If you’ve ever found yourself in a place where wind turbines pepper the view as far as the eye can see you know to brace yourself for a few steady breezes. The coast of North Wales is such a place.
We stayed in a cabin at the Golden Sands Holiday Park in Rhyl – a small, simple beachside tourist town – where an army of turbines rise in the distance off the stony pebbled coast in the vague direction of Ireland. And boy did we get some not-so-gentle breezes. North Wales (and England) copped a storm that twisted and shook the cabin in a way a giant baby might play with a box. Sitting up in bed leaning against the cabin wall holding a scorching cup of coffee was a genuine safety hazard.
We were content to retreat for a couple of days after a hectic two weeks in London and Warwick Castle. The small indoor heated pool and morning art sessions both beckoned to the kids as did the arcade parlour and indoor playground, situated conveniently next to the on-site restaurant.
The arcade contained a mixture of familiar and very expensive child-centred video games and a whole lot of other less familiar games cleverly designed to seamlessly lead kids on the path to full-time gambling. Our kids were desperate to dive in with both feet and proved stoic and resourceful in the face of us stingy parents; able to stretch a couple of quid into an hour’s worth of entertainment which mostly involved gawking over the shoulders of British families who were there for a weekend break and, understandably, in the mood to blow a bit of cash. Have to admit though that our tilt at family musical bingo was a heck of a lot of fun.
What Australians call holiday cabins the British call caravans. They might have hitches attached but these are not the sort you’d ever want to tow down the average street with a Toyota Camry. They are really big and spacious. They were also packed into our holiday park – and the other twenty parks lining this part of the coast – like neatly arranged lego pieces, with barely a tree or distinguishing feature to help navigate through the white blocky maze. We were so uncertain at finding our cabin we tied a bright purple shopping bag to the door. If it wasn’t for the resident super-sized seagulls, we might have considered a trail of breadcrumbs to be sure.
Down the coast are some stunning beaches – yes, with sand – with Llandudno, a Victorian-era town, deserving special mention. We wandered its famous pier, leaning at an angle into yet another modest icy breeze and could (kind of) imagine lounging in the sun here on a stinking hot summer day trying to eat an ice cream before it melts through the gaps of the pier decking into the frigid ocean waters below.
Away from the world of the British seaside holiday – lego-style caravan parks, arcades, sideshow rides (mostly closed), dollar shops and fish & chippys – was a completely otherworldly experience of North Wales which we entered a few kilometres down the road as if passing through a portal a la Doctor Who. In it are ancient villages, castles by the bucketful, postcard-perfect farmland criss-crossed with drystone walls, giant coastal cliffs, jaw-dropping views, crystal clear rivers and – the jewel in the crown – Snowdonia National Park.
We instantly fell in love with Caernarfon and Conwy, both beautiful heritage towns dominated by towering castles and imposing defensive walls.
Conwy Castle was completed in 1287 as part of a massive castle development boom during the reign of Edward I to keep control of the pesky local Welsh. A kids discovery trail tells in a highly entertaining way the story of a brave band of rebels (answering to Owain Glyndwr, the last Prince of Wales to actually be Welsh, and instigator of a hard fought if unsuccessful battle for independence from the English) who, pretending to be carpenters doing maintenance, waltzed in and took control of this massive castle by overpowering all two of the English watchmen on duty this one particular Sunday morning while everyone else was at church. The rebels held it for three long months before negotiating a surrender and agreeing which of them were to be executed! We also downloaded a mobile app that had us running helter skelter around the ruins for virtual dragons Pokemon-style. Lots of fun.
We trundled over the town walls and through the narrow streets eating ice cream and listening in total naïve wonder at the sound of spoken Welsh, saying stupid things to each other like, “Gee, they really DO speak Welsh!”. Squirt had a sandwich stolen out her hand by a seagull with the size and agility of a small fighter aircraft. That was trauma right there.
When the storm finally started to clear we headed for a couple of drives into the heart of Snowdonia’s exposed mountains covered in heath, dotted with lakes and marbled by veins of gushing streams. Driving through historic villages with impossible sounding names like Betws y Coed, Beddgelert and Abergwyngregyn, gave us a feeling of being in a fairytale. The sight of an elf or wizard wandering the streets would not have looked in any way out of place (in fact, I considered donning a snazzy green pair of tights myself).
We gazed at the mountain of Dina Emrys, renowned as the place where a mythological battle took place between a red and white dragon, as prophesised by the wizard Myrrdin (Merlin). The Welsh flag offers a permanent reminder of who won that particular stoush
We donned hard hats and clambered through Sygun copper mine, climbing ladders and crouching along narrow shafts completely alone on a self-guided tour. It was exciting to emerge through a hole half way up the rocky hillside from where we entered and sobering to reflect on the harsh life of Welsh miners – men, women and children alike.
On another day we were eager to start a tour of the slate mines at Blaenau Ffestiniog but the storm had the last laugh by flooding a section of the underground passageway thereby shutting down its funicular railway. Bummer.
The silver lining though was we changed tack that day and drove straight to Greenwood Family Park near Caernarfon and had, hands down, one of the best days of our travels so far. It’s part adventure park, part eco park and part water park. The low carbon / eco theme runs through every attraction with a focus on kids powering themselves and immersing in nature play. We were gobsmacked at how good this place is. It offers more for younger kids but any open-minded person cannot help but enjoy this place. The kids tried archery, rowed a boat around a nature course, rode carts half the day, took on a set of massive flume rides, watched bees make a hive from the safety of the indoor playground, screamed around the rollercoaster track, and, if the weather had been above freezing, would have loved the barefoot trail.
North Wales is a truly wonderful destination. We barely scratched the surface, hampered by weather and time but it’s somewhere we’d visit again in a heartbeat … next time to climb a mountain, visit Anglesea, cruise to nearby islands crowded with puffins, take a selfie at the town with the longest name in the world, and ride a steam train.