... and on the beaches. Julia Stuart finds the dramatic scenery of the Gower Peninsula is a breath of fresh air

Despite its obvious good looks, there is something teeth-clenchingly annoying about Cornwall. No matter how cunning your plan to beat the weekend rush, it always seems to take so much longer to get there than you imagined and several more hours to get over the gruesome journey.

Despite its obvious good looks, there is something teeth-clenchingly annoying about Cornwall. No matter how cunning your plan to beat the weekend rush, it always seems to take so much longer to get there than you imagined and several more hours to get over the gruesome journey.

Next time you are sitting in a traffic jam in a Cornish lane, cast your eyes to the north, where you may be able to make out a slink of grey. Should you follow your curiosity and set off in that direction, you may never want to turn back. Catherine Zeta Jones, who was born here, likes it so much she is currently building a £1m three-storey mansion on its shores to go with the ones she has in Bermuda, Los Angeles, Aspen, Mallorca and New York. The place is Gower, in South Wales, a 19-mile-long peninsula that thrusts into the Bristol Channel. Designated Britain's first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, it has 34 miles of coastline ranging from creamy sands and handsome limestone cliffs in the south, to cockle beds in the north. The area has more than 70 named beaches, coves and bays. And because of its status, unlike Cornwall, it remains relatively unspoilt.

One of the first joys of being in Gower is the ability to drive effortlessly around without cursing your fellow man. At this time of year you will trundle down wooded tunnels whiffing of wild garlic, cross common land dotted with flowering gorse where horses meander lazily, cruise over scruffy bracken-clad moors, skirt fields of sheep, pass ancient stone walls sheltering show-off wild flowers and then come to a screeching halt to gawp at a view.

And once out of your car, much of the area is accessible by foot. There are nearly 400 miles of rights of way on the peninsula. Others may choose to get around via mountain bike, pony, surfboard or boat.

The view which must provoke the most jaw-dropping wonder from first-time gazers is that from Rhossili, a village on the far tip of the peninsula. Look below you, and to the right, and you will see a glorious three-mile stretch of honey sand. From it poke the wooden ribs of the Helvetia, wrecked in 1887. Atlantic breakers make this one of the best surfing beaches in Britain. The only building along this curvaceous shoreline is the Old Rectory, owned by the National Trust. It is the most popular of all the Trust's holiday cottages, and is booked solid until April 2006.

Turn slightly to your left and there in front of you, seemingly on a predatory prowl of the waters, is the Worms Head, a mile-long promontory that resembles a surfacing sea monster (its name comes from the Old English word for dragon). When the tide is out, you have about five hours to slip and clamber your way across the temporarily exposed causeway and up along its back to its nose and back again. It's worth risking a broken leg just to sit on the tiny patch of springy grass above its nostrils where it's just you, the sea, the birds and the sense that all is well with the world. Some, due to injury, heart attack or bad timing, fail to return and have to be rescued by lifeboat or helicopter.

Restore your blood-sugar levels at the Worms Head Hotel, which has outside seating overlooking the beach, picture windows if it's too nippy, and sea bass, freshly caught off the Worm. The church, if you can get into it (I couldn't even on a Sunday afternoon), has a memorial to Petty Officer Evans, who was born in the village and died with Scott in the Antarctic.

Admittedly, in peak season there can be long queues for the car parks at the most popular beaches such as Oxwich, another humdinger looks-wise. Either go early and sleep the extra hour you would have had in bed under a parasol, or try some of the less accessible beaches such as Three Cliffs Bay. This takes a 20-minute tramp through woods and dunes to reach. Another is the much less known Pwll Du, a secluded pebbled charmer of cove, which requires directions from a local.

Catherine Zeta Jones's new place is near Langland Bay, a popular beach edged with green-and-white bathing huts, from where you can take a restorative cliff-top walk to neighbouring Caswell Bay.

There is history, too, on the peninsula. Probably the most visited of its archaeological sites is Arthur's Stone, a neolithic chambered tomb, situated near the village of Reynoldston (where you'll also find an agreeable pub, the King Arthur, which offers very decent accommodation). There are also three castles - Oystermouth, Oxwich and Weobley.

