For our first two years in the UK, if it was time for a school break or a bank holiday signaled a long weekend, we would be on the first flight out of London to somewhere in mainland Europe. Having never been to Europe before we moved here, each of the countries we visited were new to us, and each one so different than the one before that visiting a whole new country every time we traveled became addictive…in the best way possible, of course. Tapas and sunshine in Spain, skiing in the Austrian Alps, the northern lights in Swedish Lapland, holiday celebrations in Denmark, and history in Berlin – we have really tried to cover as many different places and types of travel as possible since we’ve been living here. We have learned and seen so much these past few years, but choosing to visit a new country every time we traveled did come with a couple downsides.
Loved Spain and want to go back? Too bad, because we haven’t seen Portugal yet!
Even if we really liked a country and wanted to see more of it, we couldn’t justify a return trip with so many other possibly-just-as-awesome countries still to see.
Oh, you’re living in the UK? Have you been to _____ yet?
And worst of all, it meant we weren’t exploring the country we were living in. Or countries, depending on how you look at it. (The United Nations counts them all as one, but I prefer to count England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland as their own countries, too.)
That all changed last year, though, when we realized we only had one year left in the UK and all we had seen of it was a very few places in England. We made it our mission to visit all four of the countries making up the United Kingdom (plus see a lot more of England) before they kicked us out. We started with Scotland, which absolutely knocked our socks off. After that, expectations were high when we visited Wales a month later. (Keep reading. It doesn’t disappoint!) With next month’s trip to Northern Ireland scheduled just three weeks before we leave the country, it appears we may actually complete our quest before we go. (I love that word. Quest. It makes us sound like actual adventurers!) I don’t want to jump the gun and somehow jinx our trip to Northern Ireland, but if it’s anything like its big sisters, I am positive our last trip in Europe will be a good one.
But today I want to talk about Wales, specifically Betws-y-Coed which was our homebase for exploring Snowdonia National Park and North Wales last May. It’s been almost a full year since we visited but this trip remains firmly rooted in my memory for at least two reasons. First, after two years of being constantly-on-the-go travelers, we changed pace for the first time and actually took it easy while we were in Wales. Easy for us, anyway, which is to say instead of trying to tackle a list of 10 things every day, we kept our daily limit of activities and sights visited under 5 and made sure we had a couple hours mid-day where we could rest. (Which I believe is what most people just call Normal Traveling.) Originally it was my health that necessitated the change in MO, but we loved traveling this way so much that even when I’m feeling better, we still prefer to operate around this new, easy-going travel schedule. Change is good.
And the second reason Wales was so unforgettable, well, see for yourself…
Have you ever seen so much green? I’m not sure if Betws-y-Coed is always this green, or if it was just the time of year we visited, but my original photos were so saturated I had to layer a faded filter over them so they weren’t so Shockingly Green. (Future crayon color?)
ARRIVING IN BETWS-Y-COED
Betws-y-Coed is Welsh for ‘prayer house in the wood’. It’s an accurate description since much of Betws-y-Coed is truly in the middle of the woods of Snowdonia National Park and St Michael’s Church, the 14th century ‘prayer house’ referenced in the name, still stands overlooking the River Conwy. If you’re curious how the name is pronounced, you’re not alone. Before we visited, Cory and I were butchering the pronunciation so considerably we should have just given the town an acronym instead. The Welsh language is notoriously difficult for English speakers as it contains a number of sounds we don’t use, as well as words and names that seem to stretch on to infinity. (Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, anyone? I didn’t just have a seizure on top of my keyboard, that is a real place.) I can’t tell you how to pronounce that last one, but to properly say Betws-y-Coed, you’d pronounce it like bet-oos-ee-coyd. Hear it here.
In another first, getting here was almost as fun as the destination itself. (At least for me, I wasn’t the one driving!) Instead of taking the train and renting a car on arrival which is what we would usually do, this time we picked up our rental a mile from home and drove all the way to Betws-y-Coed from London. What should have been about a 4-hour drive ended up taking more like 6 1/2 thanks to road works causing some major traffic, but the delay was fine by me. Once we crossed into Wales, the scenery on our route was so beautiful, I could have sat in traffic all day. Cory probably remembers it a little differently, though. FYI – If you don’t want to drive all the way to Betws-y-Coed, there are trains that leave from London’s Euston station and various other places in between that will take you straight into the town. I hear the scenery is pretty spectacular on that route, too.
When we arrived, thanks to a sun that wouldn’t set until 10pm, we still had plenty of time to explore, and a gorgeous day to do it! By recommendation from Frances, our host at the B&B, we spent most of our remaining daylight hours before dinner on the public footpath that winds around and through the town. The path took us past St Michael’s Church, the River Conwy (and an awesome suspension bridge where we spent a good half hour taking photos), and an abundance of beautiful farms tucked into the valley. Curious little lambs stared at us as we passed, flowers and trees were in bloom, and hardly anyone else was in sight – it was like I’d walked into my own personal heaven. We didn’t have enough time to walk the entire length of the path (route here), but we saw more than enough to decide we’d picked the perfect place to stay in Snowdonia.
