Wales With Kids
With over 600 castles, Wales’ King Arthur legend lives on in the countryside today. However, it’s not all about old here. Positioning itself at the forefront of the green movement with plenty of eco-activities to bring out the adventurer in everyone, Wales offers a bit of the past and the future. Cardiff, Wales’ capital city,is located on the south coast. The city has a very cosmopolitan feel, while at the same time housing ancient monuments like Cardiff Castle. Just north of Cardiff is Brecon Beacons National Park, which houses some of the country’s most beautiful scenery…green hills traversed by cascading waterfalls. But what’s really exciting here, is what’s underground…both natural and manmade caves and tunnels. Out on Wales’ west coast, the Pembrokeshire Path offers incredible vistas of the dramatic coastline cliffs and St. David’s, Britain’s greenest city, is doing what it can to keep the path, and the surrounding areas, pristine for future generations. In northern Wales, Snowdonia’s peaks offers some excellent vistas of their own and the Welsh speaking Llyn peninsula. And, to the east, the Llangollen Canal hosts long boats, which float down the narrow canals touring the countryside.
Located on the eastern portion of Wales’ south coast, Cardiff is a unique combination of old and new. The city has a definite cosmopolitan feel with modern architecture, like the Millennium Stadium, and wide purpose built pedestrian areas. However, it still hosts some important Welsh historical sites like Cardiff Castle (pictured left), narrow Victorian-era arcades and Cardiff Central Market. Cardiff Castle is a prime example of this old and new them. The more modern castle was built in the 19th century, but it sits on the remains of the ancient Roman fort and encompasses an old Norman keep. The kids had a great time running up and down the ramparts here and climbing to the top of the Norman keep. Inside, the castle had a sort of scavenger hunt for kids, which really helped them see the detail of each lavishly decorated room. The kids loved learning about the knights and medieval times. In keeping with the theme of kings and nobility, we took the kids just outside Cardiff to the Welsh Hawking Centre where we could see owls and falcons. They even got the chance to fly a Harris Hawk and learn all about the sport of falconry, which was so popular during the Middle Ages. While out at the Centre, we took time to visit the nearby beaches where the kids found tons of fossils. To learn more about the history of the land we visited National Museum Cardiff which has great interactive displays on the geology and formation of the land and animals here including a wonderful display on dinosaurs. But to see dinos in the more a natural setting, and get a first-hand look at Welsh geology, we’re told to head north to Brecon Beacons National Park.
Brecon Beacons National Park
Established in 1957, Brecon Beacons National Park is home to rolling green moorlands, tumbling rivers, waterfalls and lakes. There are a few big attractions here, but one huge attraction has caught the imagination of our boys. National Showcaves Centre for Wales, also known as Dan-yr -Ogof, hosts a cave that is about 5 miles long; however only about 1 mile of it is open to the general public. But that’s not the biggest part, the centre also hosts one of the world’s largest dinosaur parks. The kids think it’s really cool that the dinosaurs are actually places in amongst the forest as they would be in the wild and we all have lots of fun exploring the caves. To get a bit more modern history of the under side of Wales, we head east in the park to The Big Pit National Coal Museum where visitors can travel 300 feet underground to experience life as a coal miner. The boys love putting on hard hats with spotlights and exploring the mine tunnels. They even manage to make it out with a couple pieces of coal and it gives them a new appreciation for their easy life. The kids started working the coal mines when they were five back a few centuries ago! On the western side of Brecon Beacons National Park, near Black Mountain, we learn a bit more about the medieval history of Wales. Wales is the setting for the legends of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table and Merlin was said to be born here. In fact, at Merlin’s Hill Centre, you can visit the hill where Merlin was entrapped by another sorcerer and is supposedly still locked. There are reports of groaning and chains at night. Nearby, Carreg Cennen Castle gives us an idea of what life was like back in the days of the knights. The kids have lots of fun playing king of the castle (literally) and exploring the “dungeon” cave below the castle. If you do want to explore below the castle, be sure to rent a torch (flashlight) from the entrance gate as it gets really dark!
Pembrokeshire Coast and St. David’s
Out on Wales’ west coast, the Pembrokeshire Coast Trail is a favorite for walkers who take a week or two to hike the entire 186-mile trail. Although we just hike a small portion of it, the scenery is spectacular with soaring cliffs plunging into the Irish Sea backed by rolling green hills. After walking a short bit of the trail, we hiked down to St. Govan’s Chapel, which was built into the side of the cliffs in the 14th century, and down to the water where we explored the tide pools. To get a better look at what’s in the ocean here, we headed north to St. David’s where a local boy invented a sport called coasteering and now runsTYF Adventures to share his love of the area with tourists. So, we don full wetsuits and try our hand at coasteering, which is basically a combination of rock climbing, kayaking, swimming and caving. The boys love scrambling down the cliffs and into caves and learning about the local plants and animals, including tasting some seaweed and other edible plants. St. David’s is a darling town with narrow streets lined with outdoor cafes and shops and one very large cathedral, but what makes it really interesting is its race to become the first carbon neutral city in the world and with the latest improvements including chip (French fry) oil filling stations (people are driving cars powered by the leftover oil from their foods) and rainwater flushing toilets, they just may do it! To get a closer look at the area’s fauna, we hop a Voyages of Discovery boat out of St. David’s to Ramsey Island where we spot red deer on land, terns and other sea birds in the air and the rare Atlantic Grey Seals in the water.
