Wales Road Trip – 7 quirky stops

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Port Merion wales road trip

What will you find on a road trip to Wales?

Wales has a few secret rabbits under its hat. Yes, there are mountains for hiking, 600 castles and a crazy number of sheep, but there are also tropical Italianate villages, Victoriana sweetshops and sweeping surfing beaches. A Welsh road trip has something for everyone and you may even be gifted a bit of surprise sunshine (although Wales is green for a reason).

Wales road trip top tips:

  1. Life in the slow lane: Say goodbye to direct and speedy travel and embrace the slow winding world of Welsh roads. There will be time to greet sheep as you open gates to single-track grass-fringed paths that only just sneak into the category of “road”.
  2. Going along for the ride: Embrace the road trip mentality where the journey is the meal and destinations are incidental, and then you won’t get too cross when you take the wrong turn (again) and end up in another farmer’s field.
  3. Clock those passing bays: You are going to need them.
  4. Wet weather plan: Due to the nation’s notoriety on the weather-front is worth having an alternative indoor plan for every stop, just to be on the safe side.

Wales road trip Itinerary

Ours was a linear trip, popping off the ferry in Liverpool then following the coast most of the way round to Bristol. We had 4 days, but the magic of a road trip is that you can whistle-stop tour multiple en route destinations so you don’t miss a Welsh trick.

Wales Road trip Quirky stop 1

Llandudno - a Welsh Louisiana?

Historic holiday hot spot

Gliding into Liverpool docks at sunrise, we were going to need breakfast within the first hour or so of the trip. Following the coast, as Colwyn Bay seemed to still be in bed, Llandudno was chosen, pretty much at random it has to be admitted. But what a choice it was.

Best bits:

  • Park up on the seafront for sweeping views of grand terraced houses encircling a shimmering crescent of sea.
  • Boating adventures can be bought straight from the beach.
  • Breakfast on the terrace of a café bar in the swanky high street that runs behind the beach. With metal trellising and white-as-snow period buildings, it looks for all the world like a Welsh Louisiana.

The pier

Take a stroll along the particularly lengthy pier. The soundtrack from the sporadic speakers is more eighties ballad than tunes from yesteryear, but still adds to the whole experience. Go before the cafes and souvenir shops open to commune with sea and gull, then turn back and take advantage of the holiday atmosphere that has sprung up in your wake.

I could see why it was the Victorian holiday spot of choice.

Bonus quirky activities

If staying longer (and we really should have)

  • Vintage coastal drive: Great Orme drive, a spectacular 4-mile cliff edge loop around the headland costs a mere £2.50 on the toll road. Alternatively, take a break from driving (and the modern day) by purchasing a ticket for the vintage bus tour departing from Llandudno Pier at 11am, 1pm & 3pm, 7 days a week.
  • Sky ride: Take flight in the retro red and yellow carriages of the longest passenger cable car ride in Britain. Float for a 9-minute mile above the scenic cliffs for a reasonable £11.50 per adult.
  • Longest names: Head north into Anglesey for more rugged coastlines and importantly in terms of quirkiness, the chance of a selfie with the Europe’s longest place name (New Zealand holds the world title but that’s a different road trip). Spend the car journey having a go a learning how to pronounce Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.

Wales Road trip Quirky stop 2

Betws - y - Coed - mountain shopping

Following the road south into the heart of Snowdonia, you will drive through increasingly spectacular mountain scenery to the main stopping point for all travellers to the area, Betws-y-Coed.

  • The weirdness of the place is found in the incongruous mini-shopping strip of Fatface, locally brewed beer shops and cafes, one of which is in the carriage of a train.
  • Feel like a Lilliputian whilst picnicking by the phenomenal rushing river and oversized boulders.
  • Extreme walking is available. Mad adventurers are  fully catered for in the 9-hour arduous hike options. (Fortunately the smallest walk, for those still dipping their toe into the walking pond, is a 30 minute sign-posted river stroll next to the stone bridge. )

Bonus quirky activities

  • Train ride to the top of the world: Book the Snowdon Mountain railway for a mini-day trip to the nation’s highest summit, without having to break a sweat. You even get a café with your views. (Take a cheaty summit shot and pretend you took the hard way up).
  • Scale a mountain: For  walkers, why not follow in the footsteps of Victorian mountaineers and stay at the YHA at the foot of Snowdon itself and have a go at the biggest mountain in the land? Easy and hard paths available depending on the type of legs and lungs you have.

