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Wales Is the Only Country in the World With Walking Paths Along Its Entire Coastline

Last year, the Welsh Affairs Committee noted in a House of Commons report that of the 41 million “international holidaymakers” who visited the U.K. in 2019, just 1 million went to Wales. “Marketing of Wales must be stronger,” the report noted, “with a clear theme devised to attract international tourists based on Wales’s unique strengths and attractions.”

From left: The Wales Coast Path as it passes the town of Mwnt; Mwnt Beach, near the town of Cardigan, as seen from the Wales Coastal Path.

Julian Broad

Poor branding has long troubled the country. In her excellent 2023 memoir, “The Long Field,” Pamela Petro, an American who fell hard for Wales, notes that this small country, which “clung to the periphery of Europe and the margins of history,” was often defined by what it was not. Starting with its very name: “Wales is actually an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘place of the others’ or ‘place of the Romanized foreigners.’” Britain’s flag tells a similarly othering story: Wales is the sole U.K. country not represented on the Union Jack.

Even its most famous travel narrative — George Borrow’s 1862 tome “Wild Wales” — speaks to this exclusion. “Wales is a country interesting in many respects,” the book opens, “and deserving of more attention than it has hitherto met with.” Borrow, a polyglot Englishman and occasional travel writer, also just happened to lay out a strong brand identity: “Though not very extensive, it is one of the most picturesque countries in the world, a country in which Nature displays herself in her wildest, boldest, and occasionally loveliest forms.”

The Afon Pryson, a river in Eryri National Park.

Julian Broad

I decided I would take my wife and daughter on a tour of Wales — a place I, like so many others, had never been — to experience this lovely and bold nature. And so I began reading, with increasing excitement, of what was to come. I learned that almost a fifth of the country is covered by national parks (compared with roughly three percent of the U.S.), and there is chatter about “rewilding.” Heights are a common theme: clambering up peaks, careening down zip lines, bombing down flowing mountain-bike tracks. But there is the ocean, too. Wales is the only country in the world with walking paths along its entire coastline. There are stunningly scenic, hardly crowded beaches, and any number of surf breaks.

And one of my favorite facts, one that was to feature in a number of ways: there are more sheep than people.

Taking in a view of the Bannau Brycheiniog mountains.

Julian Broad

Wales has just one motorway, the M4. Beyond that are a number of main roads, and then smaller local roads, and then, eventually, a spidery network of shockingly narrow lanes. Already tight for one car, they are expected to sometimes — and with great ceremony — handle two. Worsening matters are the high, verdant hedges on either side. “Pembrokeshire walls,” the gardener at a nursery called them, and they were unavoidable. “You should see when the cow parsley’s in bloom,” she said. “Then they really make the lane seem small.” I tried to embrace the slow-travel spirit of it all; a mile of Welsh lane held more adventure than half a day on a U.S. interstate highway.

And one of my favorite facts, one that was to feature in a number of ways: There are more sheep than people.

We were a bit road-jangled when we arrived at the Grove of Narberth, a lovely pastoral inn restored by Welsh hoteliers Neil and Zoe Kedward. The main house dates back to the 17th century, but the adjacent outbuildings — look for the arrow slits in the walls — go back as far as the 15th century. There were fresh-cut flowers, sleepy dogs at their owners’ feet in the library, and an afternoon tea set before us in the Artisan Brasserie.

From left: A glamping hut at Plas Weunydd, a hotel near Eryri National Park, in Wales; Antur Stiniog, a mountain-biking park.

Julian Broad

Fueled by buttermilk scones and black Assam tea, we set out to stretch our legs and clear our heads. A short drive away, down farm tracks with signs announcing duck eggs and tractor pull, we arrived at the trailhead of the Bosherston Lily Ponds, a National Trust–managed park featuring a series of man-made lakes dotted with the eponymous aquatic plants. A half-hour’s walk brought us to Broad Haven South Beach, which was populated only by a small pod of surfers. We picked up the Pembrokeshire section of the coastal path, and after a hike up gorse-lined limestone cliffs to a vast, treeless tableau, we were rewarded with an epic view of the Bristol Channel. We luxuriated in the fact that we were wearing jackets (high temperature for July 2: 63 degrees) as a heat wave raged at home.