Farther north along Wales’ western shores, Snowdonia National Park is Wales’ largest national park. It encompasses some wild geography like Wales’ highest mountain and largest natural lake as well as a few small towns. Just outside the southern border of the park, Centre for Alternative Technology is giving St. David’s a run for its money in eco-innovation with its interactive exhibits on solar and wind power and lessons in conservation. A bit north of here, they have innovated their own attraction at the Corris Craft Centre, where an old coal mine has been re-purposed as a King Arthur attraction. They flooded some of the mine tunnels with water where visitors board boats and visit still-life scenes telling the legends of Merlin and King Arthur. Above ground the centre keeps the medieval theme going with crafts like potions and candlemaking. If you want to join the green movement here, a great way to start is by choosing a green hotel, and that’s just what we did at Graig Wen where we stayed in a yurt. See more on that below. While we were there, we decided it’s time we learned more about Welsh flora and fauna, and who better than to teach us than mountain man Heath from Firefox Bushcraft. He not only teaches us about the area, but how to survive in the wild with skills like putting up a bash (shelter), starting a fire, and making a makeshift compass. The boys have lots of fun learning wilderness survival…starting fire and making hot chocolate were real hits!
Conwy and Llandudno
On Wales’ north coast the walled-in market town of Conwy is dominated by the massive Conwy Castle. Built in the late 13th century, the magnificent castle is still relatively intact and is one of the best preserved castle complexes we’ve ever visited. Guests to the castle can climb turrets to look over the town and kids are treated to a scavenger hunt game around the castle. Needless to say, the boys loved it! The quaint town of Conwy was also a hit. Be sure to stay inside the old walls if you go. The narrow streets of town are lined with small shops and restaurants and the harbor-side outdoor pubs are a great place to watch the sunset. The nearby town of Llandudno reckons back to the typical Victorian era seaside retreat. The beach is backed by old wooden buildings painted in all shades of pastel colors and the pier is home to carnival games and fair-type rides.
Constructed in the late 18th century, the Llangollen Canal was originally intended to carry cargo between towns in Wales and England and Ellesmere Port. Today the canal carries mostly tourists who enjoy the lush scenery and small towns along the narrow canal. We rented a boat with Maestermyn Marine. The boat was really long, about 50 feet and narrow (hence the name narrow boat) only about 8 feet across, but the canals were not much wider. At some points we only had a few feet on each side. The kids loved opening a closing the locks and drawbridges using the old hand cranks, going through the tunnels and under the bridges and going over the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, a bridge filled with water flowing 126 feet above th valley below. The bridge is a bit nerve-wracking to navigate over as it is only 11 ft. wide, but the views are amazing. We stayed three nights on the boat and could have gone a few more. There were plenty of pubs along the way to dock and have dinner and drinks.
Family-Friendly Places to Stay in Wales
Cardiff: The Big Sleep Cardiff: This small, funky chain hotel plays upon Cardiff’s modern nature with clean lines and bright retro colors. Although a bit on the small size, our room had fabulous views over Cardiff and all the way out to the waterfront.
Brecon Beacons National Park:
Brynich Farm Cottages: Located in the northern part of Brecon Beacons, this was a great place to stay with kids. The restored barns retain their 17th century church while pampering guests with luxury. Our cottage had three bedrooms downstairs and a spacious living room and full kitchen upstairs. The barns are set on a working farm with sheep, which the kids loved herding! They also have a play barn for kids with slides, ball pit and obstacle course.
Under the Thatch: Bantwen: Near Black Mountain, in the west part of Brecon Beacons, Bantwen was a cute little stand-alone cottage in a small village. The three bedrooms are each unique, one is actually under the thatch roof and there is plenty of room for dinners with a full kitchen, dining room, living room and huge yard.
St. David’s/Pembrokeshire area: Asheston Eco-Barns: These beautifully restored barns bring the green movement of Wales home with wind powered electricity and solar heated water. Although the barns are furnished with antique furniture, they feel quite modern with a spacious full kitchen and open-floor plan. Plus, they are family friendly with cots, highchairs and stair gates available as well as patio toys, board games, sport equipment and playground.
Snowdonia: Graig Wen: With breathtaking views over the Mawddach estuary, Graig-Wen’s yurts (huge stationary tents) combine the best of camping and hotel accommodation. The yurts have canvas walls, so that you can hear and smell the surrounding forest, but come with comfortable futon beds, a wood-burning stove, kitchen area with dishes, an outdoor dining area and a fire ring. The kids loved listening to the sheep at night and making hot chocolate over the campfire.
Conwy: Conwy Castle Hotel: Set in a restored coaching inn, Conwy Castle Hotel reflects the rich history of this ancient market town. Located within the walls, shops, restaurants and Conwy Castle are just a short walk away. Tucked into one of the most photographed buildings in Conwy, the 28 rooms are lavishly decorated.
Llangollen Canal Narrowboat: Maestermyn Marine: Renting a narrowboat on the Llangollen Canal is an experience we won’t soon forget. The boats are roomy enough…ours had three bedrooms, two with double beds and one with twin beds, a kitchen and seating area and two decks. The kids liked riding on the top of the boat and lending a hand docking, and operating the old-fashioned hand cranked equipment along the way. Maestermyn gave us lessons on steering the boat, and even accompanied us until we got the hang of it (which did take some time I must admit) and they pre-ordered groceries for us, which were on-board when we checked in.
Getting to/Around in Wales:
Although Cardiff does have an international airport, there are better schedules and fares into London. From London, it’s under two hours by train to Cardiff. We used our BritRail pass, which meant one child traveled with each of us for free. The pass is good on train travel throughout Wales as well. And while the trains are great for traveling with kids (think no bathroom breaks or car seats), if you want to get to some of the places we mentioned above, your going to have to leave the tracks. We rented a car, which came with a GPS system that saved us from getting lost numerous times. Driving on the left took some getting used to (especially in the round-a-bouts), but there are several wide highways and the roads are all in good condition.