I’m from Wales and I’m used to people not knowing where we are. We’re the geographical equivalent of your car keys. They’re around somewhere — in your trouser pocket? Down the side of the sofa?
So often, I’ve heard Wales described as being that bit in between England and Ireland or — worse still — just a part of England itself.
Ireland, England and Scotland are all popular destinations for travelers and have a lot of very different things to offer. But here are some reasons I think you should consider doing something different by visiting Wales instead. It’s not just the U.K.’s smaller brother — it has a lot of unique things to show you of its own!
Culture: The National Eisteddfod
March 1st is Saint David’s Day. Not many people outside Wales know that. Saint David (or Dewi Sant in Welsh) is our patron saint, and we like to celebrate him by wearing leeks and daffodils pinned to our clothes. It is a traditional day for holding Eisteddfods (cultural festivals and talent competitions), with Welsh poetry, literature, music and arts being exhibited.
A larger, National Eisteddfod is usually held in the summer, showcasing talent from the country that brought the world Dylan Thomas, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton, Roald Dahl and, erm … Tom Jones.
History: The Castle Capital of the World
Wales has a rich history that’s reflected in some of the architecture that remains. Sometimes referred to as the “castle capital of the world,” Wales had, at one point, more than 400 castles. The Welsh’s reputation as a bit of a handful for occupying forces led to fortifications being put up by everybody from the Norman invaders in the 11th century to the English in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Copying this trend, Victorian businessmen commissioned their own “castles” such as the beautiful Castell Coch (the Red Castle) to impress their friends.
The World’s Coolest Castles
Wales was also home to the Romans for a time, and it has the ancient architecture to prove it — such as the 2,000-year-old amphitheaters, baths and barracks in Caerleon, South Wales.
Sports: Surfing the Severn Bore
Every year, a tidal wave sweeps up the river Severn, attracting surfers, kayakers, paddle boarders and other lunatics from all over the world, who attempt to pit themselves against the river’s tidal range (often cited as being the second largest in the world).
But if that isn’t your cup of tea, there are plenty of unrivaled hiking routes through the Brecon Beacon mountains or Snowdonia National Park, as well as some of the best rock climbing and abseiling in the U.K., to get visitors closer to the dramatic landscape.
Have a Welsh Cake!
And, while you’re over, have a Welsh cake. You won’t regret it! (They’re similar to scones.) And tucking into a bowl of lamb cawl (stew), a plate of lava bread (seaweed) or some fresh seafood might provide you with an excuse to tackle Mount Snowdon head on.
Scenery: Land of Contrasts
And the landscape itself? Wales offers mountains and waterfalls in the north and famous valleys in the South, carved out by thousands of years of glacial activity, with pristine beaches, forests and reservoirs in between.
12 Spots to Fall in Love with Travel
Even aside from the noted spots of outstanding natural beauty, such as the Pembrokeshire coast, Snowdonia National Park and the Lleyn Peninsula, Wales is a place where you are never too far away from something to see, do, eat or listen to.
Have you been to Wales?
– written by Josh Thomas
It doesn’t exactly have the “ooh” factor of a Lucille Ball caricature hanging on Sardi’s wall. It does, however, inch toward the “eww” factor of, say, a faded 34C underwire tacked up on the ceiling of a dive bar. What is it? Just a wee crumb of a toastie eaten by the Libertines co-frontman Pete Doherty.
That’s right. There’s a museum where you can view the dried-out crust of a British pop star’s cheese, tomato and pesto panini that he ate at a cafe in a Cornish seaside village. Owners Michael and Francesca Bennett wanted to commemorate the visit of celebrities to their seafront cafe, the Old Boatstore. When photographer David Bailey visited, the couple told the BBC, they were so excited they decided to keep a bit of the sandwich he’d consumed. The Museum of Celebrity Leftovers grew from there.
Now, when you visit Kingsand in the U.K., you can view about 20 “artifacts” sealed under tiny glass domes and kept on a bright blue shelf hanging on the cafe wall — the museum’s entire collection. Ogle actress Mia Wasikowska’s wedge of zucchini. Examine the end of comedian Hugh Dennis’ ice cream cone. Ruminate over retired BBC weatherman Craig Rich’s pasty crust.
No preservatives have been added to the remains, and Michael Bennett assured the BBC that none of the exhibits seem to be getting moldy, just dried and shriveled.
The Bennetts have owned the cafe for nine years and serve mainly vegetarian fare with locally sourced seafood when available. So don’t expect to see a bite of Prince Harry’s burger anytime soon. However, Charles and Camilla have paid a visit. The Museum of Celebrity Leftovers has a tiny silver crown adorning the glass dome protecting Charles’ relic: a teensy crust of bread pudding.
It’s unlikely that the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall came just to see the odd exhibit, as the display of food waste is more kitschy than captivating. It may, however, have some competition for the world’s most underwhelming excuse for a museum. Consider the Asphalt Museum with its chunks of tar at Sacramento State College in California. Or the Barbed Wire Museum in LaCrosse, Kansas. And you might just get “sucked in” — their pun — at the Vacuum Museum along Route 66 in Missouri. (For more, see our list of the world’s weirdest museums.)
No reason to cross the Hermitage or Smithsonian off your must-see list just yet. En route between the two, you might want to stop in the Old Boatstore for a bite to eat. Who knows who may be seated next to you.
What’s the stupidest museum you’ve ever visited?
– written by Jodi Thompson
If you’re planning on visiting the U.K., you and your fellow travelers might be torn between the bright lights of London, the highlands of Scotland, the sheer beauty of Cornwall or the castles of Wales. But with some careful planning, you will be able to keep everyone happy.
