There are, in fact, two "Waleses." One is a mix of blue-collar industry and urban development, while the other is a fairytale land of pastoral farms, mist-covered mountains and gently flowing rivers and streams. Somehow, these two worlds co-exist in harmony, with 12th-century castles surrounded by suburban town—as though the combination were the most normal thing on earth.
After leaving Cardiff, we drove for half-an-hour into the Welsh countryside until we reached the Celtic Manor Resort, which has quietly been growing and expanding in the town of Newport for the past several decades. It was originally a private estate, then a small hotel, then a maternity hospital (!), then a larger hotel, and is now a spacious resort with three distinct golf courses. Golf fanatics will know the name immediately: The resort will host the Ryder Cup this October on a course it designed specifically for the event—the 2010 Course.
Rooms at the Resort are elegant and comfortable in an understated way. While maintaining a classy level of luxury, the rooms have a quiet dignity that makes them feel cozy (sorry, cosy) at the same time. (Bear in mind: The King-size bed in my room was actually two twin beds put together, which is great for couples but a wee bit jarring for a single traveler who likes sprawling out in the middle of a huge bed.)
Like the rooms, the resort's Forum Health Club and Spa is spacious and comfortable without being overwhelming. (Remind your clients to bring a pound coin to use for their lockers. They'll get it back when they leave.) Treatments at the spa are fairly traditional (massages, facials, etc., though one can enjoy an exotic Rasul Mud Ritual as well), and are surprisingly cost-effective. (A 50-minute full-body massage costs £55—roughly $82.) The steam room is dark and small (and quite soothing), and has quirky features like LED lights in the ceiling to recreate a night sky. The therapy rooms are dimly lit and have quiet music on an endless loop—very helpful for relaxing. Therapist Julie Urquhart did my full-body massage, and did a terrific job soothing this perpetually tense New Yorker's knotted back—I highly recommend her.
The resort is also a good option for meetings and conventions. Built onto the side of a hill, the convention space links the old Manor House with the new Resort building, keeping guests in daylight on all levels. (Having spent many claustrophobic hours in subterranean conference rooms, this is a real plus.)
For meals, guests can stay at the main Resort building and dine in the Olive Tree restaurant (which sets up a lovely breakfast spread in the mornings—who knew Welsh breakfasts were so much like English breakfasts?!) or The Crown, which has an amazing tasting menu that must be sampled to be believed. The clubhouses at the various golf courses also have great restaurants—check out The Lodge, which sits on the 18th green of the Roman Road golf course, and try the lamb shank (which is probably close in size to a whole lamb).
Culinary note: Wales has a wonderful dish called laverbread—a mix of edible seaweed and oats that is wonderfully tasty and filling. Encourage your clients to ask for some at breakfast, or to see if it's on the menu at their restaurants.
Freshly invigorated by our spa experiences, clay shooting (!), golfing and some delicious meals, we set off for the town of Abergavenny, which is just south of the Brecon Beacons National Park. In a delightfully local twist, we were brought to the Angel Hotel, an intimate little boutique property that sits on top of a pub and restaurant. The 32 rooms are all unique and individually appointed (some have claw-foot tubs), and were all recently renovated. (We could still smell the fresh paint.) The floors in the hallways were uneven and slanted, and the lobby is still being refurbished and refitted. While it currently only has stairs between floors, we were told it would soon be getting elevators (sorry, I mean lifts...no, wait, it's Wales—I mean liffts!) as part of the renovation. The hotel couldn't have been more endearing, and is a great home base for clients visiting the National Park or the surrounding countryside. In the main restaurant, the traditional Welsh cawl (a lamb and vegetable stew) is very tasty, and their mushroom risotto is also delicious. Outside, the town itself is quiet, with most of the stores closing in the early evenings. After the bustling activity of Cardiff, however, the suburban peace of Abergavenny is quite relaxing.
The next morning, with Paul Harris of See Wales as our excellent and very knowledgeable guide, we set off for the mountains, touring the Big Pit—a former iron and coal mine that has been preserved as a museum. Visitors are given headlamps and helmets before descending 300 feet down into the mine, and get to experience what life was like for the people who worked there before Maggie Thatcher closed the mines in the early 1980s. Our guide described—sometimes quite graphically—what working conditions were like there for the men, women and children (often as young as five years old) who were employed for generations in the dangerous darkness. (History buffs will love this gritty and powerful experience, but claustrophobic clients may want to pass.)
The Brecon Beacons National Park is a nature enthusiast's paradise, and your adventure-seeking clients will absolutely want to spend several days here. Activities in the Park include walking (one trail is 100 miles long, and begins in Abergavenny), cycling, rock-climbing, hang-gliding, caving and horse riding; aquatic adventures include sailing, windsurfing, canoeing and fishing its rivers and reservoirs. Unlike most national parks in America, the Brecon Beacons is a living, breathing community—driving through it, one passes numerous farms with sheep grazing in the fields. (Wales, Paul told us, has three million citizens and 15 million sheep.) Advise your clients to be on the lookout for wild ponies—they make for great photo ops.
One of Wales' former marketing slogans was "641 Castles, 6 Starbucks." (We suspect a few more Starbucks have opened since the slogan was coined, but they have a way to go before they reach the number of castles.) Two of those castles are Castell Coch and Caerphilly Castle, both of which are in varying stages of preservation, but can be rented for events and even weddings. (History-buff clients will swoon over these sites, especially over being able to walk through the thousand-year old buildings.) Pack a picnic lunch and comfortable shoes and go exploring.