SCENIC, CERTAINLY - BUT STYLISH?
This land of rugged beauty, mighty castles and verdant valleys presents an abundance of panoramic wonders. But, frankly, Wales has seldom been regarded as a first port of call for classy holidays. Indeed, most perceptions are that, while the principality provides plenty of choice for outdoor adventure with accompanying volumes of fresh air, it offers slim pickings in the way of luxury or sophisticated facilities. But all is not quite so: recently, a quiet revolution has been taking place.
Since around the time that the National Assembly for Wales was established in 1999, there has been an emergence of a range of glamorous and diverse holiday options, from refurbished inns to new boutique accommodation, restaurants with rooms and other fine-dining outfits.
What they share is a real pleasure in things intrinsically Welsh: local foods such as fish, lamb and cheese; indigenous materials such as slate and stone used in contemporary design; and, above all, a sense of place and a joy in the glorious landscapes of Wales. Below is a selection of some of the finest examples of this modest country's renaissance.
SHOW ME URBAN CHIC
Make for Cardiff and what is probably the most happening location in Wales: the capital's newly transformed Cardiff Bay. Since the late 1980s, the area has been gradually regenerated from a down-at-heel old docklands into Europe's largest waterfront development, complete with art galleries, restaurants, designer bars and other hip hang-outs.
There are two striking sights here. First, the National Assembly building designed by Richard Rogers (0845 010 5500 to book free guided tours; www.wales.gov.uk). Despite initial controversy, the structure is now considered a triumph, particularly its extraordinary contoured roof curling up over a glazed pavilion. Second, the Wales Millennium Centre, home to theatre, opera, dance and more (box office: 08700 402 000; www.wmc.org.uk), which was designed by Jonathan Adams, its enormous bronze-coloured roof topping a structure of glass, slate and local woods.
Among the latest newcomers to the bay, Elements Champagne Bar (029-2047 0780; www.elementscardiffbay.com; closed Sundays) adds an unashamedly flashy element. Set on Harbour Drive, off Pierhead Street near the National Assembly, this sleek outfit has floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the dock, and serves delights such as herbed loin of Welsh lamb and butternut-squash ravioli to complement a variety of champagnes.
The Mimosa Kitchen and Bar (029-2049 1900; www.mimosakitchen.co.uk) opened at the adjacent Mermaid Quay complex in May last year. The restaurant is part-owned by the Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd. It offers brasserie-style salads and gourmet burgers in a chic set-up, the interior featuring Welsh-slate floors, leather seats and a steel bar.
Right on the waterfront, just beyond Mermaid Quay, St David's Hotel and Spa (029-2045 4045; www.thestdavidshotel.com; doubles from £200, including breakfast) is widely acclaimed as the most ritzy hotel in Wales. Part of the Rocco Forte group, it has an award-winning hydrotherapy spa; a stunning seven-storey glass-backed atrium; and 132 bedrooms - all with balconies and views across the bay.
Head to the city centre for other fashionable hotel options. Macdonald Holland House (0870 122 0020; www.hollandhousehotel.co.uk; doubles from £90, including breakfast) at 24-26 Newport Road, in the east of Cardiff, is five minutes' walk from the main shopping area at Queen Street. A former office block-turned-urban retreat, the hotel opened in 2004 complete with spa, restaurant serving modern Welsh cuisine, concierge services (helicopter trips, chauffeur-driven cars, etc) and 165 rooms furnished in shades of plum, red and cream.
Further south, near Cardiff Central station, another office block has been revamped, this time into a hotel offering style on a budget. The Big Sleep Hotel (029-2063 6363; www.thebigsleephotel.com; doubles from £45, including breakfast), on Bute Street, has 81 rooms whose office-boxiness is somewhat mitigated by fun, retro design features in keeping with the Sixties style of the building.
In recent years, a number of small, elegant hotels have opened in market towns and pretty villages across Wales. In November, the New White Lion (01550 720 685; www.newwhitelion.co.uk; doubles from £80, including breakfast) reopened in the neat west-Wales town of Llandovery, on the edge of the Brecon Beacons. The 1838 building has been sensitively transformed into a boutique hotel by its owners, Gerald and Sylvia Pritchard, and its six generously sized bedrooms named after Welsh characters or legends and decorated in soft colours. Breakfasts are a feast of home-made breads and organic produce; lunches and dinners are available on request; and, in keeping with the friendly atmosphere, there's an honesty bar in the comfortable front room.
