Traveller's guide: Welsh wonders

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Natural beauty, chic hotels, festivals and adventure sports – Wales has it all, says Roger Thomas

Next Tuesday, 1 March, is St David's Day. Wales's patron saint, "David the water drinker", who had little time for flashiness, would no doubt have approved of the measured approach to 21st-century tourism that the principality has adopted.

After Wales's first few boutique boltholes – places like The Harbourmaster at Aberaeron (01545 570755; harbour-master.com) – opened their doors, village pubs began reinventing themselves as places where food eclipses drink. B&Bs leap straight off the pages of a style magazine. And country-house hotels have ditched chintz in favour of the cool, uncluttered look – with great success, according to Annabel Viney, proprietor of the 15th-century Ty Mawr near Carmarthen (01267 202332; wales-country-hotel.com): "We've just had our best January ever, and February looks like following suit."

And for the best cup of cappuccino on the planet (well, in mid-Wales at least) go to the barista-infused Penygawse Tea Rooms in Llandovery, a market town where once upon a time you would have been lucky to find the chip shop open on a Sunday (penygawse.co.uk).

The country's World Heritage Sites cover both sides of the cultural coin – medieval castles such as Harlech and Caernarfon, and, on the flipside, industrial and engineering icons at Blaenavon's Big Pit and Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. There's balance, too, in the way that Wales's natural resources are sensitively playing their part. Wales, more than many other destinations, has a vested interest in ensuring that its woodlands remain places of leisure and pleasure, sacred refuges for walkers, mountain bikers and horse riders as well as red kites (inset), the endangered bird of prey that has made a spectacular comeback in these parts. For a guaranteed sighting go to Bwlch Nant yr Arian Forest Visitor Centre nearAberystwyth (www.forestry.gov.uk).

Then there are the National Parks (three), official "Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty" (five), huge tracts of protected Heritage Coast and National Trust land that Wales has in abundance. These places, too, fulfil our increasing appetite for pure, natural surroundings and honest-to-goodness outdoor activities, a hunger that has seen a surge in activity holidays of all kinds, from cycling to coasteering, gorge walking to geocaching. For example, you can raft or kayak at Cardiff Bay's new International White Water Centre. This 800-foot aqua race track is the latest development in the ongoing transformation of the capital city's historic docklands (029 2082 9970; ciww.com; raft sessions from £42).

A common complaint among travellers is that it is trickier to book a trip to Wales than to Wadi Rum, because of the lack of packages. Accordingly, St David's Day has been chosen for the launch of a new London-to-Bluestone package, which offers direct first-class and standard rail travel from the capital and other key stations in between, plus a short break at the Bluestone National Park Resort in Pembrokeshire (01834 888209; bluestonewales.com; breaks from £115.25 per person).

Set-piece tourist attractions comprise centuries-old castles that have seemingly sprouted from the rock (www.cadw.wales.gov.uk), and environmentally aware enterprises such as the GreenWood Forest Park near Caernarfon (greenwoodforestpark.co.uk) and Centre for Alternative Technology, the amazingly prescient "village of the future" near Machynlleth founded in the 1970s (cat.org.uk).

Up north on the Llyn Peninsula, the former quarrying village of Nant Gwrtheyrn – once an abandoned ghost village – has a new lease of life as a Welsh Language and Heritage Centre. A recent £5m investment has funded the refurbishment of listed buildings, visitor facilities and exhibitions, with the official opening on 17 March. Stay here for residential courses or come as a day visitor – the village, tucked away on the coast beneath sheer cliffs, is worth visiting for its location alone (01758 750334; nantgwrtheyrn.org).

Grammy award-winning singer Duffy comes from just down the road at Nefyn. Along with Matthew Rhys she stars in the new film Patagonia, released next Friday and tipped to be one of the hot British films of 2011. The film features locations throughout Wales, including Llyn Gwynant in Snowdonia, the setting for the emotional ending.

