In true “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie” fashion, Tom and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to add Wales to our itinerary once we decided on going to London.
After all, our friend Mark lives just hours outside of London in the small Welsh town of Caerleon. And with Caerleon on the list, we figured we ought to see Caerphilly, Swansea, and the Gower Peninsula too.
Wales is not exactly on the backpacker circuit, which has both its advantages and disadvantages. Accommodations were a bit more expensive than we had budgeted, but on the flip side, we had a reprieve from the hoards of tourists, long lines (or as they say here, queues), and entrance fees to see every attraction.
I don’t mean to imply that they don’t have attractions, they do! But many of them are free or very inexpensive. In short, we got tourism without the tourists! And the few tourists we did encounter were mostly Welsh natives exploring their homeland, so it enhanced the authenticity of our experience instead of cheapening it.
How else would we learn the distinct sound of the Welsh accent and their quirky, nonsensical sayings like, “Whose coat is this jacket?” or “I’ll have it now again in a minute.”
Caerleon & Caerphilly Castle
Arriving in Caerleon, we were immediately doused with a warm Welsh welcome. The proprietor of the darling B&B we reserved greeted us in the street as soon as we stepped out of our taxi. She introduced herself as Aunty Kath, and rightly so, as she made us feel like her own family.
Our room seemed like a tourist attraction in and of itself. The home is a traditional Georgian Grade II listed house and historical site. You can read more about it on their website (pendragonhouse.co.uk).
We had considered booking a cheaper place in nearby Newport, but in hindsight we are so glad we didn’t. Staying in the village of Caerleon, we were able to walk to all of the nearby sites. It was well worth the extra few bucks.
We kicked off our stay with our friends Mark and Sonja with dinner at the Hanbury Arms. At this pub you can still sit at the same window that Tennyson occupied as he looked out at the River Usk and gained inspiration for his Idylls of the King in 1856. If you enjoy the tales and legends of King Arthur, this town is for you.
The next day, we had the best tour guides in Caerleon. Our friend Mark and his two little helpers (his two youngest kids) took us on a walking tour around town.
This town sat at the far reaches of the Roman Empire, so the place is littered with roman ruins, some excavated, but many more still buried deep beneath the village.
We saw some more Roman baths, but this time for free and with no lines. The small Roman bath museum in Caerleon is very well done and if you don’t make it to see the large Roman baths in Bath, England, I recommend this as a suitable alternative. If you have kids, I think this museum is actually better as they had lots of interactive exhibits.
The rest of the tour included a leisurly “walk around,” through grass fields to see more Roman ruins, including walls and barracks just on the backside of the school’s rugby field. We enjoyed having an entire excavated Medieval amphitheater to ourselves. This one is thought to be King Arthur’s round “table.”
In the afternoon, we headed over to Caerphilly Castle, to walk through the largest Medieval castle in all of Wales. We allowed our imaginations to run wild for about three hours in this place.
Maybe it was because we were with kids, but we found ourselves gleeful as we stimulated our imaginations by aimlessly exploring the castle, discovering secret passages, and pretend playing with medieval weapons of mass destruction. It brought movies like Braveheart and the Monty Python sketches to life.
Its amazing to me that these kids grow up with Roman ruins in their school yards and Castles down the road. I have fieldtrip envy.
Swansea and The Gower Peninsula
Next we headed to Swansea and the Gower Peninsula. The destination is a popular beach resort for Welsh vacationers. Mark had told us that we would see the most beautiful beaches in the world. Coming from California and having vacationed in the likes of Hawaii, Rio de Janero, Thailand, and Costa Rica, we pittied Mark for his lack of a discriminating beach palate. Shame on us.
Priding ourselves as beach aficionados, we wrongly assumed that Britain is not a worthwhile beach destination. We thought, “oh that’s cute, the British think they have a cute beach. We’ll humor them and take a picture.” Boy were we humbled (and very pleased) when we found the hidden gem that is Gower Peninsula in all her beachy glory.
The pictures give you a glimpse, but don’t come close to doing it justice. The beach was wide, expansive and nestled amongst green cliffs, complete with herds of sheep and wild horses. And it wasn’t just pretty to look at. This particular beach, Rhossili, had sunny weather, water warm enough for a swim, and waves decent for a beginning surfer.
And even though there were many tourists visiting the peninsula, it is so large and sprawling that we never felt crowded. In fact, we felt like we had Worm’s Head entirely to ourselves.
We stayed in Swansea on which, as a destination in and of itself, we could pass. But the day trip to hike on the Gower Peninsula was well worth the visit. The buses were efficient and frequently ran from the Swansea city center to various points on the peninsula all day long for just $6 USD for a day pass.
If you go, stay out on the peninsula till the very last bus (around 7pm) to soak in every last second of the breathtaking views. There are some moments in life that will stay with you forever. Sitting on the patio of the pub, overlooking Worm’s Head and Rhossili Beach, after a full day of hiking is one of those moments for me. The sun was warm, the breeze cool, the company delightful, and the surrounding nature inspiring.
As I sit here in Florence writing this post, I am surrounded by some of man's greatest art from the Renaissance. And when I reflect on the Gower Peninsula, I'm reminded that nothing man-made could ever compete.
Thank you, Wales. You pleasantly surprised us.
I'm Jaime. My husband is Tom. Suburbanites, backpackers, and expats...we've been them all!