|Fans of flora will enjoy Bodnant, one of the most verdant and beautiful of Wales’ many outstanding gardens.|
More Americans visit the British Isles than any other foreign destination, including France and Italy. Many American tourists go to see the gardens and they gravitate toward the southern counties of Kent and Hampshire, or the West country, then head up north to the Lake District and Scotland. Few ever venture into Wales, which is a pity because not only is it a beautiful country with outstanding gardens, it has a hundred castles, and mountains as dramatic as those in Scotland.
My mother was Welsh, and I spent a lot of time with my grandparents who lived in Llanfairfechan in North Wales. I no longer speak Welsh, which is an impossible language to master, and some of the names of the villages are beyond most people. Wales is a land of contrasts—sheep and cattle farmers retain a rural way of life in the north, while the south is more industrial.
Two Welsh gardens I have visited regularly are Powis Castle, near Welshpool, and Bodnant, near Conway. They are world-class and I think Bodnant is, perhaps, the most beautiful I have ever seen. It is mostly a woodland garden at a high elevation, with magnificent views toward the Snowdonia mountain range and a fantastic collection of azaleas and rhododendrons growing down the sides of a ravine in a dappled shade of Welsh oaks and giant redwoods. Go in the spring, when the rhododendrons, daffodils, laburnums and tulips are in bloom. Powis Castle is completely different. Perched high on a rock, it dates back to medieval times.
I am going to give you what I consider a perfect itinerary for exploring Wales. I would start the tour in the old Roman town of Chester (best shopping outside of London), then cross the border to drive along the coast. Stay at the Grosvenor Hotel in Chester, a great location, and a wonderful hotel. Visit Conway, Caernarvon (two wonderful castles), take the little narrow gauge railway from Portmeirion to Blaneau Ffestiniog up to the top of Snowdonia, then wind your way down the center of Wales, all 200 miles of it.
In the south of Wales, Cardiff is a lovely modern city and worth visiting. It is only two hours by train from London. The people in the north all speak Gaelic, whereas in the south you don’t find Welsh spoken as much.
No visit to Wales would be complete without an overnight stay in the unique coastal resort village of Portmerion. It features a cluster of fantasy-inspired buildings designed by the eminent British architect Sir Clough Williams Ellis, who took inspiration from Italian coastal resorts. Its gardens are a collection of Australian tree ferns, giant echiums from the Canary Islands and New Zealand dragon palms, which all do well in the Gulf Stream that passes offshore.
Wales will surprise you with its unique customs, scenery and many waterfalls. You must be prepared for very narrow roads with high hedges, so only rent a small compact car.