Antony Clay and his family explore the rugged beauty and many attractions of North Wales.
Snowdonia is the heart and soul of Wales and venturing into it is always an enjoyable experience. The further across the border you get, the quieter the roads become, the wilder the terrain and, quite frankly, the friendlier are the people.
I took the opportunity to find out a little more about some of the family-orientated attractions in the area.
We based ourselves in the town of Caernarfon on the north west coast of the country at the welcoming four-star Bron Menai Guest House.
From here we were able to explore the isle of Anglesey and deep into the country around Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon to you).
Our first port of call was on the southern coast of Anglesey itself at the Anglesey Sea Zoo where you can get up close and personal with marine life from around the coast of our country.
You walk into the dark and see fish and molluscs and anemones and other weird and wonderful creatures from the deep. It is something of a revelation to realise that some of them are here in the UK, but the Sea Zoo is here to educate and educate it does.
You can also learn about the creature’s lives. The weirdest thing was to see shark egg cases with something strange wriggling about inside. It was like a real-life version of Alien.
A lot of work has been put in to make the Sea Zoo attractive to both grown-ups and children and it is well worth a visit. There is zorbing for the youngsters, as well as a playground and a cafe.
Caernarfon Castle was next on our itinery. A building with a rich history located at the heart of the town it is a must for anyone interested in history.
Run by Cadw, the castle - built by Edward I - is best known as the place where Prince Charles was inaugurated as Prince of Wales by The Queen.
Walking around the impressive structure - along its walls, up its towers, through its dark corrdors - you can get a real feel for what life must have been like when the castle was a hub of military and community life. Nowadays only beady-eyed herring gulls stand guard over the battlements.
That night we journeyed east (metaphorically speaking) and enjoyed cantonese cuisine at Fu’s restaurant in Caernarfon. A varied menu, great tasting food and a busy venue (always a good sign), made it a tasty treat.
Next morning, after a fortifying Welsh Breakfast courtesy of the Bron Menai guest house, we drove down to just north of Machynlleth where the village of Corris plays host to King Arthur’s Labyrinth.
This attraction is off the beaten track but worth the journey. Set in an old slate mine, it gives visitors the chance to travel underground on a short boat journey into the mountains (and I mean
into) and then a wander around the tunnels and caves while learning the story of the legendary King Arthur.
Different caves feature tableaux that tell the story of Arthur through music, lights and plenty of atmosphere. The coldness of the caves and the low lighting make for a spooky experience in keeping with the tale of dragons, giants, anicent kings and mysticism.
This unusual attraction is far more than just another trek round a cave system. It is an inventive way of drawing in both adults and children, and teaching old folk tales.
If you do fancy finding out more about the slate mining history of the area, there are trips available into the mines courtesy of Corris Mine Explorers. The trips are of varying lengths depending on your interest and available time but they give a very different perspective on what is to most of us an alien environment.
I was given a personal guided tour into the heart of the old slate mine. Walking down cold dark mineshafts with only a miner’s lamp to see by gives a very different perspective than more organised, fully illuminated trips. Scrabbling about over rocks, getting your feet wet, the silence, they all make you realise the hard lives the miners had all those years ago. Realising that the huge caves are entirely man-made by dynamite and pick axes brings home the danger facing those men, and the ingenuity they must have had to get the rock out. Old bits of machinery litter the tunnels like ghosts of the past. The mine trips are truly fascinating and unforgettable.
Back on the surface, you can get a good meal at the site’s Y Crochan cafe and then have a wander round various craft emporiums of the Corris Craft Centre offering unusual furniture, glassware, cards and much more. You can have a go at making your own candles at one of the shops which is great for the kids.
That evening, back in Caernarfon, we opted for fantastic greek grub at the town’s Ouzo and Olive restaurant. We could choose lots of dishes which were brought to share at the table. It was a hearty feast indeed at a pleasant, intimate venue.
The last day was the toughie as we ventured down to Betws-y-Coed to seek out the physical challenges on offer at the Tree Top Adventure attraction where you can rediscover the ape in you by taking to the treetops and attempting to defy gravity.
A high ropes course par excellence is what is on offer here.
Harnessed up and wearing a fetching safety helmet – safety is taken very seriously here - you venture out on the first part of the course which offers around ten or so challenges to your bravery and sense of balance.
While trained staff look on (and help where necessary, in my case), you work your way round the beginner’s part of the course and get a hang of what is required. Then, at the end of the beginner’s course, you either admit you’ve had enough or go on to the more challenging longer course if you’re brave enough.
Or, like me, you don’t realise the first bit is actually over and walk inncoently onto the second part before realising, only then recalling the guide’s warning that “there’s no turning back once you’ve started”. Oh dear.
The sceond part was much more difficult in a way that walking along a wobbly rope with only a single second rope to hang onto can be.
It was more diffcult in a way that falling off the aforesaid rope and having to lift my legs to head level and haul myself back up onto a still wobbling rope can be. Then there were more ropes and obstacles to come.
Having to jump off at 60ft at the end whilst attached to a “controlled zipwire” was, quite frankly, almost welcome. By then I would have jumped off without a rope.
The treetop adventure is scary, taxing, really quite bizarre... but hugely popular and, I have to admit, fun. Kids loved it more than the adults I think, but there were plenty of grown-ups who took on the challenge. Adults really don’t always know better! There is a smaller course for younger children, and the Powerfan which gives you the unique experience of falling 100ft on a rope, should you want that.
The newest attraction is a giant swing – the Sky Ride – which I and my daughter were given a chance to try out. We’ve both been on a giant swing before but it was nowhere near as big as the one here.
We were strapped in, the swing was lifted back, back and upwards, until I released the cord and sent us both flying through the air.
The ground seemed to turn to liquid as it flowed below us as we rocketed through the air, first forwards then back and then forwards again and, well, you get the picture. Like taking off in a plane, but on a swing, it was for me the high point of the day. Yes, I did scream like a girl but it was worth ruining my vocal cords.
A spot of much-needed refreshment was available at Cadwalader’s Ice Cream and Coffee Café in Betws-y-Coed itself which is a popular attraction for visitors.
Snowdonia has many hidden gems and this short break revealed a few of the treasures there are to see. Wales is always a great place to go – so GO!