Coast to coast

Date Posted: 19/12/2012

Pictured: Beaumaris Castle (Photo credit: Visit Wales)

Wales is having an incredible year from the opening of its impressive coastal pathway to increasing its unique tourism offering, and fighting some Daleks along the way. Mark Henshall takes the high road.

When Prime Minister David Cameron was grilled on British history earlier this year on the influential David Letterman show in the US, he was asked if “the people of Wales” had voted for him. Well, let’s just say the majority of votes have been going the other way lately, in the Welsh direction, in what has been a blisteringly impressive year for tourism.

Nominated ‘world’s greatest region’ by Lonely Planet for 2012, Wales’ highlight has undoubtedly been the opening, in May, of the new, continuous 861-mile coast path that runs the entire way around the Welsh coastline. Groups can now ‘discover the shape of the nation’ by picking stretches to walk along as Wales becomes the only country in the world that you can walk around, in this way, in its entirety.

In the north east, on the border between Wales and England, the coast path sets off from Offa’s Dyke, near the coastal town of Prestatyn on the shores of the Irish Sea. This 177-mile stretch of path forms one of Wales’ three National Trails which run along the Anglo-Wales borderlands.

Highlights along the route include spectacular wildlife, busy coastal towns, stylish boutique accommodation options and incredible food. Then there are the sweeping beaches and views of towering mountains; all of which are now accessible to walking groups, cycling fans and horse riders alike.

Wales has an enviable outdoors offer that just keeps growing. According to a new VisitBritain report on overseas travellers’ attitudes, Wales’ castles are Britain’s most popular attraction with foreign visitors. As a nation, it has more castles per square mile than any other country in the world – 641 and still counting. Some of the very best are Harlech, Conwy, Caernarfon and Beaumaris castles. There are recently opened visitor centres at Denbigh and Conwy providing up-to-date facilities, visitor information and interpretation.

All very impressive; but what Wales is really getting right is creating home-grown attractions for groups that are unique, and born out of its environment; experiences you’ll not get elsewhere.

A good example of this is Bodnant Food Centre, opened in June, a stone-built farm in the foothills of Snowdonia. Here you can watch their expert cheese maker, for instance, making cheeses and butters from milk from the farm on other side of the river, or see their baker crafting speciality breads from Welsh stone-ground flour. Visitors can also learn all about why bees are so important to all of us at the National Beekeeping Centre of Wales based in the courtyard, or beef up their culinary skills with a course in the state-of-the-art Bodnant Cookery School.

Food and adrenalin

If you’re still hungry but want something a little different you could try the new Snowdonia Safari (snowdonia-safari.com) tours aimed at getting foodies closer to the people, places and culture of this rich, diverse region. This area of Wales grows, rears and produces some of the best food and drink in the world, from the famous Halen Môn salt harvested from the shores of the Menai Straits, to award-winning cheese, wine and liqueurs.

Each expedition (for groups of no more than 12) visits between two to four producers, learning about production and the story behind the business and is priced at £69 per person, including a meal from the finest ingredients gathered along the way.

For the more adventurous, the longest zip wire in Europe is set to open in Betws-y-Coed, Conwy Valley. With participants hitting speeds of up to 75mph, 700feet above the mountain lake, Zip World, set to open in Penrhyn Quarry later this season will attract adrenaline junkies from across the world. 

For some action closer to the ground, there are new cycle tracks opening across Wales in 2013, open to groups and part of a multi-million pound expansion plan to consolidate Wales’ reputation as having some of the best tracks in the world. The Penhydd trail at Afan Forest Park, is to be re-launched next year, Cwm Carn will have brand new cross country and downhill trails, and an all new bike park is planned in Gethin Woods near Merthyr Tydfil in south Wales, as well as an uplift service and visitors centre.

For a more sedate time, west Wales is to host a major new literature festival from 29th June to 1st July at Dinefwr Park and Castle. The Dinefwr Literature Festival is a collaboration between Literature Wales, the National Trust, and the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David, and will feature an eclectic mix of literature, music, comedy, cinema and childrens’ activities. The festival aims to do for literature what the Brecon Beacons-based Green Man Festival has done for music. High quality literature events will be programmed alongside other art forms in the beautiful and inspiring surroundings.

