Day Four: Carmarthenshire, Tenby, Porthgain, St. David’s
We were up early and, leaving from outside Birmingham in Adrian’s roomier station wagon, we cut through mid-Wales toward the southwest. We had some fun twists and turns as the more direct route was closed off with no notice in the middle of the route, and since no one knew how to go around it we saw a great deal of the tiny towns north of Brecon Beacons trying to get through to our destination. In addition to all the detours, we would have to stop for “Welsh traffic jams” — herds of sheep being shuttled across the roads.
Regardless, we made it through to our first stop at Aberglasney Gardens in beautiful Carmarthenshire. This was a nice beginning to the more rural part of the trip. The gardens sprawled out behind a country estate and made for a nice stretch of the legs after a four-hour drive. After snapping up some photos and touring the gift shop, we were back in the car and headed out further west.
We carried on to Tenby, which was a cool, walled town that hugged a really beautiful beach. The views from the walls were spectacular, especially since we were blessed with our fourth day of sunshine in a row. We made our way down to the beach from the castle ruins and strolled along the coast, alternating views of the sea and the elevated walled town painted in typically bright Welsh colors. After a good walk, we climbed back up to the car and continued on the tiny one-lane farm roads to a tiny town called Porthgain. It was more a hidden away cul-de-sac than an actual town. There was a restaurant at the edge of the old shipping docks called The Shed, and it had some of the best fish and chips I’ve ever had. I was happy that Snowdonia’s fish and chips compared to theirs because the freshness of the fish was incredible and the batter was light and savory. We stopped across the street at the (only?) pub, The Sloop, for a quick pint and then got back in the car to head to our final stop of the day, St. David.
St. David is the smallest city in the U.K located more or less as far west as possible out on the “pig’s nose” peninsula. It’s a city by default because it has a cathedral, but it was a more of a tiny town filled with campers and tourists from all over. We were pretty worn out from tearing across the entire south coast of Wales in a day so we had a quick nap at our B&B and then ventured out in search of the restaurant, Cwtch. Cwtch (pronounced “kootch”) had come highly recommended from all of our sources when we were planning the trip, and the place did not disappoint. It was a modest two-story restaurant with the kitchen on the second floor. The kitchen would serve the first floor by dumbwaiter and I only wish that we could do the same thing at Snowdonia in the opposite direction (if only there was a place to put one!). We each had a three-course meal; standouts were the fish cakes served with homemade tartar sauce, and the salmon served on a bed of courgette and string beans.
We left Cwtch and strolled through the cool night air and stumbled upon a small local where we found a quiet table in the back for a late night pint. The pub was charming, but halfway through the pub it became filled with “travelers" that changed the pub's atmosphere to what Carrie called a mix of Straw Dogs and American Werewolf. So we finished up and left the pub to its new guests, walked up the street to our B&B, and after one more pint at the hotel’s bar, went upstairs to bed.
Day Five: Up the Cardigan Coast to Aberystwyth
Up early again — this full breakfast thing is really starting to appeal to me! We packed up and were on the road by 8:30am. I was looking forward to this day because it was almost completely unplanned. We had a whole bunch of cheese farms, local shops, and a brewery on the itinerary, but we hadn't nailed down anything solid so we’d have to find them blindly and cold call them. We passed through the cool little town of Fishguard and moved east away from the coast to search out Caws Cenarth — an award winning cheese maker that had yet to export outside Wales. We snaked through farm roads, where the sat-nav dropped us at the wrong end of a deserted farm. Luckily, Adrian was a strong navigator and brought us around the farm valley to the proper entrance. It was still early so we rolled into what seemed an empty farm space. There were signs that pointed visitors where to go so we toured through the barns ourselves, and ended up at the shop where Carwyn, the second generation owner of Caws Cenarth was having his coffee. Surprised to have New York visitors, he made us some coffee and we tasted his cheese, which was phenomenal. We chatted about possibly exporting some of his product to the states and he was enthusiastic. He then told us of Da Mhile Distillery up the road that shared space with the raw milk Teifi Cheese Company.
A short 20 minute drive got us over to the distillery. The distiller was as surprised to see us as Caws Cenarth, but he happily showed us around. Trained in the more rigorous Scottish traditions, his whiskeys were very small batch and looked fantastic. Surely, after more barrels mature, they will become renowned. They are proudly the only true organic distiller in the UK at the moment. We walked away with a highly-unique gin distilled with seaweed, and a great orange liqueur. We then walked across the driveway to the Teifi showroom and had some great conversation with a super-friendly Dutch transplant, who was happy to share some phenomenal cheese made with nettle and another with seaweed (again with seaweed! Fab!). When we went up to the office to pay, I was shocked to meet a Columbian-American working there who was originally from Astoria! Small world, indeed! We swapped emails and I insisted we work together to at least get the seaweed gin on our shelves. We then hopped in the car to find the tiny brewery called Penlon.