WHERE TO STAY IN BETWS-Y-COED
Due to Betws-y-Coed’s charming looks and prime location in Snowdonia National Park, it can get really busy during high season. Even visiting in May, before the summer travel season usually begins, we struggled to find a B&B with an open room for three. When we found an availability at Garth Dderwen B&B, we snatched it up, despite having no idea what the room actually looked like. (After having no luck with recommendations we’d found online, we were cold-calling every B&B in town asking if they had a room! I recommend booking well in advance if you’re traveling as a family so you don’t have to do that!)
Garth Dderwen B&B is located right in the town center, within a short walk of all the shops and restaurants. It’s an old stone house with a large garden and 6 rooms available for guests. When we spoke to our host at the Garth Dderwen on the phone, she warned us our room was small, but we were pleasantly surprised when we arrived and discovered her version of small is still bigger than pretty much every other B&B bedroom we’ve stayed at in Europe, so no sleeping on top of each other. Yay! Our room was comfortable and homey, furnished with antiques and decorated with various knick-knacks, as is the rest of the house. Our room also had an attached, private bathroom that we accessed by walking down a small set of stairs. Two common rooms are opened to guests during the day – a bright tea room overlooking the garden and a small sitting room with heavy drapes and antique chairs and a complimentary bottle of sherry on the table. It’s hard to beat this level of old-fashioned charm. I wasn’t even aware people still drank sherry after the 70’s. :)
A hot breakfast was served every morning in the tea room or the breakfast room and we always sprung for the full English…or is it full Welsh in Wales? Regardless, it was enough to fill us up until dinner with only small snacks of cake and other treats needed in between. Breakfast was also when we got to chat with our hosts which is obviously one of the best parts about staying at a B&B. The Garth Dderwen is owned by a kind, older couple, Frances and Eifion. Eifion speaks Welsh and was more than happy to oblige when I asked him how to say that super long named town I mentioned earlier. (It sounds just as crazy as it looks, and never in a million years would I be able to repeat it!)
At £90/night for the three of us, the Garth Dderwen wasn’t one of the cheaper places we’ve stayed in the UK, but we definitely feel like we got our money’s worth in comfort and location.
Besides the walk we took on our first day, the other thing you won’t want to miss when visiting Betws-y-Coed is Swallow Falls, the highest continuous waterfall in Wales. We went to see the falls after dinner one night at the Glan Aber Hotel, our favorite place to eat in Betws-y-Coed. Swallow Falls is on the River Llugwy, a tributary of the River Conwy, and is located about two miles west of Betws-y-Coed. You can access the falls a couple different ways. The quickest is to drive from town, park where you can find a space, and pay a £1.50 entrance fee to enter the small park that overlooks the falls. The other option is to walk or hike there, which is free and offers a completely different vantage point than what you’ll get from the park, but it does take some time if you’re coming from the center of town.
Since the sun was only about an hour away from setting, we chose the easier option and spent the remainder of our first day capturing photos of the falls from the three or so different vantage points in the park. It was so peaceful here that afterwards, we sat on one of the park benches next to the falls and just watched and listened to the water until it got so dark we could no longer see them. I wanted to come back again, taking the hiking route the second time around, but weather and an endless supply of other things to do and see in North Wales kept us from making it back again.
THINGS TO SEE OUTSIDE BETWS-Y-COED
If you’re coming to Snowdonia National Park, you’ve probably got mountains on your agenda of which there are many. Certainly the most popular is Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales and the highest point in Britain outside of the Scottish Highlands. We had no plans to climb this one while we were in the area, but we did hope to at least see it. Apparently it wasn’t meant to be, because the best view we ever got of Snowdon was of the foothills, its peaks completely shrouded in fog.
If hiking the tallest peak in the region seems a little out of reach, there are countless smaller peaks and hills appropriate for all levels of hikers and families. With so many scenic choices, we had a difficult time deciding, but eventually chose Cwm Idwal in the Ogwen Valley between two mountain ranges popular with hikers – the Glyderau and the Carneddau. Our other top choices were Cader Idris and the Rhinogs (pictured last above), both in the south of Snowdonia.
If your intent is to get great photos, but you don’t feel like hiking up hills or mountains to get them, just get in the car and drive. Snowdonia is chock full of fantastic photo ops, even from the road. As we drove from place to place I was constantly urging Cory to stop the car (or worse, Go back! Go back!) because I’d seen something that would make a good photo. If you like to take photos, you can pretty much plan on doubling the amount of time your GPS tells you it’s going to take to get somewhere.
Besides hiking and taking in the pretty scenery, there are oodles of other ways to keep yourself busy in Snowdonia from shopping in the little towns to taking a steam train up the mountain. (Or across Snowdonia like we did.) I will be sharing more about all the things we did in North Wales over the next two weeks, so stay tuned! We fell head over heels for Betws-y-Coed and Snowdonia and I can’t wait to share more of it with you!
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