Over in Monmouthshire, The Bell at Skenfrith (01600 750 235; www.skenfrith.co.uk; doubles from £105, including breakfast) is a former 17th-century coaching inn set amid rolling hills and overlooking the remains of a Norman castle. It was extensively refurbished by Janet and William Hutchings, and opened in 2001 as a gracious restaurant with rooms. Antiques and squishy sofas add to the atmosphere created by exposed beams and flagstone floors, while the eight bedrooms are decorated in muted colours and * * named, curiously, after fishing flies (Tups Indispensable, Blue Dunn, and the like). The Bell can organise local fishing on the Monnow, the Usk, the Wye and more, as well as shooting, and provides leaflets on walks in the area.
In Denbighshire, the eight-bedroom Manorhaus (01824 704 830; www.manorhaus.com; doubles from £85, including breakfast) opened last year. Set in the Clwyd Valley market town of Ruthin, the 16th-century manor house has variously been a surgery, a boarding house, and Oliver's Bistro, set up by Cynthia Lennon after she parted company with John. The current owners bought the property in 2002 and spent several years revamping it into a very chic, boutique outfit whose bedrooms are hung with the works of local artists, and whose restaurant is much patronised locally.
Nearer the coast, in Denbighshire's Elwy Valley, two miles from the town of Abergele, The Kinmel Arms (01745 832 207; www.thekinmelarms.co.uk; doubles from £135, including breakfast) is another 17th-century coaching inn. It was bought by Lynn and Tim Watson in 2002. After a radical refit, it reopened as a restaurant with four sumptuous bedrooms, complete with oak and maple beds and a locally crafted Welsh green-oak balcony. The restaurant's simple, seasonally led menu focuses on fresh fish and local meats.
WHERE CAN I MAKE A SPLASH?
You don't need to spend a fortune to stay in some style on the Welsh coast. One of the most glamorous seaside options is Llety Bodfor (01654 767 475; www.lletybodfor.co.uk; doubles from £115, including breakfast and newspaper). It's a B&B in a classic Victorian town house beside the water in pretty Aberdyfi, on the Cambrian coast. The eight light and spacious bedrooms are comfortably chic, with warm colours, leather sofas, roll-top baths - and great views across Dyfi Estuary and Cardigan Bay. The sleek looks have been created by the owner (and interior designer) Ann Hughes, whose attention to detail extends to the epicurean breakfasts served downstairs at a large communal table.
A few miles further south along Cardigan Bay, the colourful fishing village of Aberaeron contains a real treat. The Harbourmaster Hotel (01545 570 755; www.harbour-master.com; doubles from £110, including breakfast) is a cool, contemporary boutique hotel in a fine 1811 building on, unsurprisingly, the harbour. After considerable refurbishment, owners Menna and Glyn Heulyn opened the hotel in 2002. The nine unfussy bedrooms (including two in a separate cottage) juxtapose bright colours with exposed Welsh stone. Downstairs, the much-applauded restaurant bakes its own bread daily and serves local produce such as Aberaeron mackerel, Cardigan Bay crab and Welsh black beef.
Llandudno, on the north coast, has become Wales's answer to Brighton. A genteel Victorian seaside resort, complete with pier, Llandudno doesn't yet offer the shopping opportunities of the Sussex town, but it does have a burgeoning restaurant and hotel scene. Combining mod cons such as power showers and satellite TV with antiques and lavish furnishings, Osborne House (01492 860 330; www.osbornehouse.co.uk; doubles from £145, including breakfast) on the Promenade has been painstakingly transformed into a six-suite hotel by the Maddocks family. There are wonderful sea views from most rooms, four-poster beds, marble fireplaces and Victorian-style drapes. The Café, a romantic bistro with chandeliers, serves fresh local produce.
Those after a more contemporary vibe could head for Escape B&B (01492 877 776; www.escapebandb.co.uk; doubles from £80 including breakfast) at 48 Church Walks. This Victorian villa opened as a cool guest house in 2004. Its nine rooms are equipped with plasma televisions and Wi-Fi, while other features range from leather headboards and cushions to whirlpool baths.
A ROOM WITH A VIEW?
