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Wales: Not quite England, not quite chicken. Or something like that. I don’t speak Welsh, unfortunately. Nonetheless, we enjoyed a very scenic and diverse 7-day Wales road trip this spring, chock full of castles, cliffs, cute villages and, um, beer. I couldn’t come up with a “c” word for that last one (cerveza?). Although, if we’re being honest, the whole literary device had already started falling apart with the villages.
The main point, though, is that Wales is a beautiful, friendly, relatively independent part of the United Kingdom, of which the exact political mechanisms remain a mystery to me. Luckily, though, we found it was still possible to enjoy hiking on a wild Welsh cliff or tossing back a tasty Welsh pie without completely understanding why only some international organizations consider Wales a country. Presumably the answer is somehow connected to Welsh football icon Gareth Bale’s elusive bald spot, but beyond that I get completely confused.
From Guatemala, we flew to London Heathrow (via Bogotá, as one does), where we immediately picked up a rental car and set off west in search of the last nation in the British Isles we had yet to check off.
We have rented cars all over the world the past few years and now always use Discover Cars. They usually have the cheapest deals and have always been very reliable.
Since Wales is a relatively small place and we had limited time to spend before heading to Portugal to start our latest long-distance hiking pilgrimage, the wonderful Camino Portuguese, we decided that a 7-day Wales road trip would be enough time to hit the main highlights and get a taste of all things Welsh, but not so much time that we would overdose on greasy meat and baked beans of daily Full Welsh breakfasts.
Our 7-Day Wales Road Trip Itinerary
A classically British area just over the English border full of history and stuff.
Arguably the most scenic peninsula in Wales, in a country full of them.
4 Drive to Caernarfon
Traversing the length of Wales from south to north, enjoying a fascinating variety of terrains from windswept Atlantic coastline to foggy, forbidding hill ruins.
5 Llyn Peninsula
Beaches, brews and castles on this unique northwestern peninsula.
6 Mount Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa)
Hiking to the top of the highest peak in Wales (and the tallest in the British Isles if you don’t count Scotland, which I’m fine with).
Another peninsula, more cool beaches, castles and one fabulous cliff-top lighthouse (and you should know I don’t use the word “fabulous” lightly).
Bonus Day: Chester, England
Not in Wales, so technically not relevant, yet a classy, picturesque place where you can walk on medieval walls or pass the time in any number of local pubs. Or do both, really.
Driving in Wales
Overall, Wales is not a bad place to drive. Now, weak, non-committal evaluations aside, the driving portion of our 7-day Wales road trip was mostly stress-free. Traffic’s not too bad, people don’t drive overly fast and there really aren’t many actual cities to navigate.
Of course, there is always the “driving on the left-hand side of the road” complication, something that will never feel completely natural no matter how many times we are subjected to it by the remnants of British colonization. Plus, doing it with a manual transmission – and, therefore, shifting with my left hand – doesn’t make it any easier. But that’s more awkward than problematic.
More troublesome was the width of the roads, at least once you get away from the main towns. In rural Wales – and, let’s face it, most of Wales feels pretty rural – the roads are TINY. Smoothly paved and well-maintained, but tiny. As in, often too small for two cars to squeeze past each other. Which means occasionally having to stop and back up to an approach or wider section so both cars are able to continue on their merry way.
Further complicating matters are all the stone walls and ubiquitous shrubberies that line the endlessly curving little roads, ensuring your whole day is basically just one constant blind corner. The tension is exhausting, lovely as the scenery may be.
One thing we found interesting was the fact that almost nobody passes in Wales (despite plenty of dotted-line highways and even loads of helpful arrows telling you when it is time to get the hell back into your own lane). I mean, on the 4-lane divided highways in and out of England and around Cardiff, sure, but never on the little rural roads and very rarely even on the secondary highways.
