Wet, wild Wales

Wales offers gorgeous landscapes, heritage sites and outdoor adventures

Sitting in a kayak on Llyn Padarn, one of Wales' largest natural lakes, I pause to marvel at the vastness stretched out before me.

The rugged valleys, the snow- capped mountains in the distance, the expanse of the fair blue sky and its reflection on the glassy water surface - it feels like a dream to be part of this postcard-perfect scene.

Llyn Padarn is nestled in scenic Snowdonia, a region in north-west Wales that is as magical as the sound of its name and is also the first of three designated national parks.

I have kayaked along beach resorts, but with little signs of human activity around us, doing it in still waters and cool air feels almost otherworldly.

At 7 deg C, I wonder if the March weather is too chilly for water sports even though we are all geared up in life jackets, wet suits, thermal tops and helmets. Then the sun comes up and my worries are put to rest.


Adventure seekers in Wales can try mountain-biking (above) through Snowdonia's forests or kayak in Llyn Padarn. PHOTO: © CROWN COPYRIGHT VISIT WALES, JOHN HADWIN

Accompanied by our instructor Dan Mcgonigle, 25, from Surf Lines (www.surf-lines.co.uk), my group of seven paddle and splash around, playing simple ball games. Some of them fall repeatedly into the icy water, in good-natured fun.

I am in Wales as one of five journalists from around the world, who are experiencing North Wales over four days on a trip organised by Visit Britain (www.visitbritain.com), the national tourism agency of Great Britain.

This year is the year of adventure for Wales, as billed by the Welsh government, which is promoting the country as a destination for tourism adventure.

We have a taste of another water adventure when we go on a high-speed boat tour on the Strait of Menai, a 25km-long stretch of shallow tidal water which separates the island of Anglesey from the Wales mainland.

Our journey with RibRide Adventure Boat Tours (from £24 or S$46 for adults, from £16 for children aged four to 16, www.ribride.co.uk) takes us on a boat fitted with engines that can coast at speeds of nearly 80kmh.

The frosty wind whips my face. My eyes and fingers grow numb, but I hardly notice the cold as our skipper stops to tell us about the area's history and the man-made sights such as stately mansions and suspension bridges that unfold before us.

  • GETTING THERE

    I fly British Airways from Singapore to London. The flight takes about 13 hours.

    Trains run daily from London's Euston Station directly, or via a stop in the city of Chester, to Llandudno Junction, a town in Wales. The journey takes about two hours, and prices start at £20 (S$38).

    The best way to get around Wales is to rent a car or hire a private driver, which will allow you to customise your visit, enjoy the scenic drives and access more remote areas.

    The railway is also a great opportunity to see the countryside. In North Wales, a main railway line runs along the north coast through Prestatyn, Rhyl, Colwyn Bay, Llandudno, Conwy and Bangor to Holyhead.

    There are also long-distance inter-city coach services along the north coast.

We zip past the Menai Suspension Bridge, a masterpiece designed by Scottish civil engineer Thomas Telford. The bridge, which opened in 1826 and once had the world's longest span of 176m, had to rise high enough for the tall sailing ships that plied the straits back then.

Up next, Puffin Island. An uninhabited island teeming with avian life at the north-eastern end of the straits, we are enraptured by its rugged beauty. It is not the season for puffins. Instead we see crowds of razorbills - seabirds with black and white bodies - squeaking as they fly back and forth the island, skimming the water surface.

On one end of the island, we stumble upon a colony of grey seals frolicking by the water's edge - a rare sight according to our guide.

On land, I experience the same piercing rush of fresh air as we ride the slopes of the Snowdonia National Park with an instructor from Bike Wales (£28 to £45 to rent a bike for a day, bikewales.co.uk).

Covering more than 2,070 sq km, the park is situated in Betws-y- Coed, a village that means "chapel in the woods" in the native language.

And high in the mountains, we are indeed surrounded by an oasis of tranquillity in the Gwydyr Forest, home to scenic lakes and peaks.

While experienced bikers can take on the famous Marin Trail, a competition-standard 25km ride through the Gwydyr Forest in two to four hours, the uphill slopes and rocky tracks are challenging for those unaccustomed to such terrains. After 11/2 hours on the 4km trail, my thighs are sore from the pedalling.

But it is all worth it: The further in we cycle, the more spectacular the views of the deep forests and hidden valleys become.

Our last stop is the zip line (www.zipworld.co.uk), a must for visitors who crave the adrenaline rush of flying more than 210m above a lake, surrounded by Penrhyn Quarry, a historic slate quarry. Called Zip World Velocity, Bethesda, it is the fastest zip wire in the world and the longest in Europe - at 1.6km long and reaching speeds of more than 160kmh.

