Michael Smith recommends Gower, Wales.
The former US President George W Bush once got a lesson in geography from the Welsh singer Charlotte Church after she had performed for him at the White House.When Bush asked her which state Wales was in, feisty Charlotte informed him that it was not part of any country but one of four countries that make up the United Kingdom.
And Gower is one of the many gems of this beautiful country, the third-largest in the UK, where I was a student (in Cardiff) 20 years ago. Money was tight then but as they say, the best things in life are free. The chance to get away to Gower at the weekend was one of the best things about being there. The Gower Peninsula is basically the piece of land that juts out into the Bristol Channel from south Wales, and was the first part of the UK to be designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which would explain the lack of reputable high-rise hotels.
The UK does boast some beautiful beaches (which many might find surprising) but there can be few more impressive than these. Gower has one of the most dramatic coastlines in the UK, and its wild and grand landscape is peppered with historical landmarks: monuments, burial tombs, caves and cairns that bring the area’s ancient and glorious past to life. It is also home to an array of wildlife all sharing in the wondrous beauty of the hills, valleys, and woodland that make up this resplendent region.
My favourite place- The Gower Coastal Path. Any spot on these cragged, majestic clifftops will make you stand still, stare into the distance and let your thoughts soar. An awe-inspiring experience is the walk along the clifftop of Rhossili. From here, you can gingerly make your way down to Rhossili Beach, a four-mile stretch of sand so unbelievably splendid you’ll never again think the colour of beige is boring. The promontory Worm’s Head is a mile-long isle that is shaped like a snake and marks the westerly tip of Gower. It just has to be seen and savoured for its sheer wildness, as well as for catching glimpses of the baby seals and porpoises that pop up along the shoreline. Worm’s Head is conjoined to the mainland by a rocky causeway that can only be crossed at low tide (two-and-a-half hours daily). Even Dylan Thomas is said to have missed the tide back from Worm’s Head once after he fell asleep. You can get some tide tables by nipping into the National Trust Rhossili Shop & Visitor Centre, from where the clifftop walk kicks off.
Highlights- It has to be the 32-kilometre expanse of beaches. The only problem is picking a favourite. While the crown jewel is Rhossili, there’s Llangenith Beach, Caswell Bay, Oxwich Bay, Bracelet Bay and others. As well as its accessibility to woodland, Oxwich Bay is a magnet for surfers and its sweeping flatness make it a safe place to be with the kids. It can also be accessed by wheelchair users. The area is a designated National Nature Reserve and there are plenty of swamps, marshes, dunes and plants to keep nature lovers happy.
Bracelet Bay boasts a rocky shoreline that hardy walkers will enjoy, and kids who have had their fill of beach games can hunt for shells on this pebbly beach and enjoy some of the excellent ice cream shops nearby.
If it rains, Swansea is just five miles away. As the country’s second-largest city (after Cardiff), there’s plenty of food for the mind to be had, at the National Waterfront Museum, the Dylan Thomas Centre, Oystermouth Castle and the Glynn Viviann Art Gallery, Swansea Museum and others. The city’s delightful Maritime Quarter is also well worth a wander, and offers some commendable cafes and restaurants.
Lowlights- It is Wales so don’t expect beach-like weather. It can be unpredictable – there might be gales or gorgeous sunshine – but that’s all part of the fun.
Souvenirs- There are crafts, artefacts and knitwear to be found in the Rhossili visitor centre but if you find yourself in Swansea then check out Dragon Crafts, in Mumbles Road. The shop aims to find “the spirit of Wales in every gift”, and has an eclectic array that includes Celtic jewellery (for her) and some reasonably priced rugby shirts (for him).
Getting there- After flying from Muscat to London’s Heathrow Airport, take a train from London’s Paddington Station to Swansea. The journey takes about five hours. From there, either hire a car or take the bus to Gower.
Where to stay- You won’t find major hotel chains here but privately owned establishments to suit every taste and budget: four-star hotels, guesthouses, B&Bs or holiday chalets. Check out Expedia, Kayak or Booking.com for options.
1) Take a cliff-top walk along the Gower Coastal Path
2) Stroll, jog, run or picnic on Rhossili Beach
3) Cross over the causeway to Worm’s Head
4) Explore the origins of life at Paviland Cave
5) Take a boat trip round the coast, from Mumbles