The northern part of Wales is about royal castles and a number of other attractions.
You can cover all of the walled historical center of Conwy ♥ in about 45 minutes – it’s quite small. The High Street area is small-town pleasant, with interesting architecture and inviting boutiques, facing a bay with different tide levels at various parts of the day. We only looked at the main attractions from the street, bypassing Conwy Castle for its better preserved sibling at Caernarfon (see below), and eschewing exploration of the town walls because of a cold and windy weather. The castle, nonetheless, from outside looks as if having descended from an illustration in a book, while the walls are in a remarkably good state, literally enclosing the town.
We did visit Plas Mawr ♥, a merchant mansion of the 16th century, with several nicely presented rooms, including kitchen, attic, servants’ bedroom, mistress’ bedroom, etc. You can get an audioguide (included in the price of the ticket) or explore on your own, in which case a docent will be happy to volunteer some information. Remarkably, at the entrance, you are advised that you are completely free to use your camera to photograph things – this happened to me for the first time in my life in a house-museum.
Another little attraction is the Smallest House in Britain, on the quay, but we did not expect to see much inside, so we only passed by.
Lodging (and place to eat)
Hotel Castlebank ♥♥♥ is situated right outside town walls. Very accommodating proprietors; nicely appointed and furnished common areas, including a bar. The room size is what you would expect from a B&B, in pristine conditions, with modern TV/DVD combos (the DVD inventory can be found in the lounge, and the owner will happily provide you with your selection). Family room #8 has three beds that sleep four, and is not too tight.
There is also a PC with broadband connection in the lounge, at no extra charge.
The breakfast is of the traditional variety (fried eggs, bacon, sausages, grilled mushrooms, grilled tomatoes or a subset thereof, plus toast and coffee/tea), but there is also an additional buffet with cereals and fruits.
You also can have a dinner at the hotel ♥♥ – even if you are not staying there. The prix-fixe menu has four different starters and four different entrées, plus dessert, all of the highest quality. The owner was also the waiter and the bartender, which made the service the friendliest. Cost: £17.95 per person, not including drinks. Last stay: 2008.
Spectacular Caernarfon Castle ♥♥♥ is one in the ring of castles in Northern Wales that the English crown built at the end of the 13th century to keep their then recently conquered subjects – Welshmen – in check. You can climb its polygonal towers – the view from the tops is really good – or lose your children in the labyrinths of its passages. There is no furnishings in the interior quarters, but instead a couple of themed expositions that we skipped.
A movie theater in one of the towers shows a 20-minute film every half hour on the history of Wales and its northern castles. Very entertaining and educational – we highly recommend you take time to watch it.
In the sloping, irregularly shaped courtyard, there are several tents manned by traditional workmen (woodworker, basket-weaver, etc), who schmooze with tourists and showcase their skills. In addition, a costumed “original architect” of the castle walks around the compound with building plans and a sword on his belt, chatting up visitors. He and the workmen mostly speak as if it’s 13th century outside, which adds fun flavor to the atmosphere.
The artificial village of Portmeirion ♥ is a curious place to visit. It consists of a central piazza surrounded by several dozens of fanciful buildings in various styles, with a clear Italianate flavor. The village has no residents, but visitors can stay in some of its charming cottages (or at the luxurious hotel).
There are several boutiques selling souvenirs and crafts (local pottery is quite famous) around the piazza, but visiting Portmeirion is mostly about picture spots and imagining yourself in a Tyrrhenian sea coastal village.
Places to eat
Town Hall Café is a self-service eatery with enough selection but understandably cafeteria quality. It is rather perfect if you do not want to spend too much time on a lunch. Our damage: £32 for four people.
This place is famous for Llechwedd Slate Caverns, which provide insight into the traditional mining industry. There are two different tours that you can take around the quarries, plus a re-creation of a Victorian village and other attractions on the surface.
We selected the Deep Mine tour. It is not a cheap attraction (£32.50 for a family). Even in the off-season, in the late afternoon, we endured over 40 minutes of wait time to get on the incline railway to descend to the underground chambers (the cars take 15-20 people at a time and return for the next group in around 10 minutes). The tour takes you through ten chambers and consists of sketchy narration, accompanied by sound effects that recreate the atmosphere of a working quarry, while lights illuminate heretofore dark portions of each respective cavern, staged with props. There are a couple of impressive chambers, but there is also plenty of moments staring into the dark waiting for the narration to commence. You are back to the surface in less than half an hour. Quite disappointing.
The Miners Tramway tour description sounded less exciting, and no one in the ticket line before or after us was going for that…