It took me awhile to notice but eventually it turned into a game – when would I see my first Welsh pass? Besides the drunk guy at the pub who seemed to mistake me for some girl he had gone to high school with. The answer – 1:20 pm on our fifth day in Wales I finally saw my first highway pass (despite all those handy arrows). All in all, weird. Welsh people don’t actually drive slowly and plenty of times they seemed fairly unimpressed with my diligent rental-car adherence to “5/mph over the speed limit”, yet when it came time to make a move they always seemed oddly hesitant.
On the other hand, all signs in Wales are in both English and Welsh and, I gotta say, there are some delightful ones. One of the most common:
Pant Cudd – Hidden Dip
“Don’t touch that dial, you’ve got CUDD on it!”
7-Day Wales Road Trip Highlights
“Highlights” are very subjective and often quite dependent on weather, mood and just how many other castles you’ve already visited in the past few days (for example). Nonetheless, I still feel comfortable listing the places we enjoyed the most and if that doesn’t seem to match up with your experience, well, I presume you are about to see the error of your ways.
The most popular town in very popular Pembrokeshire, Tenby is a colourful, quaint, eminently photogenic place where we could easily have spent a few more days. Wandering the cute streets, taking photos of the gorgeous bay, hiking around the waterfront castle and, mostly, just marvelling at the sheer number of ice cream shops.
Optional activity: Huddling behind a mobile dock surrounded by gregarious Welsh families while you scarf down Cornish pies as quickly as possible before the swirling wind covers them in sand. Tasty.
Stack Rocks Hike
This as really about the entire area south of Tenby, not just the one set of sea stacks. A wild and spectacular stretch of dramatic cliffs that is part of the popular Pembrokeshire Coast Path, in just a few kilometres of flat walking you can admire Stack Rocks, Green Bridge, Huntsman’s Leap, St. Govan’s Church and Bull Slaughter Bay (not the most impressive to look at but clearly the suggestive name).
And, while I wouldn’t say that every dog owner in Wales had gathered here, certainly most of them had made the trip.
St. Davids Cathedral
St. Davids itself is a famous pilgrimage destination and, rather surprisingly, “the smallest city in Britain”, an honour bestowed upon it back in 1994, apparently to acknowledge the importance of it’s big-ass church. Or for tax purposes, maybe.
Either way, it is most definitely small, and almost certainly in Britain, and they insist it is a city, so I guess the description fits nicely. But the cathedral, well, that’s the stuff, man. Considering the amount of time we’ve spent touring Europe over the past few years, struggling daily to come up with somewhat new and moderately interesting photo angles for massive medieval churches, it takes a fair bit for a church to make us go “oooh, that’s something”.
But St. Davids Cathedral is, undoubtedly, something. Don’t miss it.
Ty Coch Beach Bar
Sure, we’ve seen more visually impressive beach bars. And bigger ones. And definitely cheaper ones. But Ty Coch, a 200-year-old former vicarage located on the Llyn Peninsula, boasts an intriguing combination of scenery (at the end of a gorgeous bay), unique remoteness (only accessible on foot), fame (once voted the 3rd best bar IN THE WORLD) and an unquestionably great name (there’s, like, 50 ways you can turn that into a sex thing).
Adding to our experience was the fact we were joined there by Carmel and Steve, a British-Welsh couple we met long ago while travelling in Malawi where they were running the Mushroom House (which not only featured lots of mushrooms but also every insect known to man). We sat on the stone wall, enjoying the view and festive atmosphere, drinking pints out of go-cups before hiking around the point and up across a very cool golf course to their stunningly located caravan park.
Full disclosure: Ty Coch actually just translates to “Red House”.
Side Note: Steve and Carmel, who live in Wales most of the year, were VERY surprised to hear us describe Welsh drivers as polite.
Mount Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa)
The highest point in Wales, yet accessible by 3-hour hike because, you know, it’s the UK and they don’t see any problem adding the rather grandiose term “Mount” to any moderately-sized ripple in the terrain. Still a noticeable ascent, though, about 2 hours up the Pyg Track and 1 hour down the Miner’s Track, only occasionally complicated by the massive crowds of fellow hikers.
