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Wooed by Wales

A s the chopper whirred overhead, Mike Price, our guide, squinted skywards and said with a half-smile: “That could be Prince William on his rounds.” Tucked away in Northwest Wales, our party of five was ambling along a remote-ish beach heading for the South Stack Lighthouse that stands sentinel in the Isle of Anglesey. Mike added as explanation: William and Kate — the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge — live on Anglesey, where William is based at RAF Valley as a Sea King search and rescue pilot. Thus, the guy flying that chopper could have been him.

The South Stack Lighthouse, by the way, will take your breath away as it stares out at the Irish Sea. It’s probably the most picturesque of working lighthouses on the island’s dramatic coastline that’s dominated by sharp cliffs, coves, stretches of quiet beaches, seagulls and more seagulls.

South Stack Lighthouse

We were on a driving trip through Wales, a small country that crams in quite a lot (including over 600 castles). Wales is one of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom (that’s England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales), but it’s surprisingly, not terribly high on foreign tourists’ itineraries. But determined to discover it, our route meandered through the picturesque north, cut through mid-Wales and culminated in Cardiff in the south. Anglesey was our second halt.

We had set off on our wanderings a day earlier from the walled town of Conwy in the north. Conwy Castle — like most castles in Wales — is well-preserved and accessible. We walked its ramparts, journeyed to the towers to soak in spectacular views of the town at our feet. We watched jaunty sailboats bobbing about in the harbour and squawked at the sight of Britain’s smallest house on the quay — it’s 6ft wide and 8ft high!

Snowdonia National Park, the largest national park in Wales, was our next stop and we hit the road again, enjoying the countryside that was a kaleidoscope of undulating landscapes dotted with grazing sheep and fields of golden daffodils. We stopped at traditional pubs and dug into some succulent (and globally famous) Welsh lamb dishes.

Snowdonia National Park

Now try this for a tongue-twister: we also stopped at Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysilogogogoch for a quick bite. Yes, you read right, it’s a town up north with the second longest name in the world!

Snowdonia, for its part, is a spectacular patchwork of quaint villages and raw hills; it flaunts the highest mountain in England and Wales (that’s Mount Snowdon) and some of the largest natural lakes in Wales (perfect for photo opps).

We broke our journey at a quirky Welsh holiday resort — Portmeirion Village. Designed like a ‘village’, the 40-odd room resort (built between 1925 and 1975) incorporates fragments and sections of demolished buildings from different parts of the world.

From Snowdonia we drove south into mid-Wales and the Brecon Beacons National Park with its expansive forests, moors and mountains. Past more castles, we took several mountain routes, past many small towns into Cardiff.

Cardiff. Where heritage (the Cardiff Castle is the star) jostles for eyeballs with its ultra-modern buildings. The Bay area is where you want to hang out for some happening nightlife and a visit to the Wales Millennium Centre where a lot of the arts and cultural action is set.

Open air cafe area, Cardiff Bay, Cardiff

We found a city that continued to be drunk on rugby and the just concluded frenzy of a six-nation tournament which ended in the home team’s win against France. We did the very touristy tour of the Millennium Stadium that’s owned by Millennium Stadium plc, a subsidiary company of the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU). A sporty store outside the stadium offered ‘official’ rugby gear — tees, sweatshirts, caps — just like those worn by the Welsh rugby team.

Cardiff, we found, was also in the grip of Olympic excitement. For, Wales will be hosting part of the Olympic football tournament at the Millennium Stadium. The first match of the 2012 Olympics will kick off here on July 25 two days before the games open.

And if New York has Central Park and London its Hyde Park, Cardiff has Bute Park that’s set in the shadows of Cardiff Castle. A leisurely stroll here was rewarded by the sight of the famed cherry blossoms in full bloom.

It’s spring in Wales now and the perfect time to comb its beaches, explore its castles and walk its moors. Five days can never be enough and I left, silently ticking it off as a country that had to be revisited at another time, soon.

TRAVEL TALK

Getting there: London is a few hours’ drive from the Welsh capital, Cardiff.
Qatar Airways operates daily on the Calcutta-London (Heathrow) and London (Heathrow)-Calcutta route. But if you want to enter via north Wales, then Qatar Airways connects to Manchester from 12 cities in India, Calcutta being one of them. Manchester is a little over an hour’s drive from Conwy.

Where to stay: Accommodation is available anywhere between £60 for a B&B and about £600 for a top-end suite at a luxury hotel.

Photographs courtesy Crown copyright (2012) Visit Wales