Wales trip - early planning stages

I'm in the very early stages of planning a two-week trip to Wales that could possibly take place this September but most likely will be either May or September 2014. I plan to spend 8 days in the south with train/bus pass (extremely economical) and then 6 days with a rental car in the north (Anglesey, Snowdonia, etc). I have read through most of the previous posts on Wales and have done lots of research, all of which has served to make it harder for me to narrow my sightseeing 'wishes'. I'm looking for some opinions from those who have been there regarding the following: 1 – Given your choice would you prefer traveling in May or September (to Wales specifically, not generally). 2 – Since 14 days is not nearly enough to see everything, help me narrow down the best: castles religious sites – cathedrals/abbeys/ruins (major interest of mine) ancient sites natural areas scenic train routes (narrow gauge?) I love trains quaint or unique villages/towns/cities. When I say 'best' I'm asking specifically for your personal opinions. I trust the posters on this forum and I value their insights.
I've been to Europe several times and have seen lots of the tourist sites so I'm looking for things unique to Wales. I love architecture, nature and scenic areas, photography, and I'm particularly interested in Celtic history and traditions. Thanks in advance for any and all suggestions.

Posted by Ed
Pensacola
7953 posts

First, I'd have to disagree with your transportation idea. A small rental car costs less than twenty-five bucks a day, gas is not cheap, but Wales is small so you'd be hard-pressed to burn through twenty-five gallons in a couple of weeks. Even in the south, the rail system is a bunch of dead-ends and bus service isn't that frequent. If you land in London and start driving, it's three hours to the Severn Bridge. From Manchester (smaller airport, easy driving) it's an hour and a half to Conwy. Early May or late September are about equal. Anything in between can get a bit crowded, especially along the south coast. Were I forced to pick, it'd be September. Two weeks is a lot so you shouldn't have to miss much. There's no bad scenery, but some of the best areas are the Wye Valley, the northern portion of the Pembrokshire Coast Path, Snowdonia, the Brecon Beacons, and the whole damn middle along the old drover trails. Wales isn't the place for large religious buildings, but in your case, Tinturn would be a must. An hour in the ruins is probably enough. You'll see small churches and cemeteries all over the place, no sense trying to track them down. A day in Cardiff itself is probably enough. Take the harbor tour, visit the National Museum (especially for the Celtic aspect) and wander a bit. Skip the castle, it's not worth the walk across the grounds. For discussion I'll use a clockwise route starting at the Severn Bridge and keyed to the best of the castles. Work excursions off of it for megalithic sites, scenery, etc.

Posted by Ed
Pensacola
7953 posts

Chepstow, Caerphilly, Kidwelly, Pembroke, Harlech, Caernarfon, Beaumaris, Conwy. The Wye is at Chepstow, the PCP near Pembroke, and the Snowdonia railroads are twixt Harlech and Caernarfon. Castell Hennlys (Pembrokshire) is an excellent example of an Iron Age fort complete with interpretive archaeologists. Other hill forts are scattered around, but a lot require some pretty strenuous ascents - - take a good squint at a contour map before you add them to your list. Megalithic sites are all over the place, you'll stumble across menhirs once you learn to spot them. For a comprehensive discussion/list/encyclopedia, take a look at the Megalithic Portal. Castle wales.com has a similar treatment of castles. As far as the small railroads go, I've ridden neither but have walked the length of both roadbeds and couldn't choose between the two for scenery. There'd be some danger in booking ahead, however, since they can get clouded in. Going back to the route, the last segment would be down the middle from Conwy through Newton, Llandrindod Wells, Builth, and back to Cardiff. It doesn't matter which way you run the circle except for maybe catching the Cardiff museum early on. Next question?

Posted by Nancy
Corvallis OR
959 posts

@Ed, thanks for all the good information. I'll be flying in from Island of Jersey to either Bristol or Cardiff and starting from there. I suppose I could rent a car for the whole 14 days if the trains and buses are really that bad. The main reason for not renting a car for the whole time is because I'll be traveling alone and get tired of always doing all the driving - did it for a month in France last summer. Sometimes I like to sit back and let it happen rather than always being in total control, if you know what I mean. Next question: If I were to pick 2 or 3 bases to stay for 4-5 nights each and do day trips from there, what would be your suggestions for towns or countryside places to stay? I don't need a lot of restaurants or nightlife, just nice place to spend the night, but a somewhat lively atmosphere would be nice. Anybody else have experience with the scenic railways in Wales?

Posted by Ed
Pensacola
7953 posts

Good stopping nodes would be Cardiff, Pembroke Docks, and Caernarvon. Everything except Harlech would be reachable in well under an hour from these three spots. The two castles I would not skip are Harlech and little Chepstow. Harlech would make a nice stop between Pembrokshire an Caernarvon. I don't think I've ever driven more than a couple of hours at a time in Wales - - either there's too much to see or you keep bumping into water or England. Most of my time in Wales is solo - - i hike, my wife doesn't. The driving is easy and the roads uncrowded once you get past the Cardiff/Newport area. Both Bristol and Cardiff are easy airports. From either, you'd have to make the little jog to the north of the Severn Bridge to get to Chepstow, Tinturn, and the lower Wye. The trouble with not having a car, besides not having access to the souther scenic areas is that many sights are a good hump from stations/stops and you'd spend a half day working at one castle, for example, while even the best ones only require a couple hours (unless you get side-tracked at the regimental museum at Caernarvon).

Posted by Beth
Pflugerville, TX
1 posts

Several years ago, we stayed at a B&B in Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, and it was wonderful. It was about 2 hours by car to Caernarfon. One of the most beautiful things we saw while in Wales was near there- Pistyll Rhaeadr - the tallest single-drop waterfall in the UK. Amazing site (and COLD water in May... I fell into the pool at the bottom). I think that the B&B that we stayed at has closed (or was sold to someone else), but there is another one that is open. Another "not on the normal tour" site we visited near there was St. Melangell's Church, near the village of Llangynog- the oldest surviving Romanesque shrine in northern Europe, having a church on site for at least 1200 years, and there may have been a druid worship site there prior to that. One more bit of Llanrhaeadr trivia- the movie The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain was filmed, in part, in Llanrhaeadr. That's actually why we decided to stay there as opposed to somewhere else in Wales. Weird, but true. My family is actually planning a trip to England for December (crazy, but that's the plan). We are going to Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant so that our sons can experience it.