Get ready for Summer: Snowdonia
Snowdonia offers far more than mountain scenery, there's cycling, walking, great food, steam railways, and castles to explore. David Atkinson reports
Sunday 22 May 2011
Why go here?
Anglesey may have grabbed the headlines recently as the new home of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, but Snowdonia remains the heartland of holidays in North Wales.
Wales's first national park celebrates its 60th anniversary this year with even more superb walking, flower-strewn mountain vistas and warm Welsh hospitality. One major new attraction is the revived Welsh Highland Railway (festrail.co.uk), now running a complete 40-mile, steam-powered circuit through the heart of the national park from Caernarfon to Porthmadog. While Betws-y-Coed and Llanberis remain the primary hubs, you should head for Dolgellau, in the south of the national park, for a more grassroots taste of Snowdonia life. This market town feels properly Welsh and makes for a good base to explore the area.
The great outdoors
Snowdonia is best known as a centre for activity breaks. Savvy mountain bikers flock to Coed y Brenin Forest Park (forestry.gov.uk/wales) for some of the best trails in the UK. This Forestry Commission site also has a series of colour-coded walking trails, some accessible by wheelchair and pushchair, and there's a new high-wire facility from Go Ape! (goape.co.uk). Apart from the six paths leading to the summit of Snowdon, The Mawddach Way (mawddachway .co.uk) is a new, long-distance footpath around the spectacular Mawddach estuary near Barmouth. New estuary bushcraft courses run on Wednesdays through summer with Firefox Bushcraft (firefoxbushcraft.co.uk).
The history trail
The coastline fringing the national park features a clutch of World Heritage-listed medieval castles (cadwevents.co.uk), with Harlech within the park borders, Conwy and Caernarfon just a short drive outside. These form Edward I's "iron ring" of medieval fortresses and play a pivotal role in Welsh history. For something more contemporary, the fairytale, Italianate village of Portmeirion (portmeirion-village .com), reveals another side of Snowdonia devoted to art, architecture and aesthetics. It has even survived last year's dismal remake of the Sixties TV series The Prisoner, which was famously set in the village. Visit early or late to catch the low sunlight illuminating the surrealist architecture.
The retail therapy
Buying local produce, such as farmhouse cheese or locally brewed real ale from the Purple Moose microbrewery (purplemoose.co.uk) in Porthmadog, is a popular way to take a taste of Snowdonia home. Or check out the Dolgellau farmers' market on the third Sunday of the month for unusual local crafts, such as oilskin bags from Eleanor's Attic (eleanorsattic.co.uk), as well as local food producers. The tourist office in attractive Beddgelert is a great place to stock up on books about Welsh folk legends, such as the tragic tale of Prince Llewellyn's loyal dog, Gelert, which gives the village its name.
The inside attractions
The weather can be changeable at best (always bring wet-weather gear) but Snowdonia is blessed with lots of wet-weather attractions. Try the National Sale Museum (museumwales.ac.uk) to escape a downpour. Hafod Eryri (eryri-npa.gov.uk), the new granite visitor centre and café atop Snowdon's summit, is slowly winning fans after the initial controversy over its design. There's material inside about the park and its geology. Save your legs by taking the Snowdon Mountain Railway (snowdonrailway.co.uk), a feat of Victorian engineering, to the summit. Some of the original 1896 steam engines still make the five-mile climb and have superb views from enclosed carriages.
The places to eat and drink
Wales's star as a foodie destination continues its ascendancy with chefs championing local produce and specialities, such as lamb, cheese, cockles and lava bread. Tyddyn Llan (tyddynllan.co.uk). near Corwen. remains the only Michelin-starred eatery in the north, but there are plenty of smart new openings. Try the Tannery in Llanrwst, near Betws-y-Coed, and the Cross Foxes (crossfoxes.co.uk) in Dolgellau, a home-from-home bar and grill on the doorstep of looming Cader Idris. Finally, no visit is complete without a stop at Glaslyn Ices in Beddgelert (glaslynices. co.uk) for the creamiest double scoop in Snowdonia. Mine's a butterscotch and pecan.
How to get there
Arriva Trains Wales (arrivatrains wales.co.uk) serves the area with mainline connections at Llandudno and Bangor with Virgin Trains (virgintrains.com).
Visit Wales (visitwales.co.uk), Snowdonia National Park (eryri-npa.co.uk), and Discover Dolgellau (discover dolgellau.com).
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