Preparing for a ride at Antur Stiniog.

Julian Broad

The next morning, we were doing more than looking at rocky cliffs — we were on them, and occasionally jumping off them into the frothing ocean, at Pembrokeshire’s Abereiddy Beach, a popular spot on St. Davids Peninsula, the westernmost point of Wales. Our host was Cleo Browne, owner of Celtic Quest Coasteering, a local outfitter. Coasteering, a portmanteau of coast and mountaineering, is a kind of intertidal frolicking, born amid the dramatic volcanic cliffs of Wales (don’t worry, none of Wales’s volcanoes are active anymore).

“Coasteering is everything you’re usually not allowed to do around water,” she told us cheerfully after we’d donned wet suits and helmets, sneakers and life vests, and waded into the chilly waters. Like seals we would swim, pausing to look at translucent moon jellies and compass jellyfish (“It’s like nettles,” Browne said when I asked if they stung). We would paddle into caves, look for critters in rocky tide pools, clamber out of the water and up slabs of volcanic rock studded with limpets, then fling ourselves off in a variety of positions — including a no-hands dive called the “penguin,” which I botched with face-slapping intensity.

A salad of cauliflower, beets, feta, and potatoes at Crwst, a Cardigan bakery.

Julian Broad

We drifted into Abereiddy’s famous “Blue Lagoon,” a deep, aquamarine-tinged quarry — one cliff wall breached years ago, forming an ocean inlet. Browne pointed to white markings high on the rock. “That’s where they had the platforms for the Red Bull cliff-diving championships,” she noted. Thankfully, our launch point was leagues lower. After a small jump off a stone ledge, we moved to the top of an old quarry structure that overlooks the lagoon. I opted out, leaving my daughter standing on a high granite wall, looking like a damsel in distress. Browne shouted, “You can do it, Sylvie!” But my wife shouted, “You don’t have to do it, Sylvie!” Sylvie jumped, to applause from picnickers across the lagoon.

While I am usually not one to seek out these random, impromptu conversations, they kept happening in Wales — a country the size of New Jersey with one-third the population.

We headed toward the beach town of St. Davids for lunch. But not far away from Abereiddy, on the Llanrhian Road, I caught a sign, rendered in a seductive typeface, that said plants/garden/farm shop/café. They pretty much had us at plants, but café sealed the deal. Perennial, as it is called, was an auspicious choice, and soon we were tucking in to sandwiches of Caerphilly cheese and chutney in an exquisitely rendered garden. Near the cash register, I spied a sign for a lost African grey parrot. “We’re afraid he may have been eaten,” the woman behind the counter told me. As we kept chatting, we were soon joined by the cook, who chimed in that he’d seen it a few days after it was reported missing. Our meal had suddenly turned into a memorial for a stray bird. 

From left: A bedroom in an Onsen Dome at Fforest Farm; inside a guest room at Albion Aberteifi, a hotel in Cardigan.

Julian Broad

While I am usually not one to seek out these random, impromptu conversations, they kept happening in Wales — a country the size of New Jersey with one-third the population. Later, in the quaint redoubt of St. Davids (Britain’s smallest “city” — it gets called that because it has a cathedral), we were looking at gorgeous Welsh wool blankets in the gallery Studio 6. Made by the mill Melin Tregwynt, they had tags listing the people who’d woven them. We came across one whose color scheme had been inspired by Abereiddy’s Blue Lagoon, which seemed fateful. After more prolonged chat, we bought it.

