If you’re coming to Carmarthenshire on holiday, then congratulations. You have great taste. Okay, I’m biased. I grew up here, and now I’ve got children of my own, I love taking them to the places I loved as a kid. So if you were coming to stay, here’s where I’d take you...
Carreg Cennen Castle
Carreg Cennen Castle is the first place we take visitors, and they’re always wowed. Something to do with the spectacular clifftop location and 60-mile panoramic views, maybe.
The original castle was built by Lord Rhys, Prince of Deheubarth, in the late 12th century, although most of what’s left is Norman. Amusingly, the castle was acquired by a local farming family when it was sold by Lord Cawdor in the 1960s: his legal team mistakenly included the castle as part of the farm. There’s a rare-breed farm and tea room at the foot of the hill, where you can hire a torch to explore the secret tunnel that leads down to a freshwater spring beneath the castle.
Millennium Coastal Park
When we fancy a family cycle trip, here’s where we go: the purpose-built 12-mile (19km) Millennium Coastal Park. Take the cycle path along the Burry Estuary, with the WWT Llanelli Wetland Centre at one end, and Pembrey Country Park at the other, where there are loads of adventure activities, including mini golf and a dry ski slope, next to Cefn Sidan’s vast sands.
By the way, if you’re into mountain biking, head for Brechfa; if you’re a Lycra-clad road warrior, give the Tywi Tour route a go. And in future, look out for the Tywi Valley Path, a 16-mile (26km) traffic-free cycle route between Carmarthen and Llandeilo. It'll be fantastic when it's finished.
RSPB Gwenffrwd Dinas has an ideal family walk: a glorious two-mile (3km) stroll along the wooded river banks, with an optional scramble up to Tŵm Sion Cati’s cave, the supposed hideout of a roguish Welsh folk hero. The spot where two fast-flowing young rivers Tywi and Doethie meet underneath a towering hill is, to me, the single loveliest place on Earth.
Llyn y Fan Fach
Fancy a longer walk? The Black Mountain marks the western edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park, where the vast Carmarthen Fans escarpments plunge into Llyn y Fan Fach, home of the legendary Lady of the Lake. It’s the least-visited of the Beacon’s three main ranges, and all the better for it. There’s also a lovely scenic drive nearby: the A4069 ‘Top Gear’ mountain road between Llangadog and Brynamman is a twisty, swoopy classic.
Heart of Wales Railway
The friendly little trains on the Heart of Wales Railway scurry up from Swansea to Shrewsbury on one of the most scenic routes in Britain. It’s a great place to appreciate how the landscape of Carmarthenshire changes from its estuarine beginnings around Llanelli, up through the Amman Valley coalfields, into the classic farming country of the Tywi Valley, finally plunging into a mountain tunnel by the Sugar Loaf, and onward to Powys.
If you're feeling energetic, you can walk the whole route in various sections using the train to get to start and end points. Find out more on the Heart of Wales Trails webpage.
When Dylan Thomas called Laugharne 'the strangest town in Wales' he meant it kindly. He was dead right, mind: it’s a faintly otherworldly place, set perfectly on the estuary, hardly altered in 50 years, and a great place to wander around the Dylan-related trails, ending with a pint at Brown's Hotel (where Dylan himself sank a good few).
The London press started calling Llandeilo 'the cool capital of Carmarthenshire', which I knew all along, being from there (*smirk*). But it is the county’s best town for just poking around boutiques, galleries and antiques shops. The food’s good at The Cawdor. It’s set prettily on a hill. Dinefwr Castle is a short walk from town, and it’s great. Go during one of the town’s burgeoning festivals.
When I was in school, Ammanford was our deadliest local rival. They were miners, we were farmers. When we met on the rugby pitch, it wasn’t pretty. The decline of the coal industry hit Ammanford hard, but I’m a huge fan of Coaltown Coffee’s crusade to bring a bit of Brooklyn hipster chic to a hometown that they love – and of their roastery canteen, which is a terrific place for cake.
National Botanic Garden of Wales
Hmm … I can’t decide between two neighbouring gardens. Firstly there’s the National Botanic Garden of Wales, where the world’s biggest single-span glasshouse looks like an alien mothership has crash-landed into the middle of some rural idyll (but in a good way).
Then there’s Aberglasney, a perfect set of restored 15th-century gardens on the other side of the valley. Oh, you decide. Either way, go for lunch at Wright's, an old coaching inn that lures far-flung foodies to Llanarthne.
It’s not as glam as Carreg Cennen and Dinefwr, but I’ve got soft spot for Dryslwyn Castle. It doesn’t look much from down on the valley floor, but when you climb up to the top of the mound on which it sits, everything changes. There’s a whole medieval village layout up there, and stonking views of the Tywi Valley and the picturesque folly Paxton's Tower.