Challenging names add an air of mystery, and Neuadd Lwyd near Llanfairpwllgwyngyll is no exception. Set in rural isolation on the island of Anglesey, this grey-stone Victorian rectory was transformed into a glorious restaurant with rooms in 2005 (01248 715 005; www.neuaddlwyd.co.uk; doubles from £135, including breakfast - weekend rates from £195 including dinner and breakfast). Pasture rolls out in front of the house, while behind it is an ancient church dedicated to the Celtic saint Gredifael. The four bedrooms are decorated with elegant restraint and offer staggering panoramas over Anglesey and across to Snowdonia. There are home-baked biscuits for tea and Molton Brown goodies in the huge bathrooms, while digital radios and plasma TVs are standard. The co-owner Susannah Woods trained as a chef at Ballymaloe cookery school in Cork, and masterminds the modern Welsh cuisine. There's a set menu for dinner, which changes daily according to local produce.
AND FOR MORE FINE FOOD?
A new Michelin star was awarded in Wales this January. The Crown at Whitebrook (01600 860 254; www.crownatwhitebrook.co.uk; doubles from £100, including breakfast), about five miles from Monmouth, achieved this accolade under the young chef James Sommerin, who hails from nearby Caerleon. Inventive dishes include wild sea bass with vanilla aïoli, and roast saddle of Welsh lamb with truffle and potato ravioli. A foodie destination for a good decade, the Crown is one of Wales's most established restaurants with rooms, and its eight bedrooms are (almost) as upmarket as its food.
In the north-west, Plas Bodegroes, near Pwllheli, retained the only other Michelin star in Wales. It was back in 1986 that Chris and Gunna Chown transformed this Georgian manor house into a restaurant and 11 elegant rooms (01758 612 363; www.bodegroes.co.uk; doubles from £110, including breakfast). And it has gone from strength to strength, with food very much the focus: from delicate mousselines of scallop, crab and laver bread, to tasty rosemary kebabs of mountain lamb with minted couscous.
Come September, self-respecting foodies head to south-east Wales and Abergavenny, whose annual food festival has become one of the liveliest shows on Britain's culinary calendar. More than 100 stalls are set up around the town and its Norman castle, and talks, demonstrations and master classes take place over a weekend crowded with people and events. The first festival was held just nine years ago, and has grown exponentially ever since, with this year's, on 15 and 16 September, expected to be the biggest yet (more information on www.abergavennyfoodfestival.com or call Abergavenny Tourist Information on 01873 857 588).
BRING ON THE MUSIC
Every August, another festival takes North Wales by storm. Since 2000, the Welsh opera star Bryn Terfel has staged an open-air music gala on the Faenol estate near Bangor. The venue is on the edge of the Menai Strait about 15 miles from Terfel's birthplace in Pantglas, and close to his current home. Known variously as the Faenol Festival and Brynfest, it is held over the bank-holiday weekend (this year 24-27 August) and is a Welsh cross between Glastonbury and Glyndebourne, with champagne picnics in the grounds and up to 12,000 people crowding into a field to hear music from stars of both the classical and pop worlds. Last year's line-up included the Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu, the Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon, the Cardiff-born legend Shirley Bassey and the Irish band Westlife. Details of this year's festival have yet to be confirmed, but you can sign up for a newsletter on www.brynfest.com.
Bryn Terfel's festival is part of a great tradition of Welsh musical celebration. A wealth of other festivals take place throughout the summer. Over in Pembrokeshire, the tiny city of St David's hosts a superb nine-day classical- music festival, held in its sublime medieval cathedral - this year from 26 May to 3 June (01437 721 854; www.stdavidscathedral.org.uk for programme and tickets).
Up in the north-east of Wales, the Llangollen International Eisteddfod will be held this year from 10 to 15 July: set up in 1947, it is a competitive event attracting singers and choirs from around the world. Star performances this summer will be provided by two musical legends: José Carreras and Joan Baez (01978 862 001; www.international-eisteddfod.co.uk).
WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?
An online guide to upmarket Wales was launched earlier this year: www.walesinstyle.com. And Emyr Griffith runs two promotional organisations (both on 01686 668 030) for the top restaurants and hotels: Welsh Rarebits ( www.rarebits.co.uk) and Great Little Places ( www.little.places.co.uk). Also, contact the Welsh Tourist Board (08009 156 567; www.visitwales.co.uk).Reuse content