As Britain’s only coastal National Park celebrates its 70th birthday, Gillian Thornton takes a short break to idyllic Pembrokeshire.
Tucked away in a rocky peninsula in south-west Wales, Pembrokeshire, St Davids is well-known as Britain’s smallest city, but as I walk down its low-key main street on my first visit, I’m surprised to discover just how small is small – barely 2,000 permanent residents. Little more than a village in my book, but already I’m under its spell.
With the sea just a few miles away on three sides, St Davids stands amidst rolling farmland at the heart of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, the UK’s only truly coastal National Park that this year celebrates its 70th anniversary.
With stunning scenery, delicious slow food, and a variety of historic sites within easy reach, St Davids makes a delightful base for a long weekend. Or do as I did, and enjoy a two-centre break to explore another part of this glorious National Park.
Spring is a great time to visit as coast paths and lush farmland burst into vibrant colour and migrating birds return to their breeding grounds on islands like Skomer and Grassholm.
I began my shoulder-season short break in St Davids at the Twr y Felin Hotel, where my sumptuous ‘Oriel Indulgent’ suite afforded sweeping views across fields to the RSPB reserve on Ramsey Island. Part of a small independent group of local hotels, this tranquil property takes its name from the former windmill that stood on the site. For a special occasion, book the Tyddewi Windmill Tower Suite occupying three floors of the original windmill tower.
Wales’ first art hotel, Twr y Felin’s public areas and 41 luxury bedrooms feature more than 100 specially commissioned paintings by local artists. Certainly a talking point as you relax over a culinary experience in the Blas restaurant – that’s ‘taste’ in Welsh – over international fare with a local twist. Don’t miss the laverbread Rosti at breakfast.
A good place to start any visit to Pembrokeshire is at the National Park visitor centre – Oriel y Parc – just five minutes’ walk from Twr y Felin at the head of St Davids main street. Stop here for tourist information and souvenirs, a tempting café, and the latest free art exhibition.
At the far end of the High Street, the bijou cathedral packs a picturesque punch from every angle, nestled in a hollow beside the impressive ruins of the impressive Bishop’s Palace.
And the wow-factor continues inside where seems to be on a slant. The nave slopes up, the inside pillars lean out, and the pulpit is decidedly wonky. Centuries of history are represented here beneath the ornate carved ceiling, including the tomb of Edmund Tudor, half-brother to King Henry VI of England and father of Henry VII.
Monks always enjoyed a tipple, so it would be rude to leave town without trying a glass of St Davids Gin, made from botanicals hand-foraged around the peninsula. Choose from Ramsey Island Welsh Dry Gin or St Davids Seaweed Gin, available online and from St David’s Gin & Kitchen, a small, friendly restaurant that opens Wednesday to Sunday for lunch and dinner.
Foraging within sight of the sea seems like the ultimate wellbeing activity in such a glorious setting. The Pembrokeshire Coastal Path hugs the edge of Wales for 186 miles, much of it owned by the National Trust, but weekenders can easily enjoy a flavour of this scenic trail in bite-sized chunks.
At Porthgain, north of St Davids, the tiny harbour is dotted with reminders of the hamlet’s industrial past when slate, bricks and stone were loaded here onto tall ships. Download the Trust’s 4-mile circular walk that also takes in the eye-catching Blue Lagoon that was once a slate quarry and, for an art souvenir, drop into Harbour Lights Gallery near the quayside.
For wide-open sands and rolling waves, head westwards round St Davids Head to Whitesands Bay and Porth Mawr, where you can book a lesson at the surf school or simply watch others ride the waves from the shore. Then carry on round to the tiny harbour at Portclais, built in the 12th century to serve the nearby city and now popular with kayakers, walkers and fans of small boats.
After two nights at Twr y Felin, I said goodbye to St Davids, stopping to soak up, the atmosphere at Solva with its colourful harbourside cottages, artisan pottery and – just outside the village – Pembrokeshire’s oldest woollen mill. Resist the gorgeous throws and cushions in the well-stocked shop if you can!
With less than 35 miles to drive to my second base at Saundersfoot, I stopped to visit the imposing ruins of Pembroke Castle, birthplace in 1485 of Henry Tudor, son of Welsh prince, Edmund. Explore the cellars, follow the rampart walk, and don’t miss the extensive views of town and river from the roof of the keep.
South of Pembroke, the National Trust estate at Stackpole was once a vast park surrounding the grand home of the Cawdor family. The house is long gone, but the 2,000-acre estate includes the blue-flag beach of Barafundle Bay, 30 kilometres of marked paths, and the tranquil Bosherston lily ponds. Access to the beaches and trails is free and there’s a small car park charge (which is free to NT members).
Arriving in Saundersfoot, my sunlit room at St Brides Spa Hotel offered panoramic views over the beach and headlands of this charming low-key resort. Watch the tide roll in over the sands and see fishing boats unload beneath your private balcony, but don’t forget your complimentary session in the spa’s thermal suite. Amongst the saunas, steam rooms, and experience showers is an infinity pool that proved especially dramatic as the setting sun tinged the clouds pink and the silver-blue water of the pool merged seamlessly with the calm sea. Bliss.
Saundersfoot’s colourful neighbour, Tenby, is a must-see with its winding promenade trail that passes through the harbour beneath a rainbow terrace of houses, their facades painted in pastel shades from apricot to pale rose, lemon to mint green.
The quaint museum and gallery on Castle Hill provide a fascinating insight into the transformation of this upper-class 19th century spa resort into a popular holiday destination for all. For a light lunch, try the atmospheric cellar surroundings of the 14th-century Quay Room, attached to the renowned Plantagenet Restaurant.
Pembrokeshire’s turbulent past is marked by the presence of yet more ruined castles close to Saundersfoot. Try Manorbier, set back from yet another idyllic Pembrokeshire beach, and Carew Castle, a short walk from Wales’ only tidal mill.
On my last afternoon, I took a gentle amble around the coast from Saundersfoot to Amroth along a disused tramway, once used to move coal extracted directly from these cliffs. The trail passes through three narrow tunnels and at low tide, an arc of concentric rock formations fans out across the beach at Wiseman’s Bridge. Created by an ancient lava flow, this dramatic piece of geology is just one more delight along a coastline that is packed full of surprises.
Take a trip The Pembrokeshire Coast Path is one of the most popular areas that walking specialist HF Holidays offers. It’s not hard to see why — with its stunning coastline, friendly people and divine places to eat and drink, it’s the ultimate in relaxation. As for the beaches, they’re world-class. A Guided Trail walking holiday starts from £1,029 and includes full board en suite accommodation. hfholidays.co.uk
Where to stay
Colourful paintings stand out against the pale walls and dark furniture at Twr y Felin (twryfelinhotel.com), a tranquil hotel with 41 luxury rooms in contemporary style. Enjoy imaginative use of local produce in the renowned Blas restaurant and maybe book a natural holistic treatment in the calming treatment room. Double rooms from £250 B&B.
St Brides Spa Hotel enjoys a magnificent position on a cliff looking along Saundersfoot beach and offering stunning views of the harbour and bay from both public areas and the cheerful seaside-themed bedrooms. Enjoy fresh local produce in the Cliff Restaurant and a complimentary 90-minute session in the thermal suite with infinity pool. Double rooms from £200. stbridesspahotel.com
For information and inspiration, go to visitpembrokeshire.com
Walking routes from nationaltrust.org.uk
Buy St David’s Gin from stdavids.wales
Eating in Tenby: plantagenettenby.co.uk
For more travel ideas, head here.