Finding Penlon was quite challenging as it was easily the most remote place we had yet to venture to. We trekked down a single farm path for miles, and ended up at a small farm consisting of two stone barns and a farm house at the edge of a cliff looking out over Cardigan Bay. It was spectacular, and it seemed deserted — no signs, no barrels, nothing that would indicate a brewery. Only a family of pigs greeted us as we pulled up; we were certain we had made a wrong turn somewhere. Suddenly, a lady popped her head out the door, and asked if she could help us. We were both stunned, and I threw out the “lost and from New York” card. “New York? Oh, you should have called first . . . John [her husband and brewer we would later find out] is down the coast with the kids. Want some tea?” This is the immediate friendliness of the country. She turned out to be hilarious and aloof, telling us that her husband and she had moved out to West Wales from London to raise the kids after a mutual mid-life crisis. Soon after moving there, her husband went out for a drink — and came back with a brewery. Penlon had been started by a brilliant Welsh eccentric with knowledge of physics and little time for social niceties. After creating brilliant beer recipes, he grew tired of running the brewery and taught John the secret recipes for his beer. Now, the ex-London couple makes these phenomenal beers! She showed us around the tiny, understated brewery and then we drank. Adrian and I bought a dozen, apologized for surprising her and missing John, Carrie then said goodbye to the pigs and we all soldiered on to Aberaeron.
We had been out in deep country for most of the day so when we reached Aberaeron we were reminded that we were still in peak tourist season. We parked a mile out, because the town was still crammed with daytrippers. As was becoming our style, we stopped into the Harbourmaster at 15:00 and had missed lunch by a half hour. So we had a pint of Purple Moose’s Glaslyn Ale and reorganized. We trolled around looking for the Welsh Mustard Co., but it had either moved or closed. I picked up a cone of honey ice cream at The Hive before we walked back that mile to the car.
We decided to drive straight on to Aberystwyth since we now had a car filled with about three pounds of various cheeses and thirty bottles of beer, collected from Swansea to Penlon. We were proud to have met so many great people and products in one short day. We arrived at the Queensbridge Hotel located right on the water around 18:00. We got a great big room on the fourth floor, and the only downside was that the lift was broken. Carrie and Adrian stayed in the room to get organized and I went out to scout the city before the sun went down. Aberystwyth is a mid-sized city with a university population — sort of a fusion between a college town and a Welsh village. I navigated around the wharf and into the city to find a cool little pub called Yr Hen Lew Du. The pub, like the town, was quiet since it was Monday. I had another Glaslyn Ale and then walked back to the wharf to meet Carrie and Adrian at Gwesty Cymru for dinner.
Gwesty Cymru was so far the most traditionally-Welsh-based of the fine dining establishments. The food was very fresh, and most unique was my crabmeat salad served in a crab shell and topped with Welsh rarebit. The two distinct flavors were almost at odds with each other, but I found it very flavorful and original. The staff was very friendly and now, being further north, all of our dining neighbors were speaking Welsh. I was glad that Sian (back in Cardiff) had tweaked my pronunciation skills so I wouldn’t continue embarrassing myself. It is a very bizarre but beautiful-sounding language, and the Welsh brogue really finished off the restaurant’s ambiance. We left Gwesty Cymru to stroll around the city. Being Monday night, it was quiet and the pubs were sleepy and devoid of customers. After a good long walk, we returned to the Queensbridge to get some sleep in between the crashing of the waves outside the windows.
Day 6: Porthmadog, Portmerion, Pwllheli, Canaerfon
We woke up to a light rain that matched the grey seaside feel of Aberystwyth. We lugged the bags down the four flights of stairs and packed up the car. I lingered on the seaside for a bit. The weather and the crashing waves reminded me of growing up in New England. We jumped into the car (still pretty full with cheese and beer from the past few days), stopped off at Starbucks to grab a familiar U.S. jolt of iced Americano, and snapped pictures of the familiar chain menu translated into the native Welsh language (sometimes it is the stupid little things like “royal with cheese” that entertain us). We then pulled out of Aberystwyth to meet up with Alison McLean at the Purple Moose Brewery (Bragdy Mws Piws) in Porthmadog (pronounced port-ma-dock).
