The fast A55 motorway may mean that the North Wales coast is very accessible, but, fortunately, this hasn’t tamed the wilder aspects of this stunningly beautiful area. Without doubt, Snowdonia is the crowning glory of the region. A tightly packed bundle of soaring cliff faces, jagged peaks and plunging waterfalls, the area measures little more than ten miles by ten, but packs enough mountain paths to keep even the most jaded hiker happy for weeks. The folds of the mountains may reveal some atmospheric Welsh castle ruin or decaying piece of quarrying equipment while the lowlands are perfect for lakeside rambles and rides on antiquated steam trains.
Snowdonia is the heart of the massive Snowdonia National Park (Parc Cenedlaethol Eryri), which extends north and south, beyond the bounds of Snowdonia itself (and this chapter), to encompass the Rhinogs, Cadair Idris and 23 miles of superb coastal scenery. One of the best approaches to Snowdonia is along the Dee Valley, a fertile landscape much fought over between the Welsh and the English. There’s a tangibly Welsh feel to fabulous Llangollen, a great base for a variety of ruins, rides and rambles, as well as the venue for the colourful International Eisteddfod festival. Pressing on along the A5 – the region’s second main road – you hit the fringes of Snowdonia at Betws-y-Coed, which is slightly twee but great for gentle walks and mountain biking. As you head deeper into the park, old mining and quarry towns such as Beddgelert, Llanberis and Blaenau Ffestiniog make arguably better bases, while on the eastern fringes of Snowdonia, Bala tempts with whitewater rafting down the Tryweryn.
To the west of Snowdonia, the former slate port of Porthmadog is home to the quirky “village” of Portmeirion and two superb narrow-gauge steam railways: the Ffestiniog Railway and Welsh Highland Railway. Beyond lies the gentle rockiness of the Ll?n peninsula where Wales ends in a flourish of small coves and seafaring villages. Roads loop back along the Ll?n to Caernarfon, which is overshadowed by its stupendous castle, the mightiest link in Edward I’s Iron Ring of thirteenth-century fortresses across North Wales.
Two historic bridges span the picturesque Menai Strait between the mainland and the island of Anglesey, a gentle patchwork of beautiful beaches, ancient sites and Edward’s final castle in the handsome town of Beaumaris. Back on the mainland, the university and cathedral city of Bangor is the area’s most cosmopolitan haunt, while Conwy’s gritty castle and narrow streets huddle around a scenic quay. Victorian Llandudno is easily the best of the seaside resorts.