Active Wales: Go cycling, walking, hiking, biking, zip-lining and more
They’ll even let you try a trampoline in a mine
Sarah Baxter is part-time Associate Editor of Wanderlust travel magazine and a part-time freelance travel journalist and editor. She has written many features for The Independent, as well as for other newspapers, magazines, blogs and books. She loves exploring the great outdoors, and when she's not thinking travel, she's likely lacing up for a run instead.
Friday 22 August 2014
Speaking at a conference in September 2013, Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones stated: “I want to see a Wales where walking and cycling are the most normal ways to get around.”
Later this year, the Welsh Government will implement the Active Travel Act – the world’s first active travel legislation – which aims to encourage people to incorporate walking and cycling into their daily routines. Uniquely, it will place a requirement on local authorities to create routes to facilitate this change.
It’s impressively pioneering, if macro, stuff – a grand idea, aspiring to change the movement-mindset of a nation. But it’s perhaps no surprise, because Wales has been long been developing a reputation as the go-to spot for action and adventure.
A big spur was the All Wales Coast Path (AWCP; walescoastpath.gov.uk). When the 1,380km trail opened in 2012, it was the first in the world to trace continuously a country’s entire coast – in this case, via a scenic succession of sandy bays, wild cliffs and castles.
Open doesn’t mean finished, though, and the Welsh Government committed a further £1.15 million to improve the path during 2013/14, with plans to create loops to connect inland towns and villages.
It would probably take you around two to three months to complete the whole AWCP. Fortunately, several companies now offer guided and self-guided trips along shorter sections.
For example, you could skirt the 100km Ceredigion stretch with Macs Adventure (0141 530 8377; macsadventure.com; six days from £375pp) or trace part of the Llyn Peninsula with Celtic Trails (01291 689774; celtic-trails.com; four days from £420pp).
Cycling, too, is booming. Exemplified by Geraint Thomas’s Commonwealth Games men’s road race gold, Wales is becoming increasingly recognised for its excellent road cycling.
In September, the local focus will be on the professionals tackling stages two and three of the Tour of Britain (8 September, Knowsley-Llandudno; 9 September, Newtown-The Tumble; tourof britain.co.uk).
The fit amateur could join Red Kite Events’ Brecon Devil instead (21 September; 01591 610130; redkite-events.co.uk; £25), a fully-supported sportive along quiet roads, with 77km, 106km and 158km options – the latter involving 4,083m of ascent.
Alternatively, you could recreate your own more sedately-paced Tour by following parts of Sustrans’ country-spanning Route 8 (sustrans.org.uk), which links Cardiff and Holyhead, via the Brecon Beacons.
It’s not just road cycling that’s taking off. Wales offers world-class mountain-biking, and facilities continue to improve all the time. After a soft launch in 2013, Bike Park Wales (07730 382501; bikeparkwales.com; £5), a new £1.8m purpose-built mountain bike park, has just officially opened in Merthyr Tydfil.
It offers 25 trails – with names like Wibbly Wobbly and Dai Hard – ranging from family-friendly to advanced. It has a bike vehicle uplift service (day pass: £30), so you don’t have to keep walking up Mynydd Gethin in order to careen back down, and it has just introduced half-day coaching courses for all levels (various dates, August-October; £75).
So far, so relatively conventional. But Wales also has a reputation for more unusual pursuits. For instance, there’s still just about time to compete in the World Alternative Games in Llanwrtyd Wells (until Monday 25 August; worldalternativegames.co.uk). Here, bog snorkelling is merely the best-known of the bonkers events, which run from Pooh sticks to belly flopping and gravy wrestling.
Or, equally surreal, you could hop aboard an old mining train to the world’s largest underground trampoline.
Opened in June, Bounce Below is a series of colourfully-lit trampolines and slides, set in the cathedral-sized cavern of disused Llechwedd slate mines (Blaenau Ffestiniog; 01248 601 444; bouncebelow.net; one hour, £20). Even given the confines, this is really blue-sky thinking.
While Wales is super for cycling, novices may be deterred by all those undulations. Ease into the hills with Hay-based Drover Holidays (01497 821134; droverholidays.co.uk), which rents out electric-motored e-bikes (£45 a day) and arranges two-day self-guided e-bike adventures into the Elan Valley (from £215).
Mountain-bikers are spoilt. There are purpose-built trail centres across the country (see mbwales.com), including Afan Forest Park (Neath Port Talbot; 01639 850564; afanforestpark.co.uk) and Antur Stiniog (pictured left; Blaenau Ffestiniog; 01766 832214; anturs tiniog.com), based at the abandoned slate mine.
Or try Wild Rides’ two-day Black Iron tour (07870 628097; wild-rides.co.uk; 4 October; £199), with Black Mountains descents; its Beer & Bikes weekenders (£169) throw in ale tasting. Mudtrek in Carmarthenshire (01267 202423; mudtrek.com; two nights’ full-board from £135) lets you ride off-piste or on Brechfa Forest trails.
Wales offers fantastic opportunities for getting wet in interesting ways – and now’s the time, with sea temperatures reaching a peak in September of 17C and above.