We ended up being extremely early, having once again overestimated the distance between Aberystwyth and Snowdonia National Park. So we drove out onto the Llyn peninsula to the town of Pwllheli (which means “salt water pool”) to search out the home of Jones Crisps. This turned out to be a challenge, because its address was on a street that didn’t believe in house numbers. We gave up for a bit and strolled the small town and grabbed a quick lunch at a pub off the town centre. After lunch we broke down and called Jones Crisps, who told us that they were in a store called the “boat tree.” Of course, we still couldn’t find it until I realized that “boat tree” was actually bwyty which is Welsh for for “food place” or a deli. Having finally found the address, we discovered that we had completely surprised the sales rep, and she was at a loss as to how to help us. We told her that we were simply interested in getting some decent Welsh crisps into Snowdonia and she felt a bit relieved since they are trying to export to the U.S. We grabbed one of each crisp, traded cards and browsed the bwyty for other Welsh products. We discovered a company called Calon Lan that made chutneys and spreads. They were all fantastic but the weirdest (and best to me) was the Red Mustard and the Scotch Bonnet Jam. We must find a way to get these crisps and jams into our pub back home!
Having killed more time than expected, we sped back off the peninsula to Porthmadog and the Purple Moose Brewery. Alison at Mws Piws was a really cool Scottish transplant that was clearly prouder-than-proud of her brewery. She toured us through all of the malts and the hops, and then introduced us to the brewmaster, who was busy mixing the next batch of ale. She walked us through the brewing vats and into the casking rooms where they even casked a few ales in whiskey barrels. We then (naturally) tasted all of the ales. We all agreed that their “Snowdonia Ale” was a perfect match for Snowdonia by name alone. The other winners were “Elderflower Ale” and the multiple-award-winning “The Dark Side of the Moose,” which was an awesome stout. Again, we looked forward to another conversation as to how we could get these ales across the Atlantic. We thanked Alison for her time and energy, and she left us with a stuffed purple moose to bring home to Tom Jones, the actual moose head mounted on our wall. On the way out, we walked into town and hit their shop where we picked up a few knick-knacks and t-shirts, and then jumped back in the car to get to Portmeirion.
We were only about ten minutes from one of the coolest towns in the world. This was my third time here. The town was bought and transformed by architect Clough Williams-Ellis between 1925 and 1975 into a surreal mix of Welsh seaside colored houses and Italian sculptures and amphitheater. The result is neither Welsh or Italian, but a wholly original fairy town that rolls down a hill into an estuary that twice a day empties out to a rolling, sandy plain. Visitors can stay in the town’s cottages, or at the Portmeirion Hotel at the base of the town. I discovered the town as a huge fan of The Prisoner, a '60s film starring Patrick McGoohan set in Portmeirion as an island where resigned spies were held as numbered individuals and were expected to adjust to forced retirement. The town was one of the central characters in the show, and it still retains such an otherworldly character that I have to visit the town any time I am within 200 miles of it. The first two times I was here it was either raining or the sky was completely grey, but, as was our luck with the trip, the sun was out in full force and the pink and purple buildings popped against the blue waters of the central pool. Anyone visiting Wales must never miss this town!
We had managed to meet up with everyone in the area and hit one of the coolest towns in Wales so we traveled up the coast to Canaerfon (pronounced ka-NARV-on -- it only took me three days to say it correctly!), where we would set up camp at Y Castel Inn. The inn was right next to Canaerfon Castle, and within walking distance of pretty much everything. The rooms were super clean and spacious, and the pub downstairs had a great selection of beers and good food. It was clearly popular with the locals because all you could hear in the pub was Welsh. We rested and cleaned up and walked out into Canaerfon in search of The Black Boy that had been recommended to us by Alison. On the walk I received a call from Bangor, where the owner of Jones Crisps had mentioned to a choir friend that he had been visited by New Yorkers earlier that day. The choir director, Dafydd, told me that he would be in D.C., Ohio and Vermont later this year so we should meet up. He offered to do a mini-concert at Snowdonia with his fifty-person choir. I said that would be great, but there would be no room for any listeners. We agreed to chat more when I got back to the states. Just meeting people left and right here, and that, as they say, is the point!
We supped at The Black Boy, which was a huge pub and inn. The food portions were massive and very tasty. This is a great restaurant for anyone that has been out hiking or mountain-climbing all day, or anyone who has an overactive appetite like mine. We completely over-ate and then stumbled around the town to get our directions. Near Y Castel, there was a pub called Bar Bach (literally “tiny bar”) that claimed to be the smallest bar in Wales. While there was a secret large room in the back that may belie that claim, the front bar was quaint and perfect for a nightcap pint. We each downed a pint while listening to some local Welshies singing in the back room. We left and went back to Y Castel, and I thought that we couldn’t have capped off a purely Welsh day like this one any better.
To be continued...