Best of Wales: 15 Reasons to Visit

Europe's best beaches. The world's best beer. The most incredible walk on earth. Yes, this is the forgotten side of the U.K. And these were among our 15 finds, mostly by accident, while researching the story 55 Laws Street.

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St. Govan's Head
There are no gates, ticket booths or graffiti around St. Govan's Head, a stack rock carved into the south shore of Pembrokeshire. To the back of photographer Jon Whittle is a 1,500-year-old chapel built directly into a rock crevace. Straight ahead, if you look closely, you can see the headland is a nesting ground for thousands of razorbills and guillemots (they look like puffins). The spot was just a few miles from where Bill Wells grew up on 55 Laws Street, yet he never knew it was here.
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The Lanes
Most routes off the main road look something like this. It's called a lane: a tunnel of wildflowers and herbs that squeeze in and force you or the rare oncoming car to pull into the vegetation. Be prepared to stop for cattle and sheep being herded across the lanes. Or do what everyone did until the 1960s — walk.
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Swansea Market
Get this straight: Welsh foods are not exotically colorful or tasteful. Local folks eat what they catch or grow, which means lots of mussel-like fare, blocks of cheeses, root vegetables, and snacks made of seaweed. It's all found among the rows and rows of fresh finds at Swansea Market. Start with a dozen Welsh cakes. They're like scones, but without the hoity-toity name.
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The Disappearing Beach at Tenby
We arrived at Tenby during low tide. The beach at that moment was one of the widest imaginable — a good quarter mile from the breakwall to the sea. Four hours later these boats were floating in about seven feet of ocean water (really cold ocean water), thanks to one of the world's biggest tidal fluctuations.
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Hedges
Hedges turned Wales into a giant puzzle 800 years ago, with some fields no bigger than a backyard garden and others stretching for miles. You can tell how old a hedge is by counting the species of plants growing in it. This one carried the strong smell of wild garlic.
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Great Beer
Liquid products from St. Louis and Milwaukee are not known in Wales. The beer selections are almost always local, and they change from pub to pub. The local breweries do not hurry to produce their ales and lagers, and the bartenders take their time drawing it.
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Strange Landscape Architecture
Life has always been harder in Wales than in neighboring England. Much of the world's coal was mined here in the 19th and 20th centuries. The people ate whatever the cold climate would allow (potatoes, peas, rabbit). That hardiness is still evident with the rolling sheep pastures, some of which have the unique pleasure of abutting old castles.
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Touchable History
The pride in Welsh history is hard for most of us to understand. It's so strong that monuments like this Celtic cross are all over the map. They're also wide open for anyone to touch (and to severe weather elements), yet they have not given way to vandals or collectors after 500-plus years.
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Welsh People
While tracking down my neighbor's childhood memories for the ISLANDS story called 55 Laws Street, we met Stuart Ward. He opened his home on a rainy day and showed us unusual remnants of the past at ... 55 Laws Street. Then he invited us to have beers at the local pub.
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Europe's Best Beaches
Yes, this is Wales. The forgotten part of Great Britain. Specifically, this is Freshwater West. It is as under-used today as it was when Bill walked nine miles here from 55 Laws Street. The only real action is from a surfing micro-community (and the film crew that used the beach for scenes in Robin Hood and two Harry Potter movies). There are no shops or hotels here, just brambles and dunes leading down to sand that sets a standard for purity.
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Pubs
There are no gas stations or 7-11s in the green region of Pembrokeshire. But there are pubs. Every hamlet has at least one. Some of the pubs are parlor rooms on the bottom floors of homes built in the 1700s. Local farmers still congregate in these living rooms at the end of the day. Sometimes they talk. Sometimes they nap.
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Sea Cliffs
Because Wales has always been such a poor country, farmers could not afford fertilizers. And the shoreline is so rugged and the water so cold that tourism along the coast has not yet taken off. The result? Pure green fields break off at sheer sea cliffs, which themselves fall into gorgeous water that Welsh people call "glas" (green-blue). This view is from Caldey Island.
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Chapels Made of Stones
On the ferry ride over to Caldey Island (home of monks), one passenger who has lived in Pembrokeshire most of his life said, "My wife and I are the only people I know of who have been over to the island." That might explain why this chapel, hundreds of years old and made of small stones, is still in such great shape. It is not over-run, and is quiet as a cave. Monk-perfect.
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World's Longest Walk
Walking is as much a part of Welsh heritage as family crests. Bill Wells, the subject of 55 Laws Street, remembered his boyhood strolls as "a mile or two." (We clocked them at anywhere from 6-20 miles). So the 870-mile Wales Coastal Path is in the right place. It's the longest trail in the world that goes around an entire country. Read the green markers closely.
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Views Like This
For us, the hills and hedges of Pembrokeshire reached a royal climax on the drive east into Carmarthenshire. Here we came upon Carreg Cennen Castle sitting regally in the distance. The castle is privately owned, by accident. In the 1960s the Morris family bought the surrounding pastureland, not realizing that one of the most spectacular of Wales' 641 castles was on the deed as part of the farm. How's that for a guest house?