I don’t know about you feel about Wales, but it’s not one of the countries I’ve always dreamt about visiting. I wasn’t even sure where exactly it was located, though I had a sense that it was much like England…sort of a smaller and lesser known half-brother.
One of the benefits of travel is that it sharpens your awareness of geography. Wales, like England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, is part of the United Kingdom. It shares its easterly border with England and is otherwise bordered by the sea. Admittedly, that border with England can be difficult to discern on a map, and Wales itself can be easy to overlook. But if you take the time to visit, I think you’ll find yourself as charmed as I was.
Based on my wonderful experience, here are my top five reasons to visit Wales.
- The Wales Coast Path
Wales is a small country with a lot of coastline. The Wales Coast Path stretches 870 miles along that coastline and is easily accessible from coastal towns all along the way. Hikers and walkers of all levels can choose an area and hike for few hours or for a few weeks. On one perfectly gorgeous day, I hiked the seven miles from Port Eynon to Rhossili. It was fairly challenging with some steep climbs, but the views were absolutely breathtaking.
As I stared at the unspoiled cliffs and coastline and the nearly deserted sandy beaches, I thought about the crowded oceanfronts in San Diego and Santa Monica and marveled at the contrast. I got the sense that the Welsh have such a vast coastline that they don’t necessarily need to push each other out of the way for a piece of the view.
2. The People
The people in Wales are so…lovely.
I had been staying in Wales for a few days and had to catch a morning bus from Mumbles to Swansea, and then another to Port Eynon. The weather was chilly and spitting rain, and for some reason I was feeling a little down. No sooner had I arrived at the bus stop than an elderly gentleman walked by, winked at me and tapped his watch…”10 Minutes,” he said. “Not too much longer.” I smiled.
A moment later an older woman with an umbrella joined me at the small bus shelter and, seeing the backpack on my back, asked about my trip and where I was from. We had a nice conversation until the bus came and we got on. By this time, I was feeling much better. At the next stop, another older woman boarded the bus with a tiny orange dog and sat across from me. She, too, smiled and asked about my trip, then chatted away about Wales and other places I should visit.
I kid you not…my entire day continued in this way. At the bus station, a young woman motioned for me to share her table when she saw me looking for an empty one, then wrote down her number and email address for me on a napkin, just in case I needed someone to chat with or wanted some advice on things to see in Wales. On another bus, an amazingly vibrant elderly lady acted as my tour guide, pointing out notable sites as we drove by. Then, when I was the last passenger on the bus, the driver joked with me about the narrow streets and pointed out beautiful views he didn’t want me to miss.
Maybe the backpack on my back had something to do with it, but I have never been embraced by so many people in so short a time as I was in Wales. The people are kind and open, and fiercely proud of their country. They made me feel right at home.
3. Welshcakes and Tea
Welshcakes are rather plain-looking baked rounds that resemble a small, raisen-filled pancake or a flattened scone. I tried Welshcakes only because I happened to be in Wales, and I like to try foods that seem unique to the country I’m visiting. I quickly learned that they are tastier than they look!
Welshcakes are a traditional teatime treat in Wales. While they can be served warm or at room temperature, I like them warm with just a little butter spread on the top. They are small but have a satisfying density, and they are dusted with sugar but not too sweet. Paired with a steaming pot of tea, they make the perfect treat on rainy days, which are a pretty common occurrence in Wales.
4. Dylan Thomas
The one connection I had to Wales before my visit was a family Christmas tradition. Back when it aired on TV in 1987, my grandma recorded the BBC dramatization of the Dylan Thomas poem, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” on a VHS tape. Since that time, we have watched the hour-long video nearly every Christmas since then. (When the recording grew too fuzzy, my dad ordered some official copies on Amazon.) As a child, the sweet story of a close-knit family and a boy’s remembrances of long-ago Christmases fascinated me. But beyond that, I really knew very little about Dylan Thomas, one of Wales’s most celebrated sons.
When I had the chance to visit Wales, I knew that learning more about Dylan Thomas would be on my agenda. The Dylan Thomas Birthplace and the Dylan Thomas Centre are located in Swansea on the south coast of Wales.
I enjoyed the Dylan Thomas Centre very much. This is a free museum that opened in 2014 and tells the story of the poet’s short life (he died in 1953 at age 39) in an interesting and interactive way. If you’re interested in literature or are visiting Swansea and just want to find out who this Dylan Thomas person is (you’ll find references to him everywhere), the Dylan Thomas Centre is a great way to spend an hour or two.
The Dylan Thomas Birthplace brochure that I picked up while at the museum indicated that the home is open daily for house tours at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. But before you walk an hour in the rain like I did, it’s a good idea to call or email the contact listed on the website and confirm that the tour is, indeed, happening. I arrived a few minutes before 1 p.m. to find the gate locked. I waited for a few minutes, walked to a cafe and had lunch, sent an email to the proprietor to ask about the 3 p.m. tour, then walked back just before the tour was to begin. The gate was still locked.
I consoled myself by taking several photos of the exterior of the house and looking around the neighborhood, but I had to admit that it was a little disappointing not to go inside. So if you’re interested in the tour, learn from my mistake and book ahead!
5. Seaside towns
Wales is such a beautiful little part of the world, and its lovely seaside towns are a key element of its beauty. I spent time in Mumbles (outside of Swansea), Port Eynon, Aberystwyth (pronounced “abber-ist-with”) and Borth, all of which charmed me with their ocean views and paved promenades.
While Aberystwyth is a bustling home to a university, museums, shops and Victorian-era attractions like a cliff railway and a camera obscura, Port Eynon’s largest attraction might be its caravan park. Each town has its own personality and beauty, and each is worth a visit.
I spent about two weeks in Wales before moving on to my next adventure. Given more time, I would have liked to have visited the north of the country, specifically the mountainous Snowdonia National Park and the city of Conwy, both of which were highly recommended to me. I’ll just have to go back!
Have you been to Wales? What was your favorite experience there?