As the weather turns colder and the leaves fall, many of us begin to plan our spring holidays and think of the days when everything will be bright and blooming again. If the thoughts of adventure, nature, a unique culture and history, good food and warm people make you want to book a trip, why not think Wales? A tiny country surrounded by its better-known neighbors, England, Scotland and Ireland, Wales is a part of the United Kingdom but has a heritage and language all its own. Fear not, non-Welsh speakers — almost all of the Welsh speak English, many as a first language (though you can hear the distinct language spoken often, and all signs in the country are multilingual).
Bordered by England to the east, it is surrounded by water on its northern, western and southern borders. The country is so proud of its coastline that it became the first country in the world to create a coastal path that covers the entire country. The Wales Coast Path opened in 2012 and has been attracting nature lovers and hikers to the country since. If you love the beach, Wales is a must-visit, being the No. 2-ranked coastal destination in the world by National Geographic in 2011.
If it’s the coast you love, one of the most amazing sights is just a quick drive from Swansea: the Gower Peninsula. With its amazing views, scenery that is hard to match and even some interesting bird sightings, this is one spot that should be on everyone’s "must-see" list. Take a stroll all the way out to "The Worms Head," named for its resemblance to a sleeping dragon. Along the way, marvel at the striking limestone cliffs, lush greenery, wildflowers and historical ruins on the path, as well as the Rhossili beach below. For a very tiny area, there is much to see. If you are able, do take the walk down the steep hill down to the beach (wear appropriate shoes; this is not a path for flip-flops or heels) and you will get an amazing alternate view — up at the cliffs. You can also see the remains of the Helvetia, shipwrecked in 1887 on the sands and visible during low tide. This spot has been designated as an "Area of Outstanding Beauty" since 1949, the first place in the U.K. to win such an honor, and once you are there you will understand why.
|IF YOU GO …
» Visit southwalestours.com to book your tour or to get more information. See www.visitwales.com for more on why Wales is your next holiday.
If you have not gotten enough communing with nature, why not try your hand at riding a horse? No matter if you are an experienced hand, novice or child, there is a horse or pony with your name on it. Roughly an hour and a half from the Gower Peninsula (or slightly longer then one hour from Cardiff, two hours from London) in South Wales, you can find the beautiful Brecon Beacons. Once you have arrived, there are quite a few stables to choose from depending on your skill set and how long you would like to ride (full day, half-day and even several-day trips). The scenery is lovely, and your experienced guide will show you the best the area has to offer. If you choose, you can also get horse- or pony-riding lessons, a treat for adults or children alike. Visit www.horseridingbreconbeacons.com to find the tour for you.
Stay in the area for some hands-on farm fun, as well as children’s activities at Cantref, where you and your brood can experience both indoor and outdoor adventures. Located in Brecon, this is a great spot for family fun. There are live shows, an indoor play area, outdoor splash paddle boats, pig racing, pony rides — everything to make for the perfect day. Your family can feed many of the animals (there is even a Guinea Pig Bedtime that is adorable — the kids can feed them and give them fresh bedding under the supervision of an animal caretaker) including bottle-feeding baby lambs. The caretakers first give an explanation of how to feed the lambs and how to hold the bottles, and then the children are given bottles of their own and the lambs come to them for a feeding. If there are bottles left after the children have turns, the adults can try as well. The caretakers are available if children need assistance, but honestly, the lambs pretty much know what they are doing. This was the highlight of the day for many of the kids (and adults) in the crowd.
Encounter Wales on a whole new level — literally — as you tour the Dan Yr Ogof Show Caves. Try to say that 10 times fast. The Welsh language can be a bit of a tongue twister for its nonspeakers, but that’s OK — the website is easy to find (www.showcaves.co.uk), and of course tours are in either language or you can tour by yourself with an audio guide. The caves are an amazing sight, with many different kinds of formations created over the years. Make sure you look for the stunning "angel" formation, and your children will delight in finding "cave bacon" and getting "cave kisses" (drips of water that fall on them as they walk through the caverns). There are automated, talking statues of the original cavers, brothers Tommy and Jeff Morgan, that will give you bits of information about their lives, discoveries and the caves as you wander through.
Before you leave, make sure you pay a visit to Dinosaurs Park and the Shire Horse Centre and Farm, located in the same area. With so much to do in one area, make sure you pack a lunch (or you can eat at the cafe, whatever you please) because your children won’t want to leave until they have seen and done it all. Did I mention they can also pan for gold? Yes, real gold, just the way it used to be done. In a little stream with a little water wheel, roll up your sleeves and grab a pan — sift away until you find something that sparkles. Those little specks are indeed gold, and your child will delight in his or her find.
The dinosaur life-size models are located just up the hill, and there is a path that gives information on the life and times of the giants. There is also an ancient Welsh Iron Age village reconstruction model set up, with information about villagers’ lives, food and homes. After your tour of ancient times, take a walk to more modern ones — and right down the road. Leave the car where it is and check out Mr. Morgan’s Victorian Farm and the Shire Horse Centre and Farm. Mr. Morgan was one of the brothers who explored the Show Caves, and he led an interesting life. Models of himself, as well as his animals and home, are throughout the farm and narrate his experiences (even his dog has plenty to say). Additionally, there are plenty of live animals to pet and play with, such as the giant Shire Horses. There are also indoor play areas where your children can burn off any excess energy they might have left — Jurassic Karting Track is meant for ages 3 to 6, and Barney Owl’s Adventure Playground is for ages 6 to 10.
We got the most out of our trip by touring with South Wales Tours — which covers the whole country. These personalized tours let you choose the right kind of adventure for your party, large or small. It is perfect for families with young children or traveling with grandparents, because you can set your own pace and see what interests you most.
By Samantha Feuss, McClatchy-Tribune News Service