Review: Caernarfon and North Wales
Wales, United Kingdom
Croeso am Byth (Welcome to Wales)
61 people found this review helpful
It seems to me that many Welsh place names are written backwards in English just to confuse visitors.
Dylan Thomas certainly thought so and invented the seaside town of Llareggub (you work it out!) in his iconic play 'Under Milk Wood'. This play is actually being filmed for television in Pembrokeshire at the moment.
Llan, the beginning of many place names, means 'church' and the Welsh language can be heard in everyday usage wherever you go. It is good to hear.
For our stay in North Wales, we based ourselves in Caernarfon, which is a World Heritage Site thanks to it's lovely castle and old walled town. This is an ideal base from which to explore the many attractions of North Wales and Snowdonia.
But to the outstanding feature of the town first, the magnificent castle. Built by King Edward 1st from 1283, it replaced an 11th century motte and bailey fort overlooking the River Seiont and the Menai Straits. It is certainly a substantial building and has unusual polygonal towers instead of the more common round towers. It was the setting for the investiture of Prince Charles in 1996 and the local slate dais in still in place. Visitors can view film shows and information about the castle at ground level but the climbs up the steep and worn internal steps of the towers to the battlement walkways are very precarious.
A more modern attraction of the town is the superb Victoria Dock, a harbour and marina facing the beautiful Menai Straits. Fish up to two feet long swim around, unconcerned about the activity in the dock. The isle of Anglesey can be seen across the vast expanse of water, whilst at low tide, large areas of golden sandbanks are exposed.
There are two hotels at the Dock, Travelodge and Premier Inn, though neither have open views.
Free car parking is available to the right of the Premier Inn at a large, CCTV protected car park which faces the Menai Straits. Town is a short walk away.
The buildings surrounding the marina were built around six years ago and have been sympathetically designed to reflect the walled town, having round stone towers and matching colours. It is very well done.
When the sun shines, it could be anywhere abroad.
The biggest building here is the Galeri, a theatre, cinema, bar and restaurant complex. Doc, in the main building is a café bar which is open all day. It has tables outside facing the marina and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. We sampled a couple of meals here, the home made burger and accoutrements being so much more than any ordinary burger. The treat I would recommend however is the sharing tapas for two. This is a menu of twenty different delights from which you can choose six and is accompanied by a large jug of Pimm's or Sangria. At £20 for two it is a very tasty bargain.
Fu's, also on the marina side, serves authentic Cantonese cuisine which is delicious and reasonably priced. There are life sized replica Terracotta Warriors inside, even a horse on the bar.
As an alternative, try the Black Boy Inn which is within the town walls near to the castle. Built in 1522, it is one of the oldest pubs in Wales. It is dark but welcoming inside with open fireplaces and low beams. The very friendly staff offered samples from the four real ales on display before I made my choice. It has a great reputation and, forewarned about portion sizes, we went straight for the main courses and a good job we did too. I had a slab of belly pork, balanced precariously on a huge mound of real mash with a bacon and butterbean casserole to provide the moisture. Great stuff. Across the table, the bowl of Lobscouse (slow cooked beef and root vegetables) was so tender and was mopped up with a hunk of granary bread and butter. This place deserves its' good reputation.
There are a number of good cafes and ice-cream parlours around the cobbled market square, which also hosts a Saturday market.
The Welsh Highland Railway has a terminus in the town, just down from the castle. This narrow gauge steam railway takes you on a 2hr 10 minute, 25 mile journey through some of the most spectacular scenery in the U.K. Initially passing through lowland pasture and woodland, it emerges in the hills of Snowdonia, passing the foot of Mount Snowdon. Tumbling rivers, streams and lakes come and go before the line drops down into farmland and an estuary. I thought it was very reminiscent of New Zealand. The journey ends at the town of Porthmadog which is the co-terminus for the famous Blenau Ffestiniog railway, the oldest independent railway in the world.
Built in 1836, it is, amazingly, a 13 and a half mile gravity railway which transferred slate from the Llechwedd Slate Caverns at Bleanau Ffestiniog (the town that roofed the world), to the port at Porthmadog. It was downhill all the way and horses then pulled the empty trucks back up the line. It became steam powered in 1863. The trip takes an hour and a quarter and is again through dramatic scenery, passing the Snowdonia mountains and along the edge of steep sided river valleys. It includes the famous Ddualt Spiral where the railway loops around in a circle over itself. Photo opportunity!
Park in Porthmadog at the immediate rear of the TIC for the cheapest parking in town (£3 all day).
Whilst in Portmadog, be sure to take the fifteen minute walk or five minute drive to the lovely village of Borth-y-Gest. Follow the blue 'Wales Coast Path' signs from the harbour and TIC for the easy walk past the boat yards and over a little rise to the next cove. The village was recently awarded the' Best Kept Village in Caernarvonshire' title and it is very picturesque. It's small bay overlooks the wide sands of Traeth Mawr and the Glaslyn River. It has two lovely bistro/cafes, our favourite being the Sea View Tearooms, a homely place where all the products are home baked. The scone cream teas are certainly good, but I recommend the home-baked honey roast ham or the seafood platter – a superb arrangement of prawns, crayfish, crab and smoked salmon with garlic mayo and fresh salad. Yum. They also serve a superb cappuccino. This café was mentioned in Bill Bryson's 'Notes From a Small Island' where he said "This place might have been lifted from Adventures on the Island. I was charmed at once."
Just three miles from Porthmadog is the wondrous village of Portmeirion, as famous for its' setting for The Prisoner, a 1960's cult tv series starring Patrick McGoohan, as for it's 70 acres of tropical gardens, pottery and eccentric Italianate architecture. There are exotic plants here from around the world, thanks to it's mild and sheltered climate. The views across the sandy estuary are stunning. There is a beach-side hotel and a number of quirky cottages for rental here.
More superb gardens may be found at the National Trust property, Bodnant Garden. 80 acres of trees and plants perch on a sloping setting with terraces, waterfalls and the superb Laburnum Arch (in season). Many of the plants may be bought from the nurseries, with Ladybird Poppies catching my eye (and wallet).
Just a mile down the road is one of The Times' Top Ten Farm Shops, at the Welsh Food Centre. It has an award winning farm shop – just try the local Welsh Black Beef for a mouth-watering treat, as well as tea rooms, wine shop, the National Bee Centre, cookery and wine schools, a restaurant and even farmhouse accommodation.
No visit to Snowdonia would be complete without a visit to the mountain from which the area takes it's name. My preferred method is to walk up it, as indeed I have, many times, and from many directions. On this occasion, we took the Snowdon Mountain Railway (enjoyed though gritted teeth and with itching feet in my case). From the terminus at Llanberis this rack railway journey takes you on a one hour trip to the very summit of the mountain, as it has done for visitors since 1896. At 3560 feet above sea level, on a clear day you can see for miles and miles. Advance booking is advised as it is very busy. In poor weather you can take refuge in the visitor centre and café, which was rebuilt and reopened at the top in 2009.
If you are a fan of the Great Little Trains of Wales you can obtain a discount card (£10) at any of their railway stations and this will allow you a 20% discount off fares. They apply to 10 railways, including all of the ones mentioned above. Choo Choo!
We were made welcome everywhere we went. It really is a beautiful and friendly country, plenty of things to see and do and with good food and drink.
Yaki Dar (Good Health).
61 people found this review helpful
This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.