Somewhere between careening down a zipline 1,200 feet above an old slate quarry and watching a Spice Girls cover band delight a crowd with seemingly endless pop hits, I came to a realization:
I love Wales.
As an LGBTQ traveler, I can’t say Wales was originally on my shortlist of destinations. Of course, I was familiar with longtime LGBTQ enclaves in the United Kingdom, like London and Manchester, but my exposure to Wales was mostly limited to unpronounceable names and locations featured during the 2012 Olympics in London.
That all changed last year. Along with several LGBTQ journalists, I embarked on a weeklong journey throughout Wales, the travel equivalent of binge-watching an entire country. It’s not the kind of itinerary most vacationers would dare take on for leisure, but its broad range of experiences showcased why Wales is not just worth a visit, it’s worth several.
In fact, the sheer volume of utterly unique Welsh experiences available is shocking when you consider it’s one of the world’s smallest countries.
Our whirlwind tour launched in Llangollen. The small town on the River Dee looked like something from a storybook. During our late-summer visit, the surrounding hills were so verdant, it almost hurt looking directly at them without sunglasses. For a “city mouse” like myself, it felt like another planet. As we spent our first few days traveling along the Northern and Western areas of Wales, the countryside continued to supply stunning landscapes dotted with sheep.
While the blue skies, fresh air and rolling, pastoral hills were restorative for the spirit, Wales’ historic architecture made my heart flutter. Maybe I’ve seen one too many Disney films, but something about touring castles all day is enough to make anyone long for their Prince Charming.
Wales is known as the “castle capital of the world,” and there were no shortage of visits to some of the country’s oldest standing castles. From lavish royal quarters (like the ones at Cardiff Castle) to breathtaking fortresses like Harlech and Conwy Castles, these sites offer visitors tons of dishy backstory, exquisite views and the opportunity to literally walk in the footsteps of history. I mean, candlelight dinners are romantic, but have you ever tried slowly descending a stone staircase inside a castle turret? All I’m saying is there’s something to all those bodice-ripping romance stories.
If scaling castle walls isn’t enough of an adrenaline rush to make your heart beat faster, Wales has no shortage of adventure. Our trip took us to Snowdonia National Park, home of Zip World Titan. A series of three zip lines ran over an old slate quarry for what amounted to roughly the most terrifying two minutes of my life.
Thanks to the friendly staff, I never felt unsafe; plus, the amount of fearless children excitedly flying through the air helped assuage any panic. I opted to pay a little extra to have a GoPro camera affixed to my helmet, and I’m glad I did. (Not that I did the whole thing with my eyes closed or anything, why would you ask?) It’s one of those experiences no one would believe I actually did without the evidence.
That’s not the only attraction, though. There’s also Bounce Below, an utterly bizarre but undeniably fun series of trampoline-like nets pulled taut inside a massive slate cavern connected by ramps, ladders and slides. Groups enter this subterranean playground and enjoy jumping sky-high on the nets suspended hundreds of feet off the ground. All this takes place bathed in colored lights and set to an ’80s and ’90s soundtrack that only amps up the fun.
Both of these thrilling adventures feel like child’s play when compared to the most uniquely Welsh experience of the entire trip: Coasteering. A wild hybrid of spelunking, cliff diving, swimming and climbing, this outdoor activity is not for the faint of heart.
We embarked on our coasteering adventure in St. Davids. From the TYF Adventures HQ, we put on our gear (helmet, wetsuit, floatation vest, sneakers and workout shorts — all provided) and trudged toward the water.
In August, the water was merely freezing, but in the wetsuit (and hopped up on adrenaline) it hardly mattered. From our first jump into the water, there was no time to fear. As most of the activity takes place where the Irish Sea breaks against the rocky cliffs, the strong currents and white wash make for choppy waters. Luckily, there were two guides with us at all times to make sure we knew exactly where and when it was safe to jump in. We leaped, swam and briefly explored a nearby cave during our time, but every single moment was intense. Just awaiting the next instruction required a constant fight against the currents. (And we were wearing flotation vests!) I may have skipped the gym all week, but, after this, I didn’t feel guilty. If it sounds challenging, that’s because it is. But it’s also so, so worth it. Walking back victorious, it felt like I just finished a marathon.
