The Coastal Way
The new Coastal Way is the best way to explore the Welsh coastline. Iain Duff hits the road to discover the best of Wales...
The 180-mile Coastal Way hugs the coastline around Cardigan Bay, from St Davids in the south to Aberdaron in the north. Along the way it passes through some stunning scenery, as well as countless picturesque fishing villages, pretty harbour towns and traditional seaside resorts.
Golden beaches, towering cliffs and hidden coves provide the backdrop to an epic road trip. In summer, you could easily imagine that you’re driving along a Mediterranean coastal road as the sea shimmers in the sun. But this is a place to visit all year round. The mighty mountains of Snowdonia are at their dramatic best in the winter, when they are topped with snow or shrouded in mist. In spring, newborn lambs frolic in the lush, rolling countryside and in autumn, the trees turn golden, purple heather abounds and the landscape becomes a dazzling kaleidoscope of colour.
It should come as no surprise, then, that a recent survey by travel book publishers, Rough Guide, placed Wales in the top 10 of the most beautiful countries in the world, ahead of such places as Switzerland and Norway.
But as well as its natural beauty, Wales is a land with a rich history, boasting majestic castles and churches and an endless number of fascinating legends and myths. The Coastal Way is a great means to delve deep into that past and discover more.
Our motorhome trip along the coast begins in Pembrokeshire, on the most westerly tip of Wales. Our starting point, St Davids, is famous for being the smallest city in Britain, with a population of just 1,600. The city status comes from its magnificent cathedral, which nestles in a hollow, alongside the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace, the dramatic backdrop for open air theatre performances in the summer.
Pic - St Davids Catherdal Credit : Visit Snowdonia
From the centre of the city, the cathedral is rather inconspicuous, with only the tower visible above the rooftops. But as we pass through the Tower Gate House, part of the original wall that once enclosed the city, the cathedral opens up before us in all its glory. It’s a splendid sight. As a Christian settlement, the site dates back to the 6th Century, when St David chose this remote peninsula to build his monastery.
The present cathedral is the culmination of centuries of building, rebuilding and expansion that began in the early part of the 12th Century. One of the most recent additions is the restored shrine to St David, which was unveiled in 2012, three centuries after it was destroyed in the Reformation.
It’s a short walk back into the centre of St Davids from the cathedral. As cities go, it may not be a thriving metropolis but it has its fair share of excellent places to eat and drink, as well as a good selection of shops and galleries. After a gentle meander round town, we enjoy a tasty brunch (homemade, smoky baked beans on sourdough toast) at the Meadow Café before taking to the road.
Our stopping place the previous night had been at a campsite close to the tiny coastal settlement of Porthgain, about seven miles from St Davids, where we dined in the cosy Sloop Inn pub. A return visit in daylight finds it to be a pretty little harbour village, with a superb fish and chip restaurant and a couple of art galleries. It’s also a great place to launch a kayak… or alternatively launch a walk along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path to Abereiddi Beach. Here you’ll find the Blue Lagoon, a former slate quarry that was abandoned and flooded in 1910, and is now a watersports mecca.
Back on the Coastal Way, we head north through Pembrokeshire in the direction of the picture postcard harbour town of Aberaeron. The route takes us through Fishguard, winding through the Lower Town and its cluster of quayside cottages and narrow roads, before crossing into Ceredigion.
The ancient town of Cardigan (Aberteifi in Welsh), sits on the estuary of the River Teifi at the base of Cardigan Bay. Cardigan Castle was the birthplace in 1176 of the Eisteddfod, the Welsh cultural festival that continues to this day and you can find out about the history of the gathering in the present day “castle”. In reality the building is more of a mansion house than a traditional fortress. That said, if battles and conflict are your thing, you won’t be disappointed.
We explore the medieval walls and the castle remains, before touring the Georgian mansion, where the recent history of the castle is told. It’s a lot less violent than the tales of the brutal clashes of 900 years ago, but no less fascinating. The current edifice was built in 1808 and its last private owner Barbara Wood moved into the house with her mother in the 1940s. Sadly over the years the mansion fell into disrepair eventually Miss Wood sold the building to the local council. After an extensive £12million restoration it reopened as a heritage attraction in 2015 and was crowned Channel 4’s Great British Buildings ‘Restoration of the Year’ in 2017.
While you’re in the area, make time for a visit to idyllic Mwnt Beach. From the summit of the hill that rises above the sands, there are sweeping views across Cardigan Bay. The beach itself is reached by steps alongside a tumbling stream. This whole stretch of coast is incredibly rich in wildlife, from seals to puffins – and if you are lucky you’ll see Britain’s biggest pod of dolphins, who spend the summer in the bay, around New Quay.
