It’s a bit like being asked to pick your favourite child, but here are 10 highlights along The Coastal Way. Although we love every part of our coastline equally, obviously.
Tucked into a sheltered hook at the tip of the Llŷn Peninsula AONB, Abersoch has become a highly fashionable yachting resort. There’s a haut monde, moneyed feel to the place: beach huts here sell for more than the average house price in Gwynedd. It’s at its busiest during the August regatta week, held since 1881, when locals and visitors turn out for sailing, raft racing, crab catching and sandcastle contests. You can also hire all kinds of boats (pedalos and paddle boards included) from local sailing clubs.
Plas Glyn y Weddw
This Gothic Victorian mansion near Pwllheli was built in the 1850s to house the widowed Lady Elizabeth Love Jones Parry and her art collection. It was rescued from near-dereliction in the 1970/80s and restored into the superb Oriel Plas Glyn Y Weddw gallery, which shows lots of high-quality contemporary art. There’s also a café, open-air theatre, woodland walks, and you can stay in considerable luxury in the rear wing.
Criccieth is in a perfect spot for a castle: perched on a headland between two beaches. The original was built by Llywelyn the Great, added to by Edward I, and finally set on fire by Owain Glyndŵr in his 1404 rebellion. In nearby Llanystumdwy the Lloyd George Memorial Museum celebrates the village’s most famous son, the statesman David Lloyd George.
Portmeirion’s a magical place. The exquisite Italianate Portmeirion Village, tucked neatly into a headland overlooking the River Dwyryd, made a fittingly surreal location for cult 1960s TV series The Prisoner. It’s a hugely popular day-trip – and even better if you stay overnight, because you’ll have the whole place to yourself once the day visitors have gone home.
The sea has retreated since Harlech Castle was built in the late 1200s, which makes it look slightly marooned on its rocky plinth, but this impregnable beast is still one of the best medieval castles anywhere. A new bridge has made access easy, and connected the castle with a new visitor centre that has five luxury apartments for hire. The famous song Men of Harlech commemorates an epic siege in the 1460s, when the castle held out for seven years, the longest siege in British history.
Continuing down the coast, Barmouth was a hard-working, ship-building, slate-exporting port until 19th century tourists took a shine to its mountains-meet-sea charms. Nowadays it’s southern Snowdonia’s most popular resort, with big beaches and splendid views up the Mawddach Estuary. All the traditional seaside draws are present and correct, including penny-push amusements and donkey rides.
Into Ceredigion now, and Aber, as we call it, is a proper pier-and-prom Georgian/Victorian resort, with the added bonus of a thriving university and the Aberystwyth Arts Centre. There’s lots to do/see in the town itself, including the Aberystwyth Cliff Railway up Constitution Hill to gawp at the camera obscura, the priceless treasures of the National Library of Wales, Ceredigion Museum and the Vale of Rheidol Railway. When walking the prom, local custom obliges you to kick the bar at the north end.
Imagine your great-gran took up snowboarding, and turned out to be really rather good at it. Cardigan’s a bit like that. It’s an old fishing port with impeccable Welsh roots: in 1176 the first eisteddfod (a gathering of bards and musicians) was held in Cardigan Castle, and there’s still a traditional Welsh feel to the town. But it’s also got a very modern, free-thinking streak. There’s still an annual eisteddfod, but also the festival-of-ideas DO Lectures (run by the people who make top-end Hiut denim here). The fforest family runs yet more left-field holidays/events, and makes wood-fired pizza on the quayside.
Most of our harbour towns grew organically around natural creeks and inlets over centuries, but Aberaeron was built from scratch in the early 1800s. A fine set of Regency buildings line the harbour, made all the prettier by their patchwork paint jobs. The most striking is the indigo Harbourmaster, which pioneered a Modern Welsh movement of artsy gastropubs-with-rooms. It’s a busy little town, especially during the Cardigan Bay Seafood Festival in July and Festival of Welsh Ponies and Cobs in August.
On the westernmost tip of Wales, St Davids is the smallest city (pop. 1,600) in Britain. Our patron saint’s cathedral is built on the site of a monastery he founded in the 6th century, and stands in a hollow alongside the picturesque ruins of the Bishop's Palace.
The town’s surrounded by epic coastline on three sides, whose highlights include Whitesands (great surfing/family beach), Porthclais (tiny Roman harbour) and Ramsay Island (boat trips to and around this wildlife island sanctuary).
This whole stretch of coast is incredibly rich in wildlife. Britain’s biggest pod of dolphins spends the summer in Cardigan Bay, centred around New Quay. The rockier coasts of Llŷn and Pembrokeshire are especially good for seal-spotting. There are ospreys at Glaslyn and the Dyfi Wildlife Centre. You can walk among puffins on the island sanctuary of Skomer. RSPB Ynys-hir and the Welsh Wildlife Centre are just two of the many superb nature reserves along the way.