Weeks later, I would get an email from a friend in New York, who’d heard from her friend — a native of St. Davids — that we’d been in her friend’s shop and bought a blanket.

From left: Coasteering participant Alex Dickinson at Abereiddy Beach; strawberries at the Grove of Narberth.

Julian Broad

In our quest for Wild Wales, we were supposed to have been at the bottom of Cardigan Bay, snorkeling for spider crabs with James Lynch. But with strong winds whipping the seas into a murky bouillabaisse, we were, instead, eating king prawns and drinking artisanal gin on the terrace of Albion Aberteifi, one of the hotels that Lynch owns. The refurbished former warehouse (circa 1745) fronts the river in the town of Cardigan, about an hour’s drive north of St. Davids.

Decades ago, Lynch was an art-school graduate in London who happened into property development when he bought a building — “I made studios for all my mates in the creative industries,” he told me — in not-yet-fashionable Shoreditch. Years later, on family vacations to western Wales, he would feel a similar entrepreneurial twitch in Cardigan, which, at the time, he said, “was very inexpensive and a bit neglected.” In 2009, Lynch and his wife, Sian Tucker, opened Fforest Farm, a sort of Welsh glamping fantasia, on a big plot of land that once held an Iron Age settlement. A decade on, “Cardi” is on the upswing, its attractive riverside streets filled with restaurants like the Lynch-owned Pizzatipi, the Michelin-recommended Yr Hen Printworks, and the excellent bakery Crwst (pronounced “croost”).

From left: Broad Haven South Beach; the sitting room at Grove of Narberth.

Julian Broad

Lynch calls Fforest a “diffuse hotel,” meaning the rooms are spread across multiple buildings. As such, it doesn’t announce itself as a hotel. We entered a remote parking lot, where grazing sheep were our only company. After a long but pleasant walk, we made it to one of Fforest’s newish Onsen Domes. These spacious, canvas-covered geodesic domes are each connected to a small cedar bathroom and, just outside, a Japanese-style soaking tub. I felt like I was in a Terrence Malick film, with red-tinged rye fields all around shimmering in the summer haze, the pointy tops of canvas tents peeking through copses, and a generally dreamy atmosphere.

We took advantage of the walking paths on offer: to Cardigan itself, through the Teifi marshes, and to nearby Cilgerran Castle, the famed home of William Marshal, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, which is perched dramatically above the river Teifi. A National Trust property, Cilgerran was for centuries in a state of romantic ruin — one of many castles in a land with more per square mile than anywhere in the world — and visited by J.M.W. Turner and other artists. We went to the staggeringly beautiful Mwnt (pronounced “moont”) Beach, where we climbed Foel y Mwnt hill, which rises nearly 250 feet above the sand. 

From left: The Albion Aberteifi hotel, in Cardigan; the bar at Albion Aberteifi.

Julian Broad

One afternoon, we drove to Llys-y-frân Lake, a park and reservoir managed by the utility Welsh Water, and rode beautiful, scarcely populated trails on rented bikes. Next came surfing, for which we repaired to Poppit Sands beach for a session with Kwame Salam, an ebullient instructor whose Tonic Surf project specializes in the therapeutic aspects of surfing. The waves were not epic (as a surf-shop manager told me, “Good waves and good weather don’t go together in Wales”), but we had the beach to ourselves. After, we replenished with cheese toasties and honey ice cream at the Poppit Sands branch of Crwst.

From Cardigan, we pressed on to North Wales, a region of high, craggy peaks and moody weather, the historic center of Welsh coal mining and slate quarrying and the home of Eryri, the huge national park formerly known as Snowdonia. (It was renamed as part of a general thrust toward promoting Welsh language and culture.) We arrived at Plas Weunydd, a hotel that opened in 2021 in the 19th-century home of John Whithead Greaves, an Englishman who was headed to Canada to find his fortune when he detoured into Welsh slate (used, among other things, for roof tiles). The hotel sits at the foot of rolling mountains, in the former slate-mining region that has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. (Blaenau Ffestiniog, the closest village, is known as the “town that roofed the world.”) Slate roofing was eventually superseded by other, less expensive materials. While there’s still money in recycling the remaining heaps of lower-quality slate for use in gardens and the like, much of the site has been turned over to outdoor recreation, and now has a zipline park and a downhill mountain-bike course.

