North Wales, Wales
No other country on earth has as many castles per square mile as Wales. From Roman garrisons and Norman strongholds to medieval forts and fanciful follies of the Victoria era, the history of Wales is writ large in some 600 solid piles of stone. The finest collection of fortresses is in north Wales, most of them constructed at the end of the 13th century by England’s empire-building King Edward I to impress and ultimately subdue the fiery Welsh.
If you’re driving from England, the mighty Conwy Castle will likely be your first stop; as well as admiring the castle itself, be sure to take a walk along the perfectly preserved defensive walls that surround the medieval town. Just 10 miles to the west, on the island of Anglesey (Wales’s largest, and where Will and Kate live part-time), the towers and battlements of Beaumaris Castle overlook the waters of Conwy Bay. Farther south is the dramatic ruin of Harlech Castle–inspiration for “Men of Harlech,” an unofficial Welsh national anthem.
But the greatest of all is the crenellated Caernarfon Castle, with its distinctive octagonal towers. Edward II, born here in 1284, was given the honorary title of Prince of Wales as a clear symbol to the Welsh that the English were in charge, and to this day it is a title conferred on the eldest son of the reigning British monarch. The investiture of Prince Charles, the current Prince of Wales, took place at Caernarfon in 1969 amid great pomp and ceremony.
In sharp contrast to foreboding castle battlements are the genteel surrounds of Bodnant Garden, a few miles south of Conwy in Tay-y-Cafn, overlooking the ConwyValley. It is one of the country’s most luxuriant gardens, particularly when seen against the postcard-perfect backdrop of the mountains of Snowdonia. Fragrantly covering around 80 acres, the plantings are arranged in formal Italian-style terraces near the manor house and lead down to a woodland of colorful flowers, exotic shrubs, magnificent trees, and rock arrangements.
Nearby Bodysgallen Hall, housed in a 17th-century building, offers similar vistas of Snowdonia; its antiques-furnished interiors, leavened with just the right modern touches, create a bucolic retreat.
At the historic and more informal Groes Inn, near Conwy, a traditional British pub is the unexpected setting for truly exceptional food and 14 comfortable rooms, some with balconies overlooking the surrounding Welsh countryside. Meanwhile, more refined dining is the draw at Seiont Manor Hotel, near Caernarfon. After dinner relax by the fire in the cozy lounge or stroll by moonlight in the delightful gardens.
WHERE : Conwy is 210 miles/340 km Northwest of London
BEST TIME : May-Sep for pleasant weather; Mar-Aprand Oct for Bodnant Garden at its finest.