Oh, did I mention I chose to do the most popular hike in Wales on Easter Friday? Yep. Weaving up and around eager walking groups, diligent dog walkers, exhausted families, jubilant stag parties and the occasional overmatched college student added an element of competition to the endeavour, keeping me committed to a pace that would, theoretically, help me pass every single person on the trail.
Well, apparently not, despite my best efforts, as I arrived at the top, casually sauntering up to the commemorative Yr Wyddfa plaque to gaze out at the incredible view, hands on hips triumphantly, until I realized I was actively photo-bombing a couple who, judging by the 50-person queue trailing away down the other side of the peak, had probably been patiently waiting for quite some time to enjoy this special moment.
Which means I had just cut the queue in the UK, a cultural infraction on par with putting ketchup on your fries, underestimating the importance of tea or having a tan. And we wonder why wonder why we still need the Queen keeping an eye on us…
South Stack Lighthouse
Located at the very northern tip of Wales and, therefore, completely unrelated to Stack Rocks by Tenby). Somewhat oddly, we did not actually walk down and across the bridge to this beautiful Anglesey lighthouse itself (maybe “lazily” is a more appropriate word) but the views were amazing from several different spots along the high, spectacular cliffs.
Throw in a pretty good collection of sea stacks, a cliff-edge church and a stereotypically absurd Welsh parking situation and you had the making of a pretty great morning.
We unwittingly planned our entire 7-day Wales road trip over Easter holiday week for Welsh and English families. Many of them, anyway, since apparently they stagger the break so that not every child in the UK is wandering the country, alternately crying and coughing, all at the same time. A lot of them sure were, though.
The Welsh apparently love their beer gardens. I, too, love beer gardens. Synchronicity.
The Welsh apparently love their ice cream. I, too, love ice cream. Diabetes.
The Welsh apparently love their roundabouts. I, however, could do with a few less. Sure, it’s nice not sitting idly at red lights half the time but the problem with roundabouts is that everyone treats them differently, with only some signalling in and out, all giving way in different spots and different manners and some people adhering strictly to the correct lane while others slide around willy-nilly (art, not science, they seem to suggest).
Not surprisingly, we got a bit of everything – hot, cold, sun, cloud, wind, rain, we even had to scrape frost off our windows one morning (with a credit card, no less). While the constant change and endless variety generally left us confused and uncertain about what to wear in any given circumstance, the Welsh have obviously been dealing with this for eons and seem to have come to a group agreement on the most effective clothing combination. Puffy jackets and shorts, for all occasions!
This is a (semi?) privately owned village that is the definition of kitschy, with a distinct and almost desperate Italian flavour, a fancy hotel and lots of cafés. There are also photo ops every few steps, running the gamut from rose bushes to gingerbread houses to giant chess boards (no touching!) to erotic fountains. In summation: weird. Maybe too weird to pay £18 ($C30) for. Laynni has no regrets about waiting in the car.
Wow. Just wow.
At Castell Coch, Laynni asked the uniformed guide if there was a water fountain anywhere. Which led to a very long, very detailed response about the fountains of the age, and the challenges this particular castle faced when it came to procuring water, especially during a siege. We just nodded along, not having the heart to tell him we were just thirsty.
Officially called Pentre Ifan Burial Chamber, it did, in fact, have a couple big rocks sort of balanced on each other. And while that may not sound like a good enough reason to drive way off-route down some extremely narrow and blind roads (even by Welsh standards), it did turn out to be a very handy place to take a pee.
Porthgain to Abereiddy Hike
I don’t really have anything snarky to say about this – it was just a really pleasant, scenic cliff hike. Lots of families, lots of dogs, the slightly underwhelming Blue Lagoon at the end.