Some of the UK’s best surf is here. The Gower and Pembrokeshire (above) get most attention, but Bridgend is the aficionado’s choice: South African pro-surfer Ingemar Cressey picked it for his Surf Academy (07502 124030; cresseyssurf academy.com; full-day lesson £35), one of the few in Wales accredited by the Academy of Surfing Instructors.
Pembrokeshire remains the place for coasteering – the sport of scrambling along sea cliffs and jumping into waves was allegedly invented here. Preseli Venture (01348 837709; preseliventure.co.uk) offers half-day trips from £40.
The county has cave-riddled, wildlife-rich sea kayaking too. TYF’s Coastal Explorer trip (01437 721611; tyf.com; one day from £99) uses simple sit-on kayaks, and includes a picnic around a driftwood fire and opportunities for snorkelling. Further north, Sea Kayaking Anglesey runs two-hour tasters in sheltered Menai Bridge, a calm place to learn (07973 172632; seakayaking anglesey.co.uk; £20).
Or take a deeper plunge. Start with a try-dive at the National Diving & Activity Centre (Chepstow; 01291 630046; ndac.co.uk; one hour £30) before exploring the reefs off Skomer Island with West Wales Divers (01437 781457; westwalesdivers .co.uk; two boat dives, instructor and kit £140).
Wales has around 33,000km of public rights of way. The keen could circumnavigate the country by combining the AWCP with 285km-long Offa’s Dyke (nationaltrail .co.uk/offas-dyke-path), which roughly follows the England-Wales border from Chepstow to Prestatyn. Absolute Escapes (0131 240 1210; absoluteescapes.com) offers five self-guided itineraries along the route that start at £510 for six days with accommodation.
To walk with others, embrace Carmarthenshire’s upcoming STEPtember Festival (www.discovercarmarthenshire.com/walking-festival/ ), a month of guided walks across the county, from Llyn y Fan to Laugharne.
Or stay with HF Holidays (0345 470 7558; hfholidays.co.uk), which has properties in Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons that provide sociable bases for guided walks. A three-night break at Craflwyn Hall country house, near Beddgelert, costs from £325, full board.
To inject some pace, join a Run Snowdonia Fell Running Training Camp (07514 703670; runsnow donia.co.uk; from £150). Learn to tackle varied terrain, plan routes and attack those uphills.
North Wales is now the place to zip wire. Zip World Velocity – a 1.6km-long, 150m-high, 100mph aerial adventure over Bethesda’s Penrhyn Quarry – opened last year (above; 01248 601444; zipworld.co.uk). New for this summer, Titan (£50) is an 8km web of zip lines at Llechwedd Slate Caverns; teams of four can whizz above mountains and mines at speeds of up to 60mph.
At Plas y Brenin, the National Sports Centre in Snowdonia’s Mymbyr Valley try two-day Discover Rock Climbing (£185, including two nights’ full-board) .
For scrambling – the art of negotiating rocky terrain, roped or un-roped – Pathfinder runs Serious Mountain Scrambling trips over Crib Goch and Tryfan (01286 660 202; path findersnowdonia.co.uk; half-day £35).
Go higher still with paragliding with Abergavenny-based Axis (01873 850111; paraglide.co.uk) with tandem flights (£119) and learn-to-fly courses (£150/day). Even more uplifting, try “parahawking” (£300): paragliding beside a bird of prey.
Where to stay
Surrounded by woods, mountains and 100km of footpaths, Lake Vyrnwy Hotel (above; 01691 870692; lakevyrnwy.com; B&B doubles from £144) is ideal for hikers and trail runners; there’s also a 20km cycle route around the lake, which doubles as the Lake Vyrnwy Half Marathon course (14 September).
Access Pembrokeshire’s activities from Cwtch Camping’s cosy cabins (Rosemarket; 0117 204 7830; cwtch camping.co.uk; from £80). The Brunel Cycle Track goes past the door; those on bikes get a 10-per-cent discount.
In June, Snowdonia’s zero-carbon Bryn Elltyd Eco Guesthouse (Blaenau Ffestiniog; 01766 831356; eco guesthouse.co.uk; B&B doubles from £80) was named Considerate Small Accommodation Provider of the Year. It’s spectacularly placed too, and owner John – a qualified mountaineer and kayak coach – takes guests out exploring.
The Old Rectory (Llangennith; 0344 335 1287; nationaltrustcottages.co.uk; three nights from £686; sleeps seven) sits alone on a wild beach near the Gower’s Rhossili village, perfect for quick access to top surf.
No journey need be wasted. Many roads are scenic, such as the A466 along the Wye Valley and the A4086, A498 and A4085 around Snowdon.
Similarly there are tantalising train routes; the Heart of Wales Line, from Llanelli to Shropshire, is particularly pretty. If using a lot of public transport, consider Arriva’s eight-day Explore Wales Pass (03333 211202; arrivatrainswales.co.uk; four days train/eight days bus travel, £94).
There are also specialist locos, such as the narrow-gauge West Highland Railway (01766 516000; festrail.co.uk), which cuts through Snowdonia, from Caernarfon to Porthmadog. Break your journey (permitted with a standard ticket) to take a hike from a remote station.
Wales has three long-distance cycle routes: NCR8, Anglesey-Chepstow; NCR4, Fishguard-Chepstow; NCR5, Anglesey-Chester. There are also innumerable shorter options; see sustrans.org.uk.
For more info, see visitwales.com
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