Wales Road trip Quirky stop 3

Blaenau Ffestiniog - Jolie laide?

Blaenau Ffestiniog, the only part of Snowdonia originally excluded from national park status,  is now recognised as a national treasure for its unique post-apocalyptic quarry landscape. It is strange and lunar. Is it beautiful in the manner of brutalist architecture? I’ll let you decide. What it is, is a lot cheaper to stay in than Snowdonia.

In the tiny village of Maentwrog you can book into a small family cottage in the grounds of a 17th century inn for a reasonable £110pn. It sits in the shadow of a mountain that very occasionally reveals its summit for a minute or so before being submerged in its own pet cloud.

The Grapes is the only place to eat in the village and you need to book ahead. It has a reputation for amazing food (don’t miss the chips). Hearing the Welsh language is an added draw.

Bonus quirky activities

If staying longer

  • Human torpedo? The former quarries of Blaenau Ffestiniog are home to Zipworld, land of high speed human-torpedo zip wires and underground trampolining. We thought about it, but were not yet ready for the 106kmph face-first ride. Next time.
  • Porthmadog should be visited for its name alone.
  • Welsh Riviera micro climate: Head to Abersoch for yachty types, goldens sands and a seaside bistro vibe. It really does have its own micro climate making it the sunniest place in the land. Be warned, the secret is out of the bag and pretty beach huts sell for the price of a small house.

Wales Road trip Quirky stop 4

Portmeirion - Little (Welsh) Italy

I’m not sure if it gets more quirky than this. In the village of Portmeirion, the architect decided to construct an entire Italian village in the Welsh hills.

Starting in 1925 Clough Williams-Ellis wanted to bring imagination back into architecture and, with only  a break for the war, spent 50 years adding playful absurdities to his collection of houses, ornamental gardens and Italian plazas. This is a spectacle of iconography borrowed from all architectural periods and religions. As well as borrowing ideas, being something of a magpie, he also bought in parts of old buildings to decorate the place, including a barrel-vaulted 17th century ceiling for the Town Hall.

Book ahead, as it is quite a draw, but I challenge you to find any attraction quite like it – except maybe Disneyland.

Follow your architectural whimsy

Being a car-free zone, you purchase an entry ticket for the day online or at the village entrance and, very much like entering a theme park, join the queue to La-La land.

On entry you will immediately be conflicted about which way to turn. Should you head straight on into the heart of the village through the invitingly orange archway or follow the green winding pathway to the Grecian viewpoint down the hill on the left? For me, the sea views won and I found myself in a white circular podium of a building, with cobalt blue corridors and arches below.

Stay on site like Mama Mia

Following the coastal footpath, another winding woodland stroll takes you into what could easily pass for Meryl Streep’s B and B in Mama Mia. You can in fact stay in these little chalky nooks of buildings with views over the al fresco hotel pool. It was August and the sun was shining, so it was actually being used.

All visitors to the village must, like a younger Cinderella, leave the ball leave at dusk. Those staying in the hotel then get the place to themselves.

Why were we not staying here? Well, it does get fully booked about a year ahead and goes for about 3 times the price we had paid, but one day, on a major decade birthday, we may just have to bite the bullet. 

Grand entrances

Winding our way back to the main arched entrance, it was time to enter the rainbow palette of the  “village” centre.

Although it turns out, it is not really a village at all. There are cafes and souvenir stalls but no real shops and no one actually lives there. You would struggle to find a pint of milk or newspaper. In fact, a bit like the Truman show, it slowly dawns on you that the whole place is a set. Fake windows and doors are painted onto frontages, like a stage.

Giant toys

Head further in and the theme park vibe ratchets up a notch. There is a giant chess set and paddling pool. It’s like a child’s drawing meeting Alice’s Wonderland.

We sat down with Italian ice-creams under the Juliet balcony to appreciate the colourful craziness.

I was glad to have seen it, but surprised to find it belonged more to theatre than the real world.

Film star

Portmeirion’s film star potential  (without the expense of flying a crew to actual  Italy) has not gone unnoticed. It starred as a backdrop in a diverse range of entertainment forms from  episodes of Citizen Smith and Dr Who to  videos by Altered Images, Supergass and Souxie and the Banshees.

