Travel

Europe's Castle Mecca Hides on This Popular Isle

The names of villages are like secret passwords-if you can pronounce them.

Viktoria Rodriguez/EyeEm/Getty Images
Viktoria Rodriguez/EyeEm/Getty Images
Viktoria Rodriguez/EyeEm/Getty Images

A country with a village called Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch is bound to be a fascinating destination. Wales may feel like a tucked away place, but those in the know have long broadcasted the country’s seemingly hidden idyllic landscapes. The Dark Knight Rises placed Batman’s fictional cave behind the very real Henrhyd Falls. The Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood was so popular that even eleven years after going off air, you can still find a shrine to secondary character Ianto Jones in Cardiff’s Mermaid Quay. And Netflix hit Sex Education films in the village of Chepstow. (Yes, you can go visit the corner store, or the bridge where Adam and Eric broke up.)

And yet, Wales still feels like a secret. Roughly the size of New Jersey, the country sits like a tiny, almost-forgotten corner of a well-visited island. A mere two-hour train ride from London, Wales sees only 3% of all visitors to the UK-and hey, that’s the loss of the other 97% tourists.

These narrow country lanes-where cars have to pull over to let an oncoming neighbour pass-are quite literally less travelled. Not to mention Wales has more castles than any other country in the world. Whether you’re looking to hunt for medieval ghosts, challenge your adrenal system with guided adventures, try a cheesy toast dish called Welsh rarebit (which contains exactly zero rabbit), or just sit and sip while gazing out at incredible sea cliffs, have we got the destination for you. Hoist your dragon flag and read on to start planning your Welsh vacation.

Cadw
Cadw
Cadw

Stroll the castle grounds

There’s a reason the Castle often tops lists of things to do in Cardiff. Namely-it’s gorgeous. Located in the city centre (or via a £5 boat ride from Cardiff Bay), it’s a low-commitment trip that takes you back 2,000 years in time. (Pro-tip: grab a pastry from the nearby Friends in Kneed bakeshop to snack on while you explore.) The grounds and surrounding park-which have been used as a set for Doctor Who, Sherlock, and Torchwood-are free to visit and make for stunning photos during cherry blossom season in early spring. Play your own Easter egg hunt by walking along the park walls, which are populated by an ark’s worth of animals by sculptor Thomas Nicholls.

For next level-castle hunters, there are plenty more to explore. You could almost literally just throw a pin in the map and start driving, but for the ultimate Edwardian history lesson, visit the UNESCO-listed quartet of castles: Conwy, Harlech, Caernarfon, and Beaumaris. Built by Edward the First during his invasion, there’s enough here to fuel all your Lord of the Rings fantasies.

C T Aylward/Moment/Getty Images
C T Aylward/Moment/Getty Images
C T Aylward/Moment/Getty Images

Jump off a cliff

Seriously-go jump off a cliff. Wales’ 870 miles of rugged coastline is tailor-made for thrill seekers. Just keep in mind, this is an activity best done with an experienced guide and proper equipment. Regardless of whether you’re taking the plunge in Pembrokeshire or Tenby, be sure to go with a group, lest you hit a rock along these bouldery shores without the guidance of someone who knows where those underwater mines rest. Popular guides include Adventure in Wales, Tenby Adventure, and Bearded Men Adventures.

Falling from great heights not your bag? Wales offers plenty of other options for getting in touch with nature. Get wet in Llangollen, a region in North Wales known for its white-water rafting. Hit up BikePark Wales, a facility in Merthyr Tydfil that has positioned itself as the ultimate ski resort-like facility for mountain bike fans. Or give your adrenaline a rest, lace up your hiking boots, and walk the six mile (10-kilometre) Sgwd Isaf Clun-Gwyn loop to see four fairy-tale-worthy waterfalls.

Silver Circle Distillery
Silver Circle Distillery
Silver Circle Distillery

Sip pints and gin

Sure, gin might not be the first thing that comes to mind if you’re after a Welsh tipple. Rest assured, pints-in-the-pub culture is alive and well, and along with breweries like Kingstone, you’ll never run out of Wales’ favourite drink. But for the latest trending experience, try out the country’s growing craft spirit scene.

Since launching in 2019, Silver Circle Distillery, has helped redefine the country’s liquor reputation, with its herb-inspired gins and award-winning Aquavit. Join them at their Monmouthshire-based distillery (right up the street from several Sex Education filming locations) to pick up a bottle, tour the distillery, or have a sip while enjoying the area’s cartoonishly-green hills. If you’re ready to take your gin fascination to the next level, they also offer “Make Your Own Gin” classes at their Chepstow-located tasting room.

Penally Abbey Country House Hotel and Restaurant
Penally Abbey Country House Hotel and Restaurant
Penally Abbey Country House Hotel and Restaurant

Sleep like royalty

Obviously, you don’t need an excuse to book a nice hotel room, but when we’re talking estates and castles as the places to stay, the history in Wales makes it almost obligatory to just go that extra level when booking lodging. Sleep in history at Roch Castle, a 12th century castle turned five star hotel and spa located in Roch, Haverfordwest. Live your country estate fantasies (which-bonus-come with a free Welsh breakfast) at Penally Abbey in Tenby, Pembrokeshire. Or enjoy city life in Cardiff’s Parkgate Hotel, a former post office that now houses an upscale spa and hotel with rooms designed to reflect the area’s architecture.

If you’re looking to spend less, the good news is you don’t have to sacrifice culture for affordability. No matter where you are in the country, if you’re looking for a more budget-friendly option, consider a pub room. Located in the back or side of pubs, these low-key hotel rooms tend to be cheaper and cozier than their hotel equivalent. They’re legit taverns, like for travellers in the old days, to rest your weary head after a day of magical journeying.

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Laura Studarus is a Los Angeles-based travel writer and photographer. Sometimes she can go several hours without a cup of tea. Follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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