Art Attack

Moving indoors, groups will relish Wales’ new National Museum of Art which has works ranging from Tudor to modern Wales, outstanding European Old Master paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries, and masterpieces of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. The world-class collection of French art is drawn mainly from an assortment bequeathed by Gwendoline and Margaret Davies, and also includes silver and ceramics from across the world.

The seven national museums in Wales are proving hugely popular with visitors. In 2011/12 they received a record 1.69 million visits, the highest total ever recorded since free entry was introduced in 2001.

Some of this older work serves as a good counterpoint to much of the contemporary innovation that has been springing up all over Wales. Not least in Cardiff which has seen the success of TV series Torchwood on its doorstep and now has the Doctor Who Experience.

For groups looking for someone older from the silver screen, then the Richard Burton trail opened in January of this year, a three mile walk around the villages of Pontrhydyfen and Oakwood, surrounded by the Afan Forest Park. The trail starts at Burton's birthplace in Pontrhydyfen (visitnpt.co.uk ) where visitors can then listen to the Oscar-nominated star quote a passage from Under Milk Wood, the play by his favourite poet Dylan Thomas.

Whether it’s old masters, modern classics, trails with a twist, foodie adventures or Daleks you’re after, Wales seems to have it covered.

Five great group attractions

  • Bodnant Food Centre: Opened in June, this is a stone-built farm in the foothills of Snowdonia, where you can buy and eat the very best artisan Welsh food products, and even see it being carefully crafted by experts. The centre sells the very best Welsh Produce from Wales’ finest farmers and producers, as well as foods produced on the farm itself, keeping alive precious traditional artisan skills and welsh recipes.
  • Cyfarthfa Castle Museum & Art Gallery: Home to an impressive collection of artefacts spanning 2,000 years of Merthyr's history, you can explore the museum houses and see the first steam whistle, the first voting ballot box, and dresses by Laura Ashley and Julien McDonald.
  • Doctor Who Experience: The first ever interactive Doctor Who exhibition that invites visitors to star in their very own Doctor Who adventure. Arriving at the Cardiff venue, visitors will step through a crack in time to become the Doctor’s companion, taking on the challenge of reuniting the Time Lord with the tardis whilst fending off threats from some of his most fearsome foes. It is the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who in 2013 as well.
  • Dylan Thomas Boat House: It’s the 100th anniversary of Dylan Thomas’s birth in 2014 and Wales is already in preparation. The Boathouse in his hometown of Laugharne is a fantastic place to learn more about the poet.  There are concessions for groups but advanced booking must be made for large parties.
  • Wales Millennium Centre: The iconic Wales Millennium Centre attracted more than one million visitors last year and remains the top visitor attraction in Wales for the fifth year running. The arts centre located in Cardiff bay opened in 2004 and has swiftly climbed the ranks of top Welsh attractions.

Five history and heritage attractions

  • Big Pit: Big Pit is a real coal mine and one of Britain’s leading mining museums, set in the UNESCO World Heritage town of Blaenafon. With facilities to educate and entertain all ages, Big Pit is an exciting and informative day out. Entrance is free but groups must be booked in advance.
  • Cardiff Castle: Get to grips with the last 2,000 years with an audio tour around the Norman Keep, the Battlement walk and the Castle grounds. There is also a cafe, gift shop and military museum.
  • Llancaiach Fawr Manor: Groups can step into the Manor House, which is restored and furnished as it would have been in 1645. All the rooms are accurate reproductions from the time of the Prichards. The gardens are also available for groups to enjoy.
  • National Museum of Art: Launched just over a year ago, Wales’ National Museum of Art features the full range of the nation's world-class art collection under one roof at National Museum Cardiff. The National Museum's mix of fine and applied art from the historic to the contemporary is shown in a single series of integrated galleries, giving a new visibility to art in Wales and to the art of Wales.
  • Great Little Trains of Wales: 2013 is the 150th anniversary of steam and Great Little Trains of Wales are narrow gauge steam railways through some of Britain’s most spectacular scenery. Group discounts are available on trains such as the Brecon Mountain Railway and Snowdon Mountain Railway.

Useful contact:

Travel trade Wales:
Tel: 0300-061 6094
www.traveltrade.visitwales.com

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