Lots of people – way more than seemed reasonable, imo – were voluntarily choosing to swim, despite the cold, and the wind, and the rain. In the Blue Lagoon, in the ocean, in freezing lakes, wherever. Which seemed, if I may be so bold, stupid.
I’m not one to just casually throw around the word “gamboling”. But there was a large flock of sheep living at our place in Llanfaglan (don’t worry, we had our own room), many of which were cute, little lambs and, while they certainly spent a lot of their time running, frolicking and cavorting, there is no word that better describes what they were up to most of the time than gamboling. They gamboled the shit out of that place.
This was supposed to actually be Llanddwyn Beach / Island / Lighthouse. However, we didn’t do our research and showed up at high tide, which meant that while we could still walk along the beach, the island and lighthouse were cut off by about 4 feet of water and some strong current. We still enjoyed walking through the sand dunes, though, and at one point we saw a big St. Bernard.
This festive, goofy beach town in Northern Wales features a busy boardwalk, an amusement park on a pier, obscene traffic and hundreds of overweight people eating while they walk. We’ve never actually been to Coney Island but, from what I have seen in movies, this seemed pretty similar.
However, I presume our lunch at St. George’s Fish & Chips was a uniquely Welsh experience – an unimpressive franchise shop, soup Nazi ordering protocols, enough Styrofoam to make a 1980’s McDonald’s location proud and seagulls attacking people on the terrace. Classic.
Guy Fieri’s Burger Joint
This is where we ate at the airport. I know it doesn’t really have anything to do with Wales, it just feels like something I’m obligated to admit.
Complete List of Welsh Castles We Visited
We bought a 2-person 7-day CADW Explorer Pass for £52 ($C87) that provided unlimited access to the main highlights of Wales. Which worked out to be a terrific deal considering that we hit 9 different castles and most of them cost around £9 each, per person.
And because several of them were pretty underwhelming and if we hadn’t had the pass we would have either ended up skipping them or feeling a bit grifted at those prices.
We started with the nearby Tintern Abbey (quite atmospheric) and then checked out the mostly ruined Chepstow Castle. We were impressed at the time but appreciated its simple authenticity even more in hindsight after experiencing all the other more touristy ones.
Surrounded by water, it looks every inch the classic Welsh castle. Inside, a little less classic, a little more about cheesy re-enactments, titillating sound effects and, well, dragons. For some reason.
Small but looks the part, kind of like a drama school creation of a Disney castle. Plus, we got all that great fountain info.
Tiny but with a commanding location on a strategic point. Windy, too, which is almost certainly historically accurate.
Pretty much just a shell with a few still-standing towers and catwalks. Overlooking a pleasant-looking retirement home, which gave it a more tranquil feel than some.
Imposing, classic, well-preserved, busy. All the adjectives we were looking for in a bathroom stop.
Quite something to see, especially when approaching from the beach (even in the rain). Inside, well, it’s fine, I guess.
Our pick for “Best Castle in Wales”! Huge, imperial and immaculate, with 8 different towers. Although our opinions were at least somewhat influenced by the medieval festival taking place (Easter Saturday and all), which added real authenticity to our visit. Authentic, in that the participants in full costume all looked the part but weren’t really doing much, just eating stew and chatting. In real life, not every day was about raping and pillaging, surely.
Also quite majestic and by far the most popular castle with foreign tourists (don’t ask how I know, I just know) although it follows the same general castle blueprint we’ve come to expect – impressive walls, lots of towers, lots of narrow winding stairs, me getting lost every time there was even the slightest choice between routes.
Future Sites for Our Next 7-Day Wales Road Trip
Well, first off, maybe it won’t be 7 days next time around. That will be one of the big decisions we’ll face, obviously. But however (and whenever) we choose to return, there are still some very interesting Welsh attractions that didn’t make the cut this time around but will be on the shortlist in the future.
