The wintery coast of Wales can have a very calming affect on the weary traveller. Wind-battered headlands, rocky cliffs, pebble-strewn beaches and soggy green fields along the Gower Peninsula are the stuff of paintings and poems; dramatically beautiful, mysterious and thought-provoking.
Our recent four-day trip to Wales was exactly what Dave and I needed after a couple of weeks in London and a many more weeks on the road. With its smaller cities, moody landscapes and plentiful pubs, Wales offered the perfect retreat to reflect on our adventures, spend some with a book and get a good dose of salty air.
Only one hour by bus from the quirky city of Bristol, the small Welsh capital has glass towers, buzzing malls and a busy central station, just like many other cities, yet it feels like a big town. While a little rough around the edges, I appreciated the honesty and sense of community in Cardiff; it had an unpretentious CDB and was full of friendly locals.
With only one night and a morning to explore Cardiff, we chose to keep it simple and just wander the central district and Cardiff Bay.
Central Cardiff can be easily explored on foot in 1-2 hours by ducking between the little arcades that sprout off St Mary Street. There are plenty of pubs to choose from if you’re after a hot meal, a pint or refuge from the cold. Also, the grey, imposing castle, looms on the edge of the commercial strip beckoning tourists. Unfortunately, we didn’t go in due to lack of time.
Cardiff Bay is only a 20 minute / 1 mile walk down Bute Street from town, or a 5 minute bus ride on the Baycar (bus no. 2 from the station). We walked past rows of concrete apartments to find a wintery, deserted bay with plenty of chain eateries on the waterfront…all sitting empty, waiting for a summer crowd.
Other highlights of Cardiff were…
- Sitting amongst gossiping old women in a busy cafeteria trying to decide whether to order the Giant 11 or Great 9 breakfast for a maximum charge of £4.30. (In the end we chose the Great 9 so we could opt out of the black pudding.)
- Enjoying the boisterous chant of kilt-clad men in funny hats as they sang and danced arm in arm outside The Cottage (pub) in central Cardiff;
- Watching an intoxicated trio sling abuse at one another across a busy intersection, one of them pushing a pram full of booze. (Entertaining and unnerving all at once).
Keep in mind:
- If you’re travelling by Megabus, the stop is not at Cardiff central station. Instead you’ll need to be at a tiny little bus shelter that’s kinda across the road from the Hilton hotel, about 2 minutes walk from the centre of town.
- The Cottage (pub) serves a Welsh Cawl for £6, which is a local stew served with a chunk of cheddar cheese to be crumbled on top. You have Dave’s word that it is delicious.
An easy one hour train journey took us from Cardiff to Swansea, the second biggest city in Wales and the gateway to the famous Gower Peninsula. Known as an industrial port and university city, Swansea is a good place to pick up supplies before transferring by local bus to the more picturesque coastal town of Mumbles.
We only passed through Swansea, but our brief encounters revealed a thriving, slightly clunky, city that seemed much more vibrant than its capital neighbour.
Keep in mind:
- There are no luggage lockers at the Swansea bus station. Apparently there is a cafe about 5-10 minutes walk away that does hold luggage for the day – ask at the station information desk if you need to find it.
- It is a 10 minute walk, through the centre of Swansea, from the train station to the bus station. Just follow the sign posts.
- The tourist info centre is right near the bus station, tucked around the corner out of clear view.
Dotted with guest-houses and B&Bs, Mumbles a bit of a luxury destination that suits weekend getaways. It offers beach and headland walks; cafes, pubs and restaurants; and a pretty cool castle with lovely green lawns.
The village centre consists of two main streets: one along the waterfront and one heading up the hill. I was surprised to find everything from eateries to fish mongers, second-hand stores to boutiques. After only ten minutes in the town, it became apparent that there were very few people (besides ourselves) under the age of 30; almost every person was accompanied by a canine; and saying hello to strangers is a common courtesy (a welcomed surprise after travelling in cities).
There are a couple of bays and headlands around Mumbles that can be walked all at once over 2-3 hours, or explored in separate little trips. We ate our sandwiches on the rocks with seagulls circling overhead, watched crazy surfers brave the icy waters and saw foxes flit along along the rocky shore.
Keep in mind:
- You can hop on a local bus from Swansea to Mumbles, which takes about 30 minutes. Buy the tickets on the bus and get a daily if you’re planning more than one bus ride, as it’s only slightly more expensive.
- Although Mumbles sits at the start of the Gower Peninsula, you can only really explore the region from Mumbles by foot (and only a little bit) or if you have a car. Otherwise, you need to catch the local bus (number 118) from Swansea to Rhossili.
- Free Wi-Fi in Mumbles can be found in a couple of cafes along the main street. I personally enjoyed The Coffee Denn, which offers big arm chairs, gluten-free tarts and cheap hair cuts for senior citizens.
- The White Rose pub on the corner of the main street in Mumbles is great for a standard menu with day-specific meal deals.
- The Mumbles tourist info centre offers wonderful service by locals with a wealth of information. It should be your first stop when you arrive.
- Keep an eye out for ice-cream stops after the first and second headlands on the way west of Mumbles.
“Rhossili is really the gem in our crown”, said the helpful lady at the Mumbles Tourist Information Centre. So, with that advice, we decided to brave the grey horizon and severe weather warnings to see Rhossili’s sheep-dotted cliffs that look over the Bristol Channel.
We had been assured by locals that the drive between Rhossili and Swansea was half the adventure of seeing the Gower Peninsula. As always, the locals were right. Although a thick fog and misted windows obscured most views during the one-hour local bus ride, we still found plenty of excitement with tractors, herds of cattle, gushing causeways and elderly women all bringing the bus to an abrupt mid-road halt along the way.
By the time the bus arrived in Rhossili, we were the only passengers left. Before leaving us huddling in the cold, the driver kindly pointed into the distance and said, “Cliffs that way, beach that way”. So, within minutes we were taking a brisk walk along the cliff tops, opening gates, splashing in puddles, talking to sheep and trying to rub away the brain freeze caused by the vicious winds… but oh, the views were worth it!
After 30 minutes on the cliffs we’d begun to loose feeling in our noses, so we retreated into the pub (as it was opening) and spent the next couple of hours enjoying Rhossili’s panoramic views with warmth and a pint.
Keep in mind:
- Rhossili is tiny. While there is a visitor’s centre (towards the cliffs), don’t rely on there being a cash point, a lot of food options or other touristy conveniences. Also, pack a snack and some water, just in case.
- Rug up for the bus ride if the weather is bad… the heating leaves a little to be desired.
- You only need a couple of hours in town if it is cold and wet, which works in well with the not-so-frequent bus timetable. Check return times in advance to make sure you don’t get stranded.
- There’s a gorgeous little pub across the road from the small visitor’s centre. Although a little pricey, it does a great fish, chips and mushy peas… and it’s pretty much your only hot-food option in town, which makes it pretty attractive. *Update* I’ve been contacted by the folks at The Bay Bistro & Coffee House to let me know they also serve hot food in Rhossili. My mistake, apologies for the oversight – must have missed them in our rush to get out of the cold.