There's a new way of getting to grips with Snowdonia. DiscoverGwynedd.com, launched in May 2010, covers everything from how to spot the rare Snowdon lily to where to buy local produce. When you're out and about in the region you can use any of a dozen information points with dedicated web terminals.

So: come to Wales to ride bikes and watch wildlife, to see how many of those 600 castles you can tick off, to catch a narrow-gauge railway to the dizzy heights of Snowdonia, to get up close with nature – and possibly get a bit wet along the way. More information: Visit Wales (08708 300 306; visitwales.co.uk).

Additional research by Sally Hawkins

Reach the beach

It's on the cards that the all-Wales coastal path will be open for business in 2012. In the meantime, there are already vast tracts of coastline within walking distance, including coast paths around Pembrokeshire (186 miles), Llyn (91 miles) and Anglesey (125 miles). A walk along Wales's biggest beach might blow you away, quite literally. But first you have to find it.

Despite its size, not many people know about seven-mile-long Cefn Sidan Sands on windy Carmarthen Bay, perhaps because it lies within the confusingly named Pembrey Country Park. Beach boys and girls will be gathering here from 16-20 June for Beach Break Live (beachbreaklive.com), the UK's largest student festival. The most perfectly formed beach? Take your pick from any number, though it would be hard to beat tiny Mwnt on Cardigan Bay's Heritage Coast. See if you can spot dolphins from the little whitewashed chapel on the grassy headland above the beach.

Making Hay

Who said that festivals and events in Wales are all run by white-robed druids and ruddy farmers? The folk acts and headliners Fleet Foxes at The Green Man (Crickhowell's mini-Glastonbury, 19-21 August; greenman.net) follow hot on the heels of those bardic white wellies at the National Eisteddfod (to be held this year in Wrexham, 30 July-6 August; eisteddfod.org.uk), while cosmopolitan gatherings such as the Hay Festival (25 May-6 June; hayfestival.com) and the Abergavenny Food Festival (17-18 September; abergavenneyfoodfestival.com) go from strength to strength.

Where to stay

The Cross Foxes is the latest in a new breed of country inns to open its doors. The former run-down pub, in a great location between Machynlleth and Dolgellau at the foot of Cadair Idris, is now sleek, stylish and luxurious (01341 421001; crossfoxes.co.uk; B&B from £100 per double). It follows in the footsteps of places such as The Grove in Narberth, which within just a year of opening has won prizes for its arty accommodation and ambience (01834 860915; thegrove-narberth.co.uk; B&B from £75 per person).

Visit Wales's "best new business in 2010" which went to Afan Lodge at the Afan Forest Park in the South Wales Valleys. There are no muddy feet or creaky beds in this smart ski chalet for mountain bikers (and walkers), located in an area known as "Little Switzerland" (01639 852500; mountain-bike-accommodation.com; B&B from £60 double).

For DIY holidays, Under the Thatch has a quirky choice of self-catering options. As well as conventional rural cottages and barns, its collection includes a Romany caravan, 1930s railway carriage, yurts, shepherd's hut and sea captain's house (underthethatch.co.uk; short breaks available from around £150 per property).

And for something sleeker, Sheepskin Life (01865 764087; sheepskinlife.com) offers tailor-made breaks at its collection of nine chic-but-quirky cottages. A new feature is a deli-on-demand service which will deliver gourmet goods such as tapas and recipe boxes to your accommodation. A weekend break at Hilltop Cottage in Snowdonia costs from £40 per night, based on four sharing the rustic property.

For more ideas of where to stay in style, the Welsh Rarebits guide collates 52 "hotels of distinction" (01686 668030; rarebits.co.uk).

Life cycle

With Welsh rugby in the doldrums, mountain biking is an increasingly strong contender for national sport in Wales. There are plenty of trails through man-made forests, as well as fearsome single tracks such as The Beast in Coed y Brenin Forest and The Wall in the Afan Forest Park, all of which have helped create Wales's world-class reputation for offroad thrills. But it's not all rough and tumble. Road cycling in Wales is catching up, for many reasons – urban escapees, the lack of traffic, the scenery and the infrastructure.

