We begin in the Borderlands, just 20 minutes from Chester.
You know immediately that you’re in another country with its own pace of life, traditions, language, food, and… well, it’s just different, in a good way. Like going abroad, but not, if you see what we mean!
Explore North Wales
Explore some of the many attractions hidden among the foothills of southern Britain’s highest peak. The Llŷn Peninsula is the place for watersports and wild beaches, while Anglesey is a mini-country of its own, with yet more beaches, castles, country houses and family attractions. We stop at Conwy and Llandudno, two of the north’s finest towns, before heading home on the A55 Expressway, the 80-mile artery that makes travelling the north coast a doddle.
Morning: Chirk Castle
The border between England and Wales has the richest concentration of castles in the world, and considering they were often built to keep us uppity Welsh in check, it’s ironic that we’ve now adopted them as beloved tourism attractions. Chirk Castle is a great example: built 700 years ago as part of Edward I’s ‘ring of steel’, it evolved into a Welsh stately home and is now in the care of the National Trust. The clipped yew hedges have something of the In The Night Garden about them, and there’s also a children’s play area, giant-sized family puzzles on the lawn and, if you want to stay, three self-catering cottages on the estate (Home Farm Cottage, Ty’r Stocman and The House By the Dyke).
Llangollen is barely seven miles from the border, but with a name like that, you know for sure you’re in Wales. It’s a swarthily handsome place, built on a major crossing of the River Dee, whose white waters boils picturesquely through the town centre, often with expert canoeists showing off their skills. Anyone can try rafting, though, and several companies run thrilling rafting expeditions here, along with other adventure sports, wet and dry.
Betws y Coed is Snowdonia’s main road hub, but this pretty town is much more than just a picturesque crossroads. It’s great just for mooching around, and there are good, short-ish walks up to Llyn Elsi, or down to the Swallow Falls. Did you bring your mountain bikes? If so, from here your family can do a tactical split: bikers can jump on the train down to Antur Stiniog at Blaenau Ffestiniog, where Wales’ newest mountain biking centre has been carved from the slate-mining moonscape. Younger children and non-bikers will enjoy a trip to pretty Beddgelert, where they can seek the grave of Gelert, a legendary hound whose tragic tale is either, a) totally true, or b) totally made up by a 19th-century innkeeper to lure tourists. We’re not saying which.
After mountain biking, take the steam-powered Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways – they’ve usually got space for bikes, but do ring first – down to Minffordd, the nearest station to Portmeirion, an extraordinary Italianate fantasy village made famous by the surreally sinister 1960s TV series, The Prisoner. It’s a lovely place to spend an afternoon, and better still if you stay there: they’ve got Hotel Portmeirion to choose from or 17 self-catering cottages. When the day-trippers have gone home, and the sun sets over the estuary, with the mountains looming behind, there’s really no place like it on earth.
Morning: Llŷn Peninsula
The Llŷn Peninsula has almost 100 miles of coastline, with dozens of beaches and coves to choose from. The south coast offers the region’s best watersports, notably at Abersoch, while the north and western coasts are wilder and more rugged. Do stop for a walk on the ‘whistling sands’ of Porth Oer, which squeak as you walk on them (it’s one of only two beaches in Europe with this special type of sand). Then head for lunch at Caernarfon, home to the magnificent Caernarfon Castle and the Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways, which steams down to Porthmadog along Snowdon’s western flanks.
You could easily spend a fortnight exploring Anglesey’s coast, but we’re just doing the bit along Menai Strait down to Llanddwyn Island (which is arguably Wales’ most romantic spot, with a lighthouse and ruined chapel dedicated to the Welsh patron saint of love). On the way, take your pick between Plas Newydd country house, Anglesey Sea Zoo and Foel Farm, before heading back up the Strait to Beaumaris, which has another whopper of a castle, as well as some great shops and restaurants.
Morning: Conwy and Llandudno
Conwy is another classic castle with the added bonus of being set in a classic medieval walled town. It’s a chic, likeable town, with a lively River Festival every summer. Just along the coast, Great Orme is the perfect place for a family muck-around, with a tramway or cable car to the summit, and lots to do when you get there: visitor centre, nature reserve, pitch ‘n’ putt golf, play area, ski slope, and stunning views over Llandudno. Carry on a bit further and you reach the Welsh Mountain Zoo at Colwyn Bay, whose exotic species include snow leopards, chimpanzees, red pandas and Sumatran tigers.