Cornwall and Devon always crop up when it comes to talk of Britain’s most thrilling coastlines. But Wales can easily give the West Country a run for its money.
Strike out on foot through kissing gate, over stile and along gorse-flanked path and you’ll find dune-fringed bays and cliff-backed coves to rival the UK’s best. Sidestep high season and you’ll often get these hidden coastal spots all to your smug self.
For longer excursions, the Wales Coast Path is an epic 870-mile trail wrapping up the entire coastline. Or drive along the recently launched 180-mile Coastal Way, which takes Cardigan Bay in its stride as it ticks off wildlife-rich islands, Iron Age hillforts and one upliftingly lovely beach after the next.
Pembrokeshire is stuff of childhood fantasy, with smugglers’ coves, tremendous sweeps of golden sand hemmed in by purple-grained cliffs, and wildlife-rich islands (most notably Skomer, with its sizeable puffin population) just a bumpy boat hop away. Dipping into the national park, the 186-mile coast path stitches together the whole gorgeous lot.
North or south? It’s a tough one. Go south to explore the likes of Church Doors Cove at low tide, ensnared by lofty cliffs and rock arches. The closest village is Manorbier, crowned by a Norman castle. Nearby, a gentle trail fringes the summer-flowering lily ponds of Bosherston and lopes down to dune-backed Broad Haven South. From here you can continue to St Govan’s chapel, a hermit’s cell notched into the cliffs. Close by and reachable on foot from Stackpole, Barafundle Bay often tops polls of the country’s finest beaches, with an arc of golden sand sliding into clear turquoise water.
Heading north, you could go rockpooling among the ragged cliffs of mile-long Marloes Sands, hike the three-mile circular trail around ravishing Dinas Island, or spot seals and seabirds at Ceibwr Bay. And if that’s not pushing your adventure buttons, go jump off a cliff coasteering with Preseli Venture.
Where to stay
Set above the sea amid rambling gardens, Penally Abbey (doubles from £145), close to Tenby, is a burst of pure Gothic romance. Or treat yourself to a night at chicly converted Georgian coaching inn Llys Meddyg (doubles from £100) in the pretty coastal town of Newport, where foraged ingredients star on imaginatively thought-out menus.
Who would think Swansea was just a stone’s throw away? If you’ve ever been for a coastal romp on the Gower Peninsula, you’ll be acquainted with the siren call of bays like Oxwich, Three Cliffs and Rhossili - once beloved of poet Dylan Thomas. But there are more hidden beaches here than initially meet the eye. Just south of Bishopston, cliff-rimmed Pwlldu Bay is a half-mile walk east along the coast path to deliciously secluded Brandy Cove, which doubles in size at low tide. The name nods to its past when smugglers stashed away brandy in the caves that honeycomb the surrounding cliffs.
Moving west through gentle wooded valleys brings you to Reynoldston, where a short trudge leads up to the double-chambered Neolithic tomb of Arthur’s Stone (Maen Ceti) and a ridge where wild horses graze. On cloudless days, peer across the Bristol Channel to Devon, west to Carmarthen Bay and north to the fin-shaped peaks of the Brecons. Further west still and accessed on foot from Broughton, Blue Pool Bay is a sublime crescent of golden sand, with a jewel-coloured tidal rock pool that attracts wild swimmers.
Where to stay
Holiday rentals abound but few have more charm than the self-catering cottages at the Penrice Estate. Most romantic for couples is The Towers (from £385 per week), a neo-Gothic folly with circular rooms and a cosy log burner. Or try Parc-le-Breos (doubles from £100), a 19th-century hunting lodge in the former deer park of William de Breos, with season-driven food playing up kitchen garden-grown ingredients.
In the northern crook of Cardigan Bay, the Llŷn Peninsula is as wild and wonderful as coastal Wales gets, with Snowdonia’s dark, brooding mountains puckering up to the east, and tiny coves and expansive beaches necklacing its coastline. For magnificent views all the way across the silver sea to Ireland, embark on the hour-and-a-half circular walk up to 304m Mynydd Rhiw.