The Welsh capital was dropped from our itinerary at the very last minute (as in, driving toward the outskirts) because the idea of navigating, driving and parking in the busy downtown area of a real city just seemed awfully daunting at the time.
Especially when there were so many more rural and accessible sites just sitting there waiting for us. Next time, for sure, though, as we specifically want to check out Cardiff Bay, Cardiff Castle and Bute Park, just for starters.
This lovely area in central Wales features the much-lauded Black Mountains scenic drive, a short climb to top of Pen-Y-Fan and the fascinating Carreg Cennen Castle.
Wild and beautiful and not far from Cardiff, with a highly recommended 3-hour coastal walk from Rhossili to Port Eyron.
We would simply like more time in this amazing area and someday would like to return to hike the Pembrokeshire Coast Path in its entirety.
Likewise, the Llyn Coastal Path is very intriguing, as is Llyn Tegid, where you can hope to catch of glimpse of “Teggie”, an allegedly large, creepy, crocodile-type creature considered the Welsh version of Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster, from both unsolved mystery AND lucrative marketing standpoints.
A Catholic pilgrimage site with a lot of birds. To be honest, it is the brevity of this description that really intrigues me.
A picturesque town boasting a spectacular river walk and yet more castle ruins.
No, we didn’t go to Wrexham. We watched the TV show Welcome to Wrexham and you can tell it was good because I managed to convince Laynni to sit through 18 shows about football. So we thought about going to Wrexham. We talked about going to Wrexham. We looked into staying in Wrexham.
But, in the end, we couldn’t really figure out what we would actually DO in Wrexham. There were no home games that week and even if there were I can’t imagine we’d be the ones finding tickets.
So, what, take some photos of the Racecourse Ground (now renamed SToK Racecourse)? Stop in at the pub and have just a normal beer? Maybe takes some awkward selfies with Wayne the bartender? Buy a pair of Wrexham AFC boxers?
The list was uninspiring, as you can see. So, for now, Wrexham will remain on the list of future Welsh attractions to look forward to.
7-Day Wales Road Trip Map
Click the star to save this map to your Google Maps – then find it under Saved/Maps (mobile) or Your Places/Maps (desktop)
Where We Stayed
We stayed in a few different B&Bs and hotels in the south, then settled into an AirBnB near Caernarfon to use as a base for exploring the north. All 4 were friendly and comfortable and easy to recommend.
Very friendly, knowledgeable owners with a great breakfast and a spacious comfortable room. Perfectly located for visiting the castle and monastery.
Great location, comfortable place, nautical theme and friendly owners with a lot of info on hikes and attractions in the area. We appreciated the nearby off-site parking and amazing breakfast – Laynni particularly enjoyed the Eggs Benedict option.
A cute little place where we had a double room (breakfast optional – we had our own) with a plenty of light and a modern bathroom. Good wifi, comfortable bed and an easy walk to everything, including the amazing cathedral.
We chose this spot for its central location for exploring the highlights of Northern Wales. This satellite house is on the owner’s property and is very comfortable and well equipped. We definitely enjoyed the baby sheep in the field next door and they (the owners, not the sheep) provided a helpful booklet with lots of info. The only downside was the wifi – it was quite slow and sometimes difficult to hook up to.
Learning the Welsh Language
Golff Cwyrs translates to Golf Course, so I think I get it now.
7-Day Wales Road Trip Summary
Wales: scenic, historic, friendly and occasionally confusing. And I’m not just stealing that from the Welsh tourism motto, I really believe it. There are lots of different things to see and enjoy while in Wales but if I may oversimplify for a minute, basically, if you like rugged coastal scenery and old stone castles – congratulations, Wales is your nirvana!
It is a small enough place that you can see a lot in a short period of time, as well. Or, as you can see from the list of stuff we didn’t get to, even a 7-day Wales road trip isn’t enough time to see and do everything the country has to offer. But, unlike my grasp of the Welsh language, it’s a pretty reasonable starting point.
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