Welcome to the San Francisco of Wales

Simon Calder stretches his imagination in Llandudno

The Real Mr Llandudno is wearing an unseasonably warm maroon pullover. He perspires over the pedals of his Hammond organ, thumping out a tune as the crowds chatter and clatter past his booth ("stage" would be too generous a term), perched on the boardwalk leading to Llandudno pier. A series of parp-pa-pa-parps heralds "New York, New York" My objection is not so much to Mr Ll's sub-Sinatran rendition, but to his choice of material. Llandudno has little to do with the US East Coast. But it is North Wales' answer to California.

Welcome to the hotels of the principality's largest resort. About 700 establishments cater for the influx of tourists. Top of the range are the handsome four-storey Edwardian terraces, forming a shoulder-to-shoulder sweep of spruce frontages around the broad sweep of a bay that would not look out of place on the Pacific coast. The shoreline forms a kind of hammock, anchored at each end by a chunk of prehistoric granite. The Great Orme and its slightly downsized partner Little Orme are gigantic casualties of the events that shaped Snowdonia. Now they serve as geographic exclamation marks for Llandudno.

Behind them and the town, the mountains darken with altitude. Snowdonia shifts from tree green to barren black as the range rises into the clouds. The Sierra Nevada never looked this moody. Furthermore, the Welsh go one better than the Californians in that old West Coast trick of skiing in the morning, swimming in the afternoon. In Llandudno, you can ski at noon and be splashing around in the surf of the Irish Sea by five past. True, the ski slope is as dry as a daiquiri. It is, in fact, a go-faster carpet anchored to a slope of the Great Orme. But in midsummer 1996, the winter sports enthusiasts were queueing for the ski-lifts while a few hundred feet below, bathers were acclimatising to the still-chill waters.

A road runs right around the foot of the Great Orme, threading nervously between sheer rockface and steely seas. Comparisons with Highway One, the dramatic coastal route between Los Angeles and San Francisco, are entirely apt. The Welsh circuit is frequently used as a location for the sort of car advertisements that feature Clint Eastwood pose-alikes. So if you find the road barred when you arrive, the closure is probably due to a posse of film crews working at Wales' Hollywood.

If one Californian city deserves to be twinned with Llandudno, it is San Francisco. The similarities are extraordinary. For example, each operates cable cars to cope with sharp inclines. The main difference between the Great Orme Tramway and the Powell-Mason line is that Llandudno's is the more expensive. But your pounds 3.40 ticket buys a ride on a system whose steel cable hoists your rickety old wagon up the sort of gradients that would deter Steve McQueen. Only a proclamation that "Man United R Shite", etched in 20-foot high letters on the hillside, reminds you that Liverpool is closer than Los Angeles.

With no Pacific mists to obscure the view, you need neither binoculars nor imagination to spot the Isle of Man, 50 miles north. And on the way down, you get to see the site of Llandudno's version of the Gold Rush of 1849: the Copper Rush of 2000 BC. Ancient Britons were extracting the metal from the tangled veins of the Great Orme long before the Romans arrived. Every wave of occupants dug deeper, with the Victorians extending shafts out under the sea.

San Francisco has Fisherman's Wharf; Llandudno boasts one of Britain's finest piers. In either location, you can dine on good seafood (cockles, 99p) and mingle with millions of fellow tourists. In these excitable June days, Llandudno gets the edge thanks to the wide-screen television in the Pier Head Bar. Last Sunday Germany slugged it out with Croatia while visitors slugged down lager.

The closest you can get to Malibu is a bottle of the sweet cocktail of rum and pineapple in the Carlton, a shambling old pub that drapes itself around Llandudno's main street corner. Follow the gnarls of Victorian ironwork, and you eventually stumble upon a handsome, ruddy-faced row of civic buildings culminating in the railway station. These days, the main destination is Llandudno Junction, just three miles inland. San Francisco's train station has slipped into similar ignominy.

As you walk, scour the streets for evidence of a fake Mr (or Messrs) Llandudno; some skulduggery must have persuaded the seaside organist to add the definition "Real" to his title. Back on the boardwalk, he tootles away to a somnolent audience of people who are of sufficient age to have enjoyed the '68 Summer of Love to the full.

God only knows why he doesn't play something by the Beach Boys.

Llandudno tourist information: 01492 876413

To book the Real Mr Llandudno, call 01492 573557

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