Pleasingly unspoilt Porth Ceiriad has abundant surf, rock pools to fish around in, and cliffs hammered out by wind and waves over millennia. On the other side of three-mile Porth Neigwl (Hell's Mouth) is bouldering favourite Porth Ysgo, where a waterfall spills down high sea cliffs to a shingle-and-sand cove. Further west still is Porth Oer (Whistling Sands), a curving ribbon of pale sand that squeaks - or ‘whistles’ - underfoot.
The must-do daytrip is Bardsey Island, (Ynys Enlli in Welsh), rearing up like a sleeping dragon from the Irish Sea and steeped in the legends of the 20,000 saints said to lie buried there. Its National Nature Reserve is a refuge for peregrine falcons, puffins and 20,000 pairs of Manx shearwaters.
Where to stay
Top billing goes to Plas Bodegroes (doubles from £110), a Georgian manor with beautiful grounds and flawless cooking. For a B&B with a friendly welcome, try Craig Y Glyn (doubles from £80), near the beach and coast path.
Ceredigion’s wild, wind-whipped coastline deserves to be more fêted. Heading north of Cardigan and its impressively revamped 900-year old castle, a narrow lane twists through countryside and almost nosedives into the sea at Mwnt, a generous thumbprint of golden sand flanked by rounded cliffs.
The bay is capped off by the 13th-century Church of the Holy Cross, once a beacon to pilgrims en route to Bardsey Island. Edging slightly north is Traeth Bach, where a short scramble down the rocks leads to an often-empty, crescent-shaped cove that attracts dolphins and seals. Equally appealing is nearby Penbryn, a mile-long swathe of sand backed by sunlit beech woods (linger for tea and homemade cake in a converted cart house at The Plwmp Tart).
North of Aberystwyth, with its Victorian pier and hilltop National Library, you hit Ynyslas, three joyous miles of butterscotch sand and rolling surf backed by breeze-bent dunes, which forms part of the Dyfi Biosphere Reserve.
Where to stay
For beach-chic on Aberaeron’s harbour wall, choose the Harbourmaster (doubles from £120), with cracking food that sings with local produce. Gwesty Cwmru (doubles from £90) is a charismatic Georgian B&B in seafront Aberystwyth. For more style and seclusion, book ahead at Ynyshir (doubles from £190), where Gareth Ward heads up the Michelin-starred restaurant, delivering mind-blowing tasting menus.
Snowdonia & Anglesey
Mountains most likely pop to mind when you think of the Snowdonia National Park, but the less-hyped coast here provides breezy respite when you tire of trekking. While not exactly hidden, Harlech’s four-mile sweep of dune-back sands is big enough to give the crowds the slip. Harlech Castle’s formidable fortifications perch on a rocky crag above the beach. Driving north of here, with views to rippling peaks, you reach Caernarfon, the whimsically turreted showpiece in Edward I’s ‘iron ring’ of medieval castles.
Over on the Isle of Anglesey (Ynys Môn), you’ll find some of the finest surf-lashed beaches and hidden coves in the country, among them off-the-radar Traeth Yr Ora in the east, reached on a coast path that threads through fields and kissing gates. A steep path teeters down to cliff-rimmed Church Bay on the west coast, where Ireland hovers on the horizon. While in the north, Porth Padrig is skirted by cliffs and graced by the so-called ‘White Lady’, a striking quartzite sea stack.
Where to stay
Central to Harlech and extending a warm welcome, Pen Y Garth (doubles from £78) is a good old-fashioned B&B in a Victorian townhouse. On Anglesey, choose from the likes of The Bull (doubles from £85), Beaumaris’ historic coaching inn, and Grade II-listed fairytale Château Rhianfa (doubles from £115).
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