Pic - Mwnt Beach Credit : Visit Snowdonia
The Welsh Wildlife & Wetlands Centre, near Cardigan, is also well worth a visit. Once a busy fishing port, Aberaeron is now one of Ceredigion’s most popular holiday resorts, packed with fashionable places to eat and a good selection of independent shops selling crafts, clothes, and local produce. The harbour is lined with a fine collection of brightly painted Regency-era buildings, including the highly Instagramable, Harbourmaster Hotel, renowned for its top notch gastropub style menu. In fact, Aberaeron is quite the foodie town, with the Cardigan Bay Seafood Festival held in July on the quayside.
You won’t have any difficulty finding a good campsite around here. It’s a popular visitor destination and there’s no shortage of places around New Quay and Aberaeron to spend the night with your motorhome. Further up the coast, the cosmopolitan University town of Aberystwyth with its independent shops, trendy wine bars and an award winning Farmers’ Market, is worth a visit. There’s lots to do, including the electric cliff railway which hauls you up Constitution Hill at a stately four miles an hour. At the top is the biggest Camera Obscura in the world, which gives you a bird’s eye view of the surrounding land and seascape.
A few miles north of Aber (as the locals call it), is the village of Borth, which boasts a Blue Flag Beach with more than two miles of golden sand. On the shore between Borth and Ynys-las, the eerie remains of a submerged forest can be seen at low tide. Nearby, Machynlleth is a traditional market town, complete with busy high street and clock tower. But there’s more to this place than meets the eye with a massive focus on the arts, nature and sustainable living. The annual comedy festival brings thousands of visitors to the area in early May, with Josh Widdicombe, Mark Watson and Josie Long the big attractions for 2019.
After tea and cake in Machynlleth we head back onto the road for our next overnight stop at Dolgellau in the Snowdonia National Park
Snowdonia, Llŷn Peninsula and The Cambrian Coastline
Snowdonia, Llŷn Peninsula and the Cambrian Coastline is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, especially those who enjoy the more active pursuits. But there’s another side to this part of the world that is often overlooked. Snowdonia boasts 200 miles of glorious coastline where you’ll find secluded bays, sheltered harbours and vast open beaches.
Barmouth is a popular coastal resort in southern Snowdonia, with big beaches, a picturesque harbour and splendid views. The sunsets over Barmouth can be spectacular and you’ll find all the traditional seaside attractions.
A few miles inland, Dolgellau is a bit of a hidden gem. It sits in the shadow of Cader Idris, arguably the second most popular mountain in Wales after Snowdon, and is an excellent base for exploring the whole of the region. Mountain biking and walking options here are superb and there’s plenty of history to discover in its narrow streets and squares. Incidentally, if like me, you enjoy a hot curry, definitely make time to eat at the excellent Lemon Grass restaurant. The Naga Chicken is outstanding – if you dare!
The following day, after an hour’s drive up the coast, we reach what would prove to be one of the highlights of the trip, the truly extraordinary village of Portmeirion. Set on its own private peninsula, this is certainly not your typical Welsh village. Designed by architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis in the 1920s, it represents his fantasy of a classical Italianate village in the Mediterranean, transplanted to a romantic clifftop location. If you think it looks familiar, Portmeirion has been used as a location for countless TV shows, films and music videos but it is most famous as the place where the surreal 60s spy drama The Prisoner was filmed.
The 50 pastel-painted buildings and the grand piazza are a treat for the eyes, and there are 70 acres of woodland and subtropical gardens filled with exotic plants. There are paths to explore, and when the tide is low you can walk along the sands.
A few miles from Portmeirion, the seaside resort of Porthmadog is the biggest town in this part of North Wales. We follow the coast north-west from here and encounter the pretty seaside village of Criccieth, which has its own castle perched high above the bay. From here, we carry on to the Llŷn Peninsula, that stretch of land that looks on a map like a crooked finger pointing accusatorily at the south east corner of Ireland. Next stop is the seaside village of Abersoch. With its great beaches and fashionable bistros this is a popular spot for motorhomers and would make a superb base for exploring this part of the world.
Rich in Welsh culture, the Llŷn Peninsula’s coastline has been a protected Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty for over 60 years and its quiet winding roads are a joy to drive on. So much so, that we reach our final destination, the coastal village of Aberdaron, before we know it, and just in time for lunch!
The Sunday carvery at Gwesty Tŷ Newydd comes with a sea view. Like all the best eateries in this part of the world, the food is homecooked and locally sourced and there’s lot of it. After a brisk stroll on the sandy beach to walk off the effects of the roast beef, we pop into the National Trust’s new interpretation centre, Porth y Swnt, which uses poetry and art installations to provide an insight into Llŷn’s special landscapes, seascapes and rich cultural heritage.
Our trip had started at a cathedral so it seems fitting that it should end at another place of worship, the “Cathedral of Llŷn”, St Hywyn’s Church, which sits yards from the beach with waves crashing on the shore and Ynys Enlli (Bardsey Island) rising from the sea in the background, it’s an suitably idyllic spot to end our epic journey.
For more information please visit : https://www.thewalesway.com/the-coastal-way
All Photo credits to @Visit Snowdonia