Let's be honest, few people would equate north Wales with style. Beautiful scenery, yes; upmarket chic, no. And that's fine, isn't it? We go to this rugged part of rural Britain to see the mountains, the cottages, the castles and the little seaside towns, don't we? We're not expecting the latest in haute cuisine and interior design ... are we?
But what if you could combine a hiking or cycling tour through the forests, mountains, waterfalls and lakes of north Wales with a stay in an elegant country house serving gorgeous gourmet food? That's the thinking behind Wales in Style, an online guide to some of Wales's more, well, stylish attractions. But are they there in significant numbers in the north? Parts of south Wales (notably, Cardiff) have undergone something of a cultural revolution over the past 30 years but, Betws-y-Coed notwithstanding, is the whole of north Wales about to go the way of Cornwall?
The scruffy little Arriva train that arrived at Newport to take me to Llandudno Junction suggested not. As it passed endless regiments of caravans along the north coast from Prestatyn to Colwyn Bay, the link between north Wales and style was at its most tenuous. But dinner and an overnight stay at Plas Bodegroes, just outside Pwllheli on the Llyn peninsular, provided a very different perspective.
Classified emphatically as a restaurant with rooms, Plas Bodegroes (Rosehip Hall) is a Grade II-listed Georgian manor house, which chef Chris Chown and his Danish wife Gunna have transformed into one of only two dining establishments in Wales to be awarded a Michelin star. Its general décor is traditional country house with a splash of contemporary art. The restaurant is light and airy with subtle Scandinavian touches and the staff are well trained in the fine art of being both friendly and efficient.
But the food is the real attraction: you would come back here after one taste, even if the staff had snarled and the wallpaper was peeling. Both the starter, a grilled fillet of red mullet on a seafood ragout with harissa, and the main course, poached fillet of Welsh Black beef with a steak and oyster pie and Madeira sauce, were exquisite.
House specialities include the above, creamed celeriac soup with cep cappuccino, warm salad of monkfish with Carmarthen ham and mushrooms and baked fillet of seabass with crab, ginger and spinach. Typical desserts are cinnamon biscuit of rhubarb and apple with elderflower custard, a delicious chocolate trio and barabrith and butter pudding with Welsh whisky ice cream. There is a set price of £42.50 for an appetiser and three courses - good value for a Michelin-starred restaurant - and Sunday lunch is only £17.50.
"I want this to be a place where locals come to eat," says Chris. "We have a higher percentage of locals than any other Michelin-starred restaurant." He claims that 90 per cent of diners at the weekend come from within an 18-mile radius. The restaurant with 11 extremely comfortable rooms (starting at £50 per night, per person) is open from 8 March until the end of November.
The next morning, fresh coffee was delivered to my room and I had one of the biggest and best breakfasts of my life, before heading across to the peninsula's north coast to find Porth Dinllaen. This windswept and overlooked bit of coastline was once a busy port and a contender to be the site of the main docks for passenger ferries sailing to and from Ireland (that honour went to Holyhead). Now its sandy beach is deserted and there's little to do except gaze out across the bay to the mountains beyond. Like so much of north Wales, it's romantic and beautiful but cannot be described as stylish because it's neither a fashionable resort nor created by man.
Castell Deudraeth, one of a series of 19th-century mock castles to be found along the north Wales coastline, far better fits the bill. Now a hotel, bar and restaurant, it is sited within the grounds of Portmeirion above the surreal Italianate village which was used as the set for the cult Sixties television show, The Prisoner. The castle was bought by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis in 1931, five years after he'd opened Portmeirion to the public, when he declared it to be "the largest and most imposing single building on the Portmeirion estate". Though it doesn't feature such unbridled flights of fancy as Portmeirion village's exotic statues and fairytale buildings, it does contain a bold mix of Gothic and Tudor architecture, including a vaulted porch with sliding doors, a baronial hall fireplace and turrets atop every wall.
The surprise is that, with the exception of these mock period features, the interior decor is very 21st century because, despite Sir Clough's ambitions, the hotel wasn't opened until 2001. The main hall, now the lounge bar, features oak-panelled walls, dark-brown leather furniture and the aforementioned fireplace. Beyond is the conservatory which serves as a bright brasserie-style restaurant with blond-wood tables and blue leather chairs. The lunchtime "dine and wine" menu makes much of locally sourced food such as lobster, scallops, lamb and beef, and the food is very good, though not quite up to the standard set by Chris Chown at Plas Bodegroes. Two courses with a glass of wine and admission to Portmeirion Village costs £12.50 per person.
Upstairs, the bedrooms are spacious, modern and fitted with all the appliances you might expect (DVD player, wide-screen TV etc) and some you might not, such as real-flame gas fires and whirlpool baths. These rooms exude modern style and luxury. They start at £209 per room, per night and go to £255 for the penthouse suite.
Two miles west of Portmeirion is Plas Tan-yr-Allt, a beautiful country house which looks out over the Glaslyn Estuary on the edge of Snowdonia National Park. Technically, it's a b&b though the term doesn't do it justice because Tan-yr-Allt (which means "under the wooded cliff") is rather more special than that. Built in 1800 and set in 47 acres of wooded land, in 1812 the house became home to Percy Bysshe Shelley, who loved the place until he was shot at one night, a year or so later, and promptly fled to Ireland. Other literary visitors to Plas Tan-yr-Allt included Thomas Love Peacock and E F Benson, creator of Mapp and Lucia.
Today the house is owned by Michael Bewick and Nick Golding, charming hosts who make you feel immediately at home and are never lost for words. Having spent two years renovating every room beautifully, they opened Tanny, as they call it, in Easter 2005 to provide elegant en suite accommodation. I spent a thoroughly relaxing evening swapping stories with them around a huge oak and slate table at which guests eat together. That night I slept like a log in Madocks, the principal bedroom which is named after the entrepreneur William Madocks who built the house and who, like Plas Tan-yr-Allt's current owners, was a great entertainer. Stylish? You bet. Doubles start at £95 per night and include a great Welsh breakfast with stunning views over the estuary towards Portmeirion.
So there are some seriously stylish places to eat and stay in north Wales, though they do still take a bit of finding.
HOW TO GET THERE
Plas Bodegroes (01758 612363; bodegroes.co.uk) has doubles from £100 per night b&b. Dinner is £42.50 for four courses. It opens from March to November.
At Castell Deudraeth (01766 770228; portmeirion-village.com/en), the lunchtime "dine and wine" menu (two courses plus a glass of wine and admission to Portmeirion Village) costs £12.50. The village is open every day, 9.30am-5.30pm. Rooms at Plas Tan-yr-Allt (01766 514545; tanyrallt .co.uk) cost from £95 per room per night b&b.
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