From left: The gardens at the Grove of Narberth hotel, in Pembrokeshire; the entrance to a “Garden Shac” cottage at Fforest Farm, near Cardigan.

Julian Broad

Our destination was not the hotel itself, attractive as it was, but its new glamping huts, which were situated up on a high plateau near Barylwd Lake (reached after a panoramic 10-minute drive in an electric golf cart). Our accommodation was a pair of retro-style small houses with cozy interiors on metal wheels. It was just us, the wind, and the sheep. Early one morning, I was awakened by a thumping sound. It seemed too early for the daily service visit. Later, the hotel clerk told me the woolly neighbors do get a bit curious: “They unplugged the power at one hut.” (The staff retrofitted it against further ovine-induced blackouts.)

Ascending to the huts, we passed the entrance to Zip World Llechwedd, where my daughter was keen to try a kilometer-long plunge on “Europe’s first four-person zipline.” We strapped in to helmets and harnesses and were sent whizzing down a wire with a view of the village of Rhiwbryfdir far below in the valley. Its houses, which had slate roofs the same color as the surrounding slag heaps, seemed to grow out of the earth.

From left: Gwenann Davies, head chef at the Felin Fach Griffin, in the hotel’s vegetable garden; a Sunday lunch of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding at Felin Fach Griffin.

Julian Broad

Zip World, it turns out, is not the only way down the mountain. Just next door is Antur Stiniog, a mountain-bike park. Simon Williams, a trail designer and one of the founders of Antur, told me the park had gotten funding from the European Union, among other entities — part of an effort to help revitalize the area, which is still adjusting to the loss of its principal industries. Once Antur built a road to the top of the hill, he told me, “the Zip World fella saw this place and went, ‘Yeah, there’s potential here.’ ”

We boarded a small bus, which pulled a trailer loaded with mountain bikes. The passengers looked like a Mad Max casting call — dirt-streaked, body-armor-wearing men (and a few women, the youngest being my daughter). Deposited at the top of a high, rugged peak, we would then ride down any number of trails (their difficulty graded, as in skiing, by color). While more experienced (and often Welsh-speaking) riders ripped down narrow tracks and jumped over earthen features, we poked and prodded our way down. Ziplining was entertaining enough, but it felt passive. On the bikes, we had to get our own way down the mountain. It was vaguely terrifying yet enormously fun. “You’re using all of your senses,” my daughter observed. “It makes you feel so alive.”

That seemed to be the mantra for our entire trip.

Navigating around the country clockwise, we moved on to Bannau Brycheiniog (in English, Brecon Beacons). It was named, one theory goes, for the Lord of the Rings–style signal fires that have been lit since the Middle Ages — and burned most recently during Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee.

Our base was the Felin Fach Griffin, the platonic ideal of a Welsh country pub with rooms. Situated above a winning restaurant (newly helmed by chef Gwennan Davies, who returned home to Wales after working with Tom Kerridge, the acclaimed gastropub specialist and a staple of British television), the Griffin was an ideal base for exploring. To clear our heads after the long drive, we set out for a walk along the bucolic towpath of the 35-mile-long Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal. While my daughter ran, trying to maintain her high-school cross-country training schedule, my wife and I moved at a more sensible pace, pausing to gaze at wildflowers and the handsome canal boats that are available to rent as overnight accommodation.

On the bikes, we had to get our own way down the mountain. It was vaguely terrifying yet enormously fun. “You’re using all of your senses,” my daughter observed. “It makes you feel so alive.”