In another celebrity claim to fame, George Harrison chose to spend his 50th birthday here. It’s that kind of place.

Wales Road trip Quirky stop 5

Harlech - a castle stranded in the dunes

Castle (rainy day plan)

Of all the amazing Welsh beaches, for our sunny afternoon, we chose this site of childhood summers where the castle has been deserted by the sea.

Built on a rocky coastal outcrop 800 years ago, Harlech Castle now stands a kilometre inland due to its receding sea line.

This is no ordinary castle:

  • Its pristine concentric stone walls (straight out of a fairytale illustration)  have earned it UNESCO World Heritage status;
  • tt has rubbed shoulders with the Wars of the Roses; and
  • was the site of the longest siege in history (7 years – how did they eat? Perhaps get a child to Google it).

Welsh surfing

The walk over the sandiest of dunes from the carpark to Harlech beach is a work out, but you are rewarded with miles of empty white sands. The mountain range and castle backdrop to the beach are a winning combination.

There are no cafes, toilets or life guards so be prepared food and safety wise (our bag of nuts was woefully inadequate ).

Wales Road trip Quirky stop 6

Aberystwyth

Unusual sights to be seen in this tiny colourful University town include:

  • A pier where in the semi-lit world of Welsh summer, wintry leafless trees stand starkly against the steely skies.
  • Free-to-clamber-over Medieval castle walls on the sea front.
  • The longest funicular electric cliff railway in Britain, no less.

Wales Road trip Quirky stop 7

Cardigan - the birth place of knitwear names

Stay in the birthplace of the older person’s jumper choice.

The cardigan was indeed named here after the knitted garment worn by 7th Earl of Cardigan, an army major general who led the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War.

And yes, you’ve guessed it – the balaclava was named after the knitted hats sported by the same troops in this very battle.

Stay in a the castle (with the ghosts)

Be queen for a day at Cardigan Castle – stay in rooms embedded in the walls of a 900 year old castle for full marks on the quirky factor front.

Having recently undergone a £12 million refurbishment, you get a very swanky family room (at a bargain £80 per night), breakfast in a glass-walled brasserie and have the castle grounds to yourself after hours, for strolling the battlements and sitting on the huge wooden throne.

To be honest, battlements aside, there is very little left of the original castle BUT you can:

  • Visit the exhibition in the Georgian mansion house and learn about the king who sold his  castle to the English (not a universally popular move) and the ghosts who would open the mansion shutters after the renovators had left for the night.
  • Check out the Rapunzel-style allotments, and hang out in the surprisingly tropical palm strewn gardens.

Beware the drive in! It requires a 90 degree turn off a busy one-way road and a side-scraping entry through the narrowest of castle tunnel walls. Miss it and you have to loop the entire town again. Oh how we laughed (not really).

Old town

Cardigan old town closes its high street of pretty coloured shops to traffic for market day. Spend an afternoon drifting around the antique stalls, pavement cafes and extremely old pubs.

Toxic sweet shop

Kids, both real and at heart, will be drawn to the almost cartoon-like red and white olde worlde sweetshop where the sours come with a health warning that we really should have abided by.

Pizza in a tent

Looking for a quirky Cardigan restaurant?

  • Try Welsh tapas in the beige stoned and wooden beamed Yr Hen Printworks.
  • Or book ahead for the tented riverside pizza experience at Pizza Tipi.

Bonus quirky activities

if you are here for longer:

  • Visit Wales’s own Blue Lagoon. At the National Trust owned Abereiddi, see how industrial chemicals can add other worldy neon hues to a natural pool.
  • Or head into Pembrokeshire for fabulous Grecian green waters and natural archways masquerading at church doors. 

Quirky Wales road trip summary

Wales has more going on than its green hilled poster persona would suggest.

Where else can you find Louisiana trellises, Portofino porticos, Grecian green seas and Caribbean blue lagoons? And don’t forget the ghosts.

Birthplace of architectural whimsy and knitwear names – I salute your sustained quirkiness.

I urge you to seek out its hidden gems and report back on other otherworldly Welsh weirdness (in a good way).

For an exclusive downloadable pdf summary of quirky stops for your Wales road trip – click to subscribe to Holiday from Hels here!

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