The curious historical collection at the slightly daffy Gower Heritage Centre at Parkmill includes an old bath helpfully labelled "old bath" and an effigy of a late miller known as Will the Mill, whose head whirrs creepily when it moves. While it may not further your local knowledge beyond measure, it is certainly worth a visit just for its homemade cakes. Try the teisen lap, a light fruit cake; the Welsh cakes, which resemble flattened spicy scones; and the bara brith, a heavier fruit cake made with tea, which could serve as sea defence.

Indeed there is much locally produced food worth loosening your belt for. The King's Head in Llangennith serves an impressively varied menu. Its Penclawdd Pizza is topped with cockles and laver bread (seaweed), both of which come from Penclawdd in north Gower. And don't go to Mumbles, the peninsula's largest village, without stopping by Joe's Ice Cream Parlour, where, in winter, people happily queue blue-legged outside for its famous vanilla. One devotee's last wish was that it be eaten by his friends at Worms Head as his ashes were being scattered. They dutifully indulged.

Mumbles also has a number of smart new eateries, including 698, a minimalist job with tall leather chairs, which opened last September and wouldn't look out of place in Soho. The chef worked with Anton Mosimann and also at the Waldorf. The Mermaid Restaurant, a former pub and haunt of Dylan Thomas, a Swansea boy, was until recently a fired-out shell. It reopened a couple of months ago as a restaurant serving salt marsh lamb from Penclawdd, and locally caught fish, and plans to stock Dylan's Ale, as well as Welsh gin, Welsh vodka and Welsh rosé. The Shoreline Hotel, several doors up, is the only place in Mumbles to sell the much-coveted first malt whisky produced in Wales for 100 years, which was brought out earlier this year.

The breakfast alone is reason enough to stay at Fairyhill, a Welsh Tourist Board five-star country house hotel built in 1720, whose meadow serves as a helicopter landing pad for guests. The sausages, made from local laver bread and pork, are sublime. It (for sadly you only get one) is served with a fascinating (and worth the trepidation) cockle and laver bread cake (a patty dipped in oatmeal and shallow fried) along with dry cured Welsh bacon and the standard cooked breakfast extras. While some of the rooms could do with a touch of sophistication considering their price (the painted wicker chairs and shiny bed covers make even your mum and dad's place seem chic), there is much here to make it a super getaway - the quality of its food (deep-fried cockles are served as an amuse gueule as you cast your eye over the menu in the lounge in front of a real fire), its wine list and its setting in 24 acres of disappearing pathways which pass a trout stream, an orchard and a lake where birds threaten to sing themselves hoarse.

Those who want to keep up with la Jones may opt to stay at Morgans in Swansea, a 10-minute drive from Mumbles, where she has stayed while the house is being built. In the library hangs a gift the actress presented to the owners - a framed photograph of herself with the words "Morgans is fantastic". It is very good, mind. The owners have spent the £3m it took to convert the insides of the former Swansea Harbour Trust building well. The handsome, Grade II-listed red-brick-and-Portland-stone affair has been turned into an AA 5-star joint, which opened two years ago. Each room, named after locally connected sailing ships, has a stylish, minimalist feel and comes with a flat screen TV, with DVDs available from reception. The high-ceiling dining-room, once the Trust's boardroom, with its chocolate-praline-coloured walls, ornate white original mouldings and century-old eyelid ship mural, even managed to keep my eyes off my food. And it was a particularly good cockle and leek risotto.

Travellers' guide

The writer hired a car with carrentals.co.uk (0845 225 0845; www.carrentals.co.uk)

Morgans, Swansea (01792 484848; www.morganshotel.co.uk) has doubles from £100 including breakfast

Fairyhill, Reynoldston (01792 390139; www.fairyhill.net) has double rooms from £140-£215 including breakfast

The King Arthur Hotel, Reynoldston (01792 390775; www.kingarthurhotel.co.uk) has rooms from £45 including breakfast

For information, contact the tourist information centre on 01792 468321 or visit www.visitswanseabay.com