As acrophobia kicks in, I choose to go on the "Little Zipper", a more manageable line with a maximum speed of about 40kmh.

MYTHICAL MONSTER & MEDIAEVAL CASTLES

Apart from nature, historic Wales has much to offer those looking for an adventure back in time.

We are ferried around by Mr John Hadwin, who runs his own tour company (www.boutiquetours.co. uk). The 58-year-old Mancunian moved to Dwygyfylchi, a village in Conwy, Wales, when he was 11.

He picks us up from Chester, an English city close to the Welsh border, instead of the town Llandudno Junction, after a hiccup with train services from London.

On the road, I am kept awake by the sight of spring coming to life.

The landscape is dotted white with sheep, which outnumber the Welsh population by three to one. It is also the birthing season for sheep and their lambs, some just a few days old, are taking their first shaky steps.

As he drives, Mr Hadwin regales us with tales of Welsh folklore, from a mythical giant who used a mountain as his throne to a ghost of a playboy who haunts his mansion. Then there is the afanc, a sea monster which devours anyone who enters its lake. His stories are incredulous and, until now, I am still not sure of their veracity.

A considerate host-driver, Mr Hadwin takes us off the beaten track in his mini-van, stopping at remote spots to allow us to get out of the vehicle, soak in the crisp air and snap photographs of rolling hills and mountain vistas.

He explains the Welsh pride in rugby and football, their language with Celtic origins and their national flower, the daffodil. We learn about the country's distant past, from the Roman invasions and mediaeval kingdoms to the royal Tudor dynasty.

We learn more of the dark shades of historic conflict that lie beneath peaceful ruins on a tour of Conwy Castle, one of the castles built by King Edward I in the 13th century to subdue the Welsh.

Along with its 1.3km circuit of town walls, the castle made the Unesco World Heritage List in 1986 and it is easy to see why.

We climb the narrow stony steps and explore the royal chambers, the great hall and high towers. The watchtower affords a bird's-eye view of the surrounding town and the river beyond.

Conwy is one of the best preserved mediaeval towns in Europe, with more than 200 buildings that date from the 14th to 18th centuries. The castle itself is a prime example of military architecture of the time.

Its head custodian Roy Williams, 53, tells us that guides such as himself have to strike a fine balance in telling the stories of these relics, which are seen as symbols of oppression or conquest.

"We have to give two sides of the story, not just about the people (English settlers) in the town, but also the indigenous people outside. At the end of the day, we have to look at the flag flying up there and who won," he adds, pointing to the Welsh flag raised in triumph over the castle.

We stay at another World Heritage site, the town of Caernarfon, home to another of King Edward I's castles, which became a military and government stronghold.

We spend a few minutes admiring the fortress from across a river. Its architecture was inspired by the walls of Constantinople, the capital city of the Roman empire, and has an intimidating presence.

GASTRONOMIC DELIGHTS

Wales is not only a place of physical beauty and profound history, but its gastronomic offerings also rank alongside some of the best I have had.

My favourite meal is at The Hayloft in the heart of Conwy Valley, where we enjoy an £18 three-course meal. The two mains - pork belly and curried chicken - and a caramelised dessert do not disappoint.

The restaurant prides itself on using fresh Welsh produce. It is part of the Bodnant Food Centre (www.bodnant-welshfood.co.uk), which houses a cooking school, a tea room and a shop stocked with locally sourced food, among others.

There, we get a cooking demonstration by executive chef Andrew Sheridan, who shows us behind-the- scenes work, including the art of presenting ingredients on a slab of slate.

We also tuck into hearty meals at places such as Bryn Williams (portheirias.com), a beachfront bistro named after its chef, and a restaurant at The Black Boy Inn (www.black-boy-inn.com), where we stay for a night.

Food is remarkably good, from the famous Welsh rarebit - melted cheese and other ingredients such as mustard poured over toast - to Conwy mussels and steak. And it is not that costly - you can have a full meal for less than £20.

Along the way, we also taste single- malt Welsh whisky, produced in a distillery in the village of Penderyn.

Wales is more than just idyllic landscapes and historic towns that are picturesque sites of beauty. If you, like me, are seeking an escape from city life, it is the perfect fit.

What I love most about here is being on Llyn Padarn, in the middle of breathtaking scenery and looking at the rest of Wales from a distance, as if it is beckoning me, "welcome". Or "croeso", as the Welsh would say.

•The writer's trip was sponsored by VisitBritain.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 10, 2016, with the headline 'Wet, wild Wales'. Print Edition | Subscribe