Still, there is much more to Wales than adventuring and charming countrysides. Even in the small city of St. Davids (population 1,200) where we went coasteering art and culture abound.
We stayed nearby at one of the most stylish, sexy hotels I’ve ever visited, the Twr y Felin Hotel. (Just please don’t ask me to pronounce it.) All their design choices are to highlight the impressive collection of contemporary art, including some of my favorite striking pieces from South Wales graffiti and street artist Charles Uzzell-Edwards (also known as ‘Pure Evil‘).
Everything about the Twr y Felin Hotel feels thoughtfully considered, especially the mind-blowing cuisine at their restaurant Blas (Welsh for “taste”). The menu is seasonally and locally focused, including some foraged ingredients. My meal, consisting of compressed watermelon with crab and kimchi; lobster-dill ravioli with basil; and apple mousse and mango cheesecake with basil, was innovative, gorgeous and, most importantly, delicious.
In fact, most of my Welsh meals were fantastic. There are certain U.K. staples — fish and chips, ploughman’s lunch, English breakfast — you can get almost anywhere in Wales (and I did), and they should be satisfying. (They were.) However, given the importance of the coastline, seafood was a major star in my favorite Welsh dishes. It wasn’t uncommon to ask the waiter the provenance of a piece of fish or mollusk on my plate only to have them point to the body of water just outside the window and reply, “There.”
Similarly, my meal at the dining room at Hotel Portmeirion pushed fresh seafood to the fore. Featuring a perfectly cooked piece of halibut, housemade cannelloni stuffed with crabmeat, grilled fennel salad and cardamon mousse, it was the perfect meal to enjoy while staying at the seaside resort village.
You may recognize Portmeirion as the setting for the ’60s sci-fi TV show The Prisoner. The brightly-colored, Italian-style village has loads of amenities and would make the perfect spot for a romantic getaway. The rooms are large and have lots of character. My room had a view of the water, which was lovely, but with such enchanting architecture, landscape and sculpture, a courtyard view would have been just as nice. Despite some light rain and a gray sky, the (heated) seaside pool was just too irresistible.
Perhaps you’re one of those travelers who prefers to drop into the hustle and bustle of a major city for a vacation. Wales has you covered. We ended our trip in Cardiff, Wales’ capital and largest city. In addition to being home to the aforementioned, ornately-decorated Cardiff Castle, you’ll find just about anything you would in most major cities — fine dining, robust nightlife, luxury shopping, etc. In a pinch, you’ll find brands and stores you recognize, but do yourself a favor and browse Cardiff Central Market and the arcades for some uniquely local finds. Cardiff’s National Museum of Art is another must-see. Don’t miss the collection of French art, boasting pieces from Monet, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Renoir, Rodin and more.
If those aren’t the kinds of nudes you’re after (wink, wink), Cardiff’s vibrant gay scene has you covered. There’s dancing at Pulse Bar, drag queens at Minsky’s Showbar and, confusingly enough, bears at The Eagle. But, really, having been to each location, there’s much less focus on fitting in a particular tribe than I’ve witnessed at most other gay destinations. For example, on paper, Pulse may be considered a “twink bar,” but I — decidedly not a twink — had a blast dancing the night away to Top 40 and knocking back drinks with new friends.
After clubbing, just make sure you save time for a stop at Chippy Lane (the takeout-heavy stretch of Caroline Street between The Hayes and St. Mary’s Street) to grab a midnight snack that’ll soak up all those gin and tonics.
Just don’t stress the calorie count. You can always make up for it with another round of coasteering on your next visit.