Explore historic sites, empty beaches and wildlife-rich coastal paths, before staying in one of these inviting boltholes, writes Carol Davis
Meandering down from the forbidding towers and hulking walls of Conwy Castle, built by Edward I as part of his formidable 13th-century Iron Ring of castles around the North Wales coast, visitors step through the town walls to glimpse boats bobbing on the waves below.
Just a few steps away is the smallest house in Britain – once owned by a six-foot fisherman, believe it or not; while close by is Plas Mawr, one of the nest Elizabethan town houses in the country. Reminders of the rich and varied history of Wales are everywhere, in a land where mountain peaks tower over coastal paths leading down to aquamarine seas. From mountainous Snowdonia, you can journey west to Anglesey to glimpse puffins, and south to the Llyn Peninsula where seals, dolphins and porpoises emerge from the shimmering waves. Whitewashed cottages dot the landscape, once home to farmers and fishermen – and for visitors to Wales, these characterful dwellings make lovely places to spend a few nights.
Along the Conwy Valley, where wooded slopes rise steeply from the river, the lovingly restored Old Forge lies within Snowdonia National Park. Tucked away in a woodland garden bounded by a brook, the quaint cottage with roses around the door was once dwarfed by a massive forge. Days here begin with breakfast in the pretty garden, before a full day of hill-walking or visiting local sights: further down the valley, peacocks strut around the grounds of the wonderfully idiosyncratic Gwydir Castle, known for its ghosts. Further west, beyond the fantastical Italianate village of Portmeirion, lanes lined with wild flowers wind down to the sweeping beaches of the Llyn Peninsula.
Surfers and sailors brave surging waves at Abersoch, while at Aberdaron you can walk along the sandy beach and seek out the 13th-century Y Gegin Fawr, or ‘Big Kitchen’, a stone cottage where pilgrims could claim a meal before making the perilous trip to the legendary Bardsey Island. It now serves tasty cakes to hungry walkers.
In the village of Rhiw, the whitewashed walls of Cadwgan have withstood high winds for centuries, sheltering families of agricultural labourers. With its low beams, tiled oors and roaring re, the cottage has plenty of period charm. And from the kitchen, or from the
leafy garden on a summer’s evening, the views of waves crashing over the rocky islets near Aberdaron as the sun sets are breathtaking.
Stroll up the lane in Rhiw and the sweeping north Llyn coastline appears: surrounded by sea and sky, this is perfect walking or cycling country, or simply wander along the oddly squeaky shore of Whistling Sands beach. The friendly Ty Coch Inn is a 20-minute walk away on the north coast: an idyllic spot for a beer on the beach.
Following the coast south, the sturdy turrets of Harlech Castle tower above the town, while further still, you can stroll along the prom at Aberystwyth or take a trip on the town’s clanking Victorian cliff railway. Inland, at the northernmost point of the Brecon Beacons National Park, the town of Hay-on-Wye is stuffed with antiquarian bookshops and inviting pubs, and draws readers and authors alike from all over the world to its popular literary festival.
Tucked away in acres of rolling meadows close to Hay-on-Wye, the winsome Pond Cottage is a converted barn with exposed beams and ancient stonework, and a picture-perfect lily pond in the garden. On clear nights, the observatory gives magnificent views of the stars.
Those wonderfully starry nights take the breath away in the Brecon Beacons National Park, too. The Old Thatched Cottage is set on a working farm, with plenty of fine walks starting at the cottage door. You can spend your days exploring the stunning waterfalls and caves nearby, returning to relax in the hot tub or curl up with a book in front of the wood-burning stove.
Further west, within easy reach of the vast beaches of the Gower Peninsula, is the 19th-century Carmarthenshire cottage of Paxton’s Tower Lodge. The cottage was once home to the caretaker of the tower that stands on the hill behind, built around 1811 as a memorial to Lord Nelson.
With panoramic views to the south and even finer views from the tower itself, this sweet cottage with white-painted stonework and a low-beamed attic makes a charming hideaway. There’s plenty of interest nearby too, including the beautiful National Botanic Garden of Wales and the former home of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.
Further west, Pembrokeshire, with its stunning coastal path spilling over with wonderful wild flowers and dotted with friendly pubs, is one of Wales’s loveliest corners.
In the delightful village of Abercastle, the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path runs close to The Smithy. This carefully restored stone cottage set into the hillside high above the harbour has character in abundance, with slate floors, exposed stonework and beamed ceilings.
From here you can visit the tiny cathedral city of St Davids, or take a boat to the islands of Skomer, Skokholm and Grassholm, home to thousands of Manx shearwater and puffins, where buzzards and peregrine falcons wheel overhead.
As Wales celebrates its Year of the Sea, inviting visitors to experience the delights of its shores, the 870-mile Wales Coast Path is a lovely way to take in the ever-changing seascapes from Pembrokeshire to the Llyn and North Wales coast beyond.
But if walking the path seems too much like hard work, there’s no harm in cosying up in the comfort of your cottage, and planning the next day’s adventures.