The next day, my wife headed to the fabled book town of Hay-on-Wye, just 15 minutes away. But my bibliophilic dreams ran into my daughter’s newly unlocked passion for downhill mountain biking, so we set off to another incredible facility, BikePark Wales. A typically abundant Welsh rain did nothing to deter the scores of riders in attendance, and we blissfully rode down trails like the mossy “Kermit,” a magical carpet of green we flowed through on knobby tires. It felt like the magical Elvish realm Lothlórien from The Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien famously derived one of his Elvish languages from Welsh).

On our last day in Wales, I went to visit an old friend, a writer named Rob Penn, at his house near Abergavenny. Apart from catching up, I wanted to hear about his new passion project, an initiative called “Stump Up for Trees.” We set out for a walk, accompanied by his dog, Wiggins, and a neighbor’s retriever. “If we wait,” said Penn, wearing wellies and clutching a gnarled blackthorn walking stick he’d crafted, “a few other neighbors’ dogs might come along.”

A visitor to Wales cannot help noticing what Petro, in The Long Field, calls “shorn hills,” usually populated by sheep. Dappled in shades of green, divided by neat hedgerows, they have a pleasing “Shire” vibe. The deforested tops of these hills tend to be “commons,” places for neighboring farms to send their sheep during the summer to graze.

Whatever the aesthetic appeal, Penn wanted me to know, as we crested a high ridge, that what I was seeing was actually a depleted natural landscape. Intensive agricultural usage, long promoted by government funding, gives way to the rampant spread of bracken — a type of fern that, left to its own devices, grows upwards of six feet, choking out any other life. He peeled back a cluster of bracken to reveal a rowan sapling hidden beneath. Aided by legislation that rewards landowners for increasing the biodiversity of the Welsh uplands, his group has been planting trees — more than 300,000 at this point, including that rowan.

The ultimate hope: to make “Wild Wales” more wild. 

Where to Stay

The Feelin Fach Griffin: This excellent pub with rooms outside Bannau Brycheiniog is dog-friendly, like most of Wales.

Fforest Farm: Book an Onsen Dome at this glamping pioneer outside Cardigan.

GR Grove of Narberth: A peaceful country property with walking paths in Pembrokeshire. Don’t miss the standout afternoon tea (if you’re traveling, they’ll give you cakes for the road).

Plas Weunydd: Choose between the handsome rooms at this 19th-century former home near Eryri and the cozy glamping huts on the peak nearby.

Where to Eat or Drink

Crwst: An artisanal bakery with branches in Cardigan and at Poppit Sands beach. 

Dylan’s: A seafood spot with several locations; we chose the one in Menai Bridge, which has wide-angle views of the water.

Perennial: Grab a picnic at this café and farm shop north of St. Davids and eat among the expertly tended flora.

Pizzatipi: A popular pizza restaurant in Cardigan run by the team behind Fforest.

YR Hen Printworks: Snack on creative dishes that spotlight local ingredients.

What to Do

Antur Stiniog: Mountain biking on a high peak with sweeping views, just outside the town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. 

Bikepark Wales: More biking, this time in a lush forest north of Cardiff. 

Celtic Quest Coasteering: Celo Browne and her guides will have you jumping from cliffs into the “washing machine” of tidal inflows. Getting wet has rarely been so fun.

Studio 6: We weren’t able to visit the famed Melin Tregwynt mill, but this lovely shop in St. Davids stocks its blankets.

Wales Coast Path: The instructions are simple: Head to any part of the coast, look for signs to the path, and start walking. You can hardly go wrong.

Walkin on Water: Kwame Salam’s surf school on Poppit Sands beach.

Zip World Llechwedd: This ziplining park offers the chance to learn about mining history, both by going underground (where there’s a mini-golf course, among other things) and above the ground, on Europe’s first four-person zipline.

A version of this story first appeared in the July 2024 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline “Wild Wales.

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