Wales is latticed with dedicated cycle routes. It has about 1,200 miles of National Cycle Network trails, over a quarter of which are traffic free. The daddy of them all is the 250-mile Lô* Las Cymru from north to south. There are plenty of family-friendly options too – routes such as the Mawddach Trail on an old railway line from Dolgellau to Barmouth (sustrans.org.uk).

Eleven cycling hubs have been identified on the strength of their route networks and bike shops – Aberaeron/New Quay, Brecon, Cardigan, Dolgellau, Knighton/Presteigne, Lampeter/Tregaron, Llyn Peninsula, Newport (Pembrokeshire), Rhayader, Saundersfoot and the Vale of Tywi (walescyclebreaks.com).

Drover Holidays offers guided and self-guided cycling breaks. If the hills put you off ask about their new electric bike holidays, from £215 per person (01497 821134; droverholidays.co.uk).

Travel right

Getting around by public transport has never been easier. The Explore Wales Pass has been launched this year, replacing the old "Flexi Pass" and offering eight days of consecutive bus travel the length and breadth of the principality, plus unlimited rail travel on four of those days, for a remarkable £84 – or just £10.50 a day. The rail options even extend into England, to Crewe, Shrewsbury, Hereford and Lydney. Railcard holders benefit from one-third off this price. There are versions covering South Wales, and Mid/North Wales, for £57 for eight days. No need to book in advance – you can buy them at any staffed station in Britain. For more information, visit explorewalespass.co.uk.

Besides bestowing unlimited travel, the Explore Wales Pass gives discounts on attractions – including 50 per cent off the Welsh Highland and Ffestiniog narrow-gauge railway. Following a successful proving run on the full length of the Welsh Highland Railway last weekend, services begin in earnest on 20 April. Hop on the Welsh Highland Railway at Caernarfon then ride through magnificent mountain scenery via Beddgelert and the craggy Aberglaslyn Pass to Porthmadog. That's just over the half of it. From here you catch the Ffestiniog Railway to the former "slate capital" of Blaenau Ffestiniog. The scenery is stunning every sleeper of the way.

This epic trip has been made possible by the recent completion of the missing link on the Welsh Highland: the final few miles into Porthmadog from Pont Croesor (01766 516000; festrail.co.uk; £32 return on the Welsh Highland Railway, £14.95 Ffestiniog Railway). Stop off at Pont Croesor for the RSPB's Glaslyn Osprey Project Visitor Centre (rspb.org.uk).

Wow-factor views are also guaranteed from Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. This Thomas Telford masterpiece, spanning the Vale of Llangollen, has been declared a World Heritage Site.

Traveline-cymru.info is the one-stop shop for train and bus information.

Top shops

You are more likely to see Chelsea tractors than muddy Land Rovers in Narberth, Pembrokeshire (narberth.com). Once a rural backwater, Narberth is now buzzing with upscale shops selling homeware, high fashion, art and craft. But it's not Kensington posh; the town remains faithful to its roots. The Welsh Farmhouse Company, for example, is a temple of local enterprise and rural chic (welshfarmhousecompany.com), while Andrew Rees is probably the best butcher in Wales (he has awards to prove it; andrewreesbutchers.co.uk).

Llandeilo in the Vale of Tywi (llandeilo.gov.uk) is another shopping magnet. Its narrow, hilly streets are packed with retail goodies, including the fashion label Toast (toast.co.uk – Llandeilo is its home town).

And Hay-on-Wye (hay-on-wye.co.uk) isn't just about books. As well as its 40-odd bookshops (and some are very odd indeed) this small borderland town is bursting at the seams with antiques and art, crafts and clothes. What's more, this beacon of light is open for business on the darkest, wettest, Bible-black Sundays in December when the rest of Wales has gone to sleep.

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