* This week marks National Parks Week. The annual event, backed by a series of events and walks, celebrates the 15 national parks across England, Scotland and Wales, including my persona favourite – Snowdonia. Our national parks attract 90m visitors per year. The below story may be an old one but it captures the perennial appeal of Snowdonia.
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The Snowdonia National Park [Maya pictured above at Coed-y-Brenin, near Dolgellau] is one of Britain’s most stunning natural landscapes. It already has superb walking and flower-strewn mountain vistas, and is home to a clutch of sturdy, stone-built villages, where some warm Welsh hospitality is assured.
But this summer it unveils two major new attractions. The extension to the Welsh Highland Railway cuts a steam-powered swathe through the national park from Caernarfon to Beddgelert. The final leg to Porthmadog will open next spring. Hafod Eryri, the new visitor centre and cafe atop Mount Snowdon, opens soon. The revamped Snowdon Mountain Railway will also re-open for those who don’t fancy the eight-mile climb for a cream tea.
Where to stay
Dolgellau, all slate-topped cottages and attractive market square, makes an excellent base. It also has some seriously smart places to stay and eat, of which Ffynnon (ffynnontownhouse.com) is the pick of the bunch. A boutique B&B with three rooms, it combines elegance with a family-friendly policy.
Nearby, Y Meirionnydd (themeirionnydd.com) has homely rooms and a cosy cellar restaurant. For a country-house weekend, Plas Tan-Yr-Allt (tanyrallt.co.uk;) is a stately property between Tremadog and Beddgelert. The emphasis is on home-cooked food with locally sourced meals served en famillle at a nightly dinner party.
North Wales is renowned for its four Word Heritage castles, including Harlech Castle (cadw.wales.gov.uk). The walls speak of a battle-scared history that inspired one of Wales’ most famous hymns, Men of Harlech.
The fairytale village of Portmeirion (portmeirion-village.com) also inspires devotion, albeit primarily from devotees of the cult 1960s TV series, The Prisoner. Visit early or late in the day to catch the light illuminating the surrealist architecture that made the village the real star of the show.
Further north, bustling Betws-y-Coed is a major hub for visitors but a series of easy day walks soon lead away from the crowds, some of them even push- or wheelchair accessible. Ask at the National Park Information Centre (eryri-npa.co.uk) for details.
Where to eat
Near Llanberis, Pen-y-Gwryd (pyg.co.uk) serves the most atmospheric pub food in the national park. Edmund Hilary and the 1953 Everest team used the inn as a training base. Today their memorabilia fills the dining room.
For a more contemporary dinner, Dolgellau’s Mawddach (mawddach.com) brings a touch of style to rural North Wales. The lamb is fresh from the adjoining farm and local fish specials a regular feature.
Finally, Siop Y Gornel (siop-y-gornel.co.uk) in Bala is a great little deli for homemade snacks on the go, while Glaslyn Ices (glaslynices.co.uk) in Beddgelert has the creamiest double scoop in Snowdonia.
The perfect pub
For real ales and traditional pub grub, the Golden Fleece Inn (01766 512421) in Tremadog’s market square is hard to beat. They have hearty food and serve a decent pint of Snowdonia Ale, brewed by the award-winning, local Purple Moose microbrewery (purplemoose.co.uk).
For a taste of contemporary Wales, DOC cafe bar in the modernist Galeri Caernarfon arts centre (galericaernarfon.com) is ideal for some liquid refreshment before the performance.
A visit to Snowdonia is a superb way to delve into Wales’ Celtic tradition of music, literature and folklore.
Browse the CDs at Ty Siamas (tysiamas.com), the National Centre for Welsh Folk Music in Dolgellau, or stock up on books about Welsh legends at the tourist office in Beddgelert (01766 890615), including the famous tale of Prince Llewellyn’s loyal dog, which gave the village its name.
Take a hike
The Mawddach Trail is a converted railway line meandering along the estuary from Dolgellau to the brash seaside town of Barmouth. The gentle trail skirts woodland and a RSPB nature reserve.
More strenuous, but less demanding than climbing Snowdon, is the ascent of Cader Idris. The most popular trail is the Ty Nant path, starting just southeast of Dolgellau. Complete the five-hour yomp to be back in time for a late-afternoon pint at the Unicorn. Best check routes and weather at the tourist office (eryri-npa.co.uk) before you set out.
Take the family
The Bala Lake Steam Railway (bala-lake-railway.co.uk) remains a family favourite for a chug around the lake that is allegedly home to Teggie, Wales’ answer to the Loch Ness Monster. Alternatively, Gwydyr Stables (01690 760248) arranges pony-trekking forest excursions around Betws-y-Coed.
* This story was first published in the Observer in 2009 as part of the Great British Escapes series.
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