & Coasteering: Courses for all levels are available from Twr-y-Felin Outdoor Centre (0800 132588) in St David's. A three-day beginners' course in kayaking starts at pounds 80. Coasteering involves climbing along cliff faces and deliberately falling into the sea. Half-day sessions cost pounds 25 including all equipment and instruction.
Pony Trekking: Wales Trekking & Riding Association (01873 858717) supplies brochures with stables all over the country. The Wales Tourist Board (see information) has a free Discovering Wales on Horseback leaflet. Schools typically chargearound pounds 10 an hour for a two-hour session.
WHERE TO STAY
South-west Wales has no surplus of world class accommodation but it can boast plenty of reasonably priced hotels and B&Bs.
q Twr-y-Felin (Caerfai Road, St David's. Tel 0800 132588) is an old mansion that has been converted into a lively outdoor activity centre with decent, basic accommodation and a cosy bar with an open fire. Rooms from pounds 16 per person.
q Pen Albro (18 Goat St, St David's. Tel 01437 721865) is the cheapest and most cheerful B&B in town. It is also conveniently located next door to the town's only pub. Rooms start at around pounds 25 per person.
q Castle View (The Norton, Tenby. Tel 01834 842666) run by the effervescent Ruth Mardon is a family hotel with, as its name suggests, views of the castle and harbour. Rooms with all mod cons and a filling breakfast from pounds 18 per person.
q The Cawdor Arms (Rhosmaen Street, Llandeilo. Tel 01558 823500) close to Carreg Cennen is well-appointed with a sumptuous lounge area. En- suite rooms from pounds 45 per night including a full Welsh breakfast.
q Cnapan Country House (East St, Newport, Pembrokeshire. Tel 01239 820575) is a superb hotel converted from a Grade II listed Georgian town house, in the heart of Newport. En suite rooms from pounds 26 per person.
It is easy enough for most people to arrange their own holiday. One tour operator which may be of interest to clients with disabilities however is Disability Wales, Llys Ifor, Crescent Road, Caerphilly, Mid Glamorgan CF8 1XL (01222 887325).
FOOD & DRINK
Special specialities include local lamb with mint or thyme, fresh fish and game, rich and creamy Welsh cheeses, bara lawr (laver bread) made with seaweed, bara brith - a delicious fruit bread, and, of course, Welsh rarebit, washed down with real ale.
q Morgan's Brasserie (20 Nun Street, St David's. Tel 01437 720508. Open from 6 March) is a small, atmospheric restaurant specialising in fresh fish and local meats dished up by enthusiastic chef and owner, Ceri Morgan. Expect to pay between pounds 15-pounds 20 for three-courses.
q The Cawdor Arms (Rhosmaen Street, Llandeilo. Tel 01558 823500) has an excellent restaurant with traditional and innovative dishes and excellent vegetarians options. The three-course dinner for pounds 20 is a quality five- star bargain.
q Plantagenate (Quay Hill, Tenby. Tel 01834 842350) is a relaxed and enjoyable restaurant serving local specialities. Look out for the 13th- century Flemish chimney en route to the loo.
q Cnapan Country House (East Street, Newport, Pembrokeshire. Tel 01239 820575) has an informal and friendly restaurant with a deserved reputation. The three-course evening meal costs pounds 19, with vegetarian specialities cooked by a vegetarian chef.
Wales: The Rough Guide (Rough Guides, pounds 10.99) by Mike Parker and Paul Whitfield is far and away the best guidebook to the region. One to look for in your local public library is Wales - An Anthology, edited by Alice Thomas-Ellis, who beautifully combines poetry, folklore and stories on everything from magic to mountain climbing and rugby.
Wales Tourist Board (01222 499909), whose head office is in Cardiff, welcomes any requests for information, as does Tourism South and West Wales (01792 781 212). If this isn't enough, just about every town is blessed with its own tourist office, which is the place to go to find out about any local events.Reuse content