Whether zipping through the air at 160kph, bouncing in a speedboat at 40 knots, or exploring the dream-like Italianate village of Portmeirion, North Wales is a revelation, and just a short ferry trip away.
In Ireland, Wales can sometimes seem fly-over, or drive-through, country, but this does an injustice to some of the loveliest and most interesting parts of these islands.
My previous experiences of Wales date to the days before Ryanair, when you’d doze fitfully on a bus from London, till you arrived in a darkened Welsh port to board a ferry - which always smelled of diesel and booze - for a sea-tossed nightmare till another bus brought you bleary-eyed home next morning to Cork.
A recent trip aboard Stena Line’s luxurious ferry Adventurer showed how times have changed, and what an unexpected treasure is Wales.
A highlight of my visit was a high-speed rigid inflatable boat (RIB) safari along the Menai Strait separating the island of Anglesey from the Welsh mainland. With skippers Christian and Charles Harris, we set out on the stretch called the Swellies, passing beneath Thomas Telford’s 1826 Menai Suspension Bridge and Robert Stephenson’s 1850 Britannia Bridge.
By Ynys Gored Goch, Red Weir Island – a 400-year-old fish trap - we spied a well-fed grey seal enjoying the strait’s all-you-can-eat fish buffet.
We stopped at Moel Y Don, a stony slipway once a ferry-point for the Llanidan Ferry, for a foraged picnic prepared lovingly from natural ingredients by self-described hedge-witch Jules Cooper. Jules quit her job and moved to Anglesey in 2010, where she embraced her Romani heritage. Michelin star chefs wouldn’t hold a candle to Jules’ cooking, and her wild garlic, dandelion and chickweed pakoras and seaweed popcorn deserve international fame.
It was warm in the sun, as we ate, and tiny pink flowers twined around upright fenceposts, pillars of slate from Dinorwig quarry, as seagulls screeched and wheeled across the bay from Y Felinheli’s brightly-coloured mainland seafront, where fishing boats and yachts share mooring along the dock.
Resuming our journey, we headed to Ynys Llanddwyn, the tidal island of Wales’ patron saint of lovers, St Dwynwen, where cormorants, shag, and terns stand guard along stratified layers of jutting volcanic rock.
Our home journey was exciting, bouncing along on the Irish Sea at 40 knots, which is about 80kph, but on the water feels a lot faster. Magically, we were escorted for a while by a pod of dolphins.
If holding on for dear life as your RIB performs doughnuts in the open water at white-knuckle velocities sounds a bit tame to you, perhaps Zip World is more your speed.
Located at Penrhyn Quarry, 11km from Bangor on the Welsh mainland, at 1,555 metres in length it’s Europe’s longest zip line. The drive in a decommissioned army truck up the mountainside to the 150-metre-high launch point takes almost 20 minutes, and the view is panoramic, but the finishing point far below, across an impossibly blue-green postage-stamp-sized lake, looks frighteningly tiny.
It’s not cheap for a minute-and-a-half’s excitement; each package costs up to £99 (€115). But even if you have a good head for heights, there will come a point as you hurtle head-first across the lake, the slate-strewn shoreline approaching at 160kph, that you will wonder briefly at the proximity of the next life.
An odder, gentler experience awaits 56km south of Penrhyn Quarry. There is an otherworldly quality to Portmeirion, the tourist village located on the estuary of the River Dwyryd, 3km south-east of Porthmadog.
A strange and very beautiful place with its own sub-tropical micro-climate, Portmeirion was the life’s work of Welsh architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, who designed and built it between 1925 and 1975. Creating it in the style of an Italian village, Williams-Ellis planned Portmeirion in such a way as to complement its natural surroundings.
The village’s fairy-tale beauty, and the way the light plays across its higgledy-piggledy streets and steps, have made it a popular filming location. Most famously, Portmeirion was the setting for the cult 1967 British TV show The Prisoner, and in 1976 it doubled for Renaissance Italy in the Doctor Who serial “The Masque of Mandragora”.
Noël Coward wrote Blithe Spirit there, and H.G. Welles visited, as did George Bernard Shaw, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. The Beatles were regular visitors, and George Harrison celebrated his 50th birthday in Portmeirion in 1993. Jools Holland is such a fan he had portions of his studio modelled after the village.
Clough Williams-Ellis, an eccentric visionary whose collection of identical tweed-jacket-and-plus-fours outfits meant he need never worry about what to wear, realised in his lifetime his dream of an Italian village nestled on the Welsh shoreline. He died, in 1978, at the age of 94. Two decades later, per his wishes, his ashes were spread in a New Year’s fireworks display high over his beloved home.
Portmeirion is now owned by a charitable trust, and is one of North Wales’ star attractions, drawing in excess of 200,000 visitors every year. It’s a hugely popular wedding destination, and also, in the evenings, when the day-trade has gone, a dream-like, ghostly home for those lucky enough to stay in Portmeirion’s self-catering cottages.
North Wales is a revelation, a place of great beauty and charm, comfortingly similar to home and yet refreshingly different. Three-and-a-half short and very comfortable hours away on the ferry, it merits repeat return visits.
My visit to North Wales was organised by Stena Line, Visit Wales, and Adventure Tours UK, a company catering for private and corporate groups. www.adventuretoursuk.com Stena Line is the largest ferry operator on the Irish Sea, offering a total of 232 weekly sailing options. Lead-in fare Dublin to Holyhead is €89 car + driver. https://www.stenaline.ie/ Ribride: Daily tours from Menai Bridge. Castle and Islands tour, two-hour trip: Adult ticket £45, child ticket £35. www.ribride.co.uk Jules Cooper, Hedge-witch: www.hedgewitch.wales Zip World: https://www.zipworld.co.uk/location/penrhyn-quarry Portmeirion: Adult day passes from £11, family passes from £21.
To stay in Portmeirion: 00 44 1766 770000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. https://portmeirion.wales/