If you book a self-catering cottage, you can save some money too. Many holiday property owners in the U.K .rent their properties independently, thereby avoiding agency fees (typically 20 – 25 percent), and the savings are passed on to you. Sites like Independent Cottages have hundreds of independently owned holiday cottages for rent and cover all of the U.K.’s most popular destinations, including the Cotswolds, the Lake District, New Forest, Cornwall, Devon and the Scottish Highlands (to name just a few).
25 Ways to Save in Europe
For a first trip to the U.K., consider a central location in the English countryside such as the Cotswolds. The Cotswolds encompass parts of Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Warwickshire. Many view the Cotswolds as quintessentially English, with very pretty “chocolate box” villages, near perfect pubs and a beautiful rolling countryside (“wold” means hill). The history of the Cotswolds dates back to the medieval days of the 13th century. Lots of local buildings were built in the 15th and 16th centuries, so they’re very old and full of character. Many structures have oak beams, stone floors and original fireplaces. Some even boast thatched roofs. It’s a very clean, pretty and well-maintained area, and, of course, the locals speak English!
The airports of London Heathrow and Birmingham are suitable hubs for traveling to the Cotswolds (both being a leisurely one- or two-hour drive away). The Cotswolds’ central location in England makes the region a very convenient base from which to explore the country. London is also close (about 90 minutes by train from Moreton-in-Marsh), so you can plan some days in the city and return to the peace and seclusion of the English countryside, or, more importantly, the English pub. Places like Stonehenge, Bath, Oxford and Stratford-upon-Avon (Shakespeare’s birthplace) are also accessible by car. There are many very pretty towns and villages in the Cotswolds, such as Stow-on-the-Wold, Chipping Campden, Broadway and Burford, as well as the dubious-sounding Lower Slaughter. Visit Independent Cottages for a selection of privately owned holiday cottages in the Cotswolds.
If you do take a day trip to London, some advanced planning could help you save money. The train stations at Moreton-in-Marsh and Kingham both serve London Paddington. Make sure that any train tickets you purchase include the London Underground (London’s subway), also called “the tube.” Discounts are available for young people and senior travelers.
Here are some more tips on booking a holiday cottage in the U.K.:
– First of all, the term “self-catering cottage” means just that: a cottage where you cater for yourself. This means that no food is provided. But you can expect the kitchen to be fully equipped with cooking utensils. Some owners provide a welcome hamper (milk, eggs, etc.), while others don’t, so always check with the owner.
– Make your enquiries via e-mail at first, but when you find a cottage that you like, consider phoning and speaking to the owner (be aware of the time difference or you might hear some quaint old English words that could easily offend the less worldly!). Arranging flights and coordinating arrival times can be difficult, so be sure to ask any questions that you might have.
– Check to see if your cottage has laundry facilities. Nobody goes on holiday to do laundry, but the ability to freshen up travel-weary clothes will allow you to pack lighter.
– If you’ll be driving with a GPS unit, ask the owner for the property’s postcode (the U.K. equivalent to zip code), as this can help guide you to the door.
– Make sure that all towels, linen, heating, cleaning services, etc. are included. Agree upon all costs up front.
– Independent cottage owners will often want to receive payment in advance of arrival (usually six weeks or so). Do not worry; this is quite normal. However, if you do have any concerns, consider speaking to or e-mailing a customer service representative at the holiday rental site with which you’re booking. Ask how long the property owners have been with the rental site and if there have been any complaints about the property.
– Many independent rental owners cannot take credit card payments. If this is a concern to you, ask the owners if they accept PayPal (many do).
– Check and double check the arrangements for picking up the key — especially if you are arriving late at night.
– There are many different types and styles of accommodations in the U.K. If you are staying in a period property, remember that people were a lot shorter back in the 1600’s! Again, check with the owner about suitability and accessibility.
– written by Steve Jarvis. Jarvis manages holiday cottages in the U.K. as well as running Independent Cottages.
Here’s the answer to last week’s “How Much Is This Hotel?” quiz. Play along with future hotel quizzes by subscribing to our blog (top right).
We have a winner — er, actually, two winners. The correct answer to last week’s How Much Is This Hotel? contest is $139.49 a night (based on the July 29 exchange rate) or 85 GBP. Susan Frye, who issued the first correct answer in GBP, has won an IndependentTraveler.com T-shirt. But we’re also giving a T-shirt to Marcia, whose guess in U.S. dollars was closest based on the July 29 exchange rate.
The room pictured was a twin room at the New Inn, located in the St. John’s Wood neighborhood of London. The inn is best known for its friendly pub, which serves a mix of English and Thai cuisine, but it also offers five rooms (three double and two twin) for overnight guests. All rooms cost a flat rate of 85 pounds, regardless of the season — an extremely affordable rate for London. Read more about the New Inn in London Essentials.
Check back this Friday for another shot at winning a prize.
– written by Sarah Schlichter
Every Monday, we’ll post the answer to the previous week’s Photo Friday quiz. Play along with future photo guessing games by subscribing to our blog (top right).
The correct answer to last Friday’s photo guessing game is St. Andrews, Scotland! Prince William and and his new bride, Kate Middleton, met as students at the 600-year-old St. Andrews University. This beautiful seaside town is also known as the home of golf; there are 11 places to hit the links here, including the world-renowned Old Course. Non-golfing visitors can enjoy the town’s historic sites, including the magnificent cathedral ruins pictured in Friday’s photo. Want to visit? Learn how to save money on flights to Europe this summer.
Check back this Friday for another photo guessing game!
–written by Sarah Schlichter
After eight years, I was back. I had last called on London in 2003 for 100 days during a college semester. Terrorist attacks, a winning Olympic bid and new recycling laws had left their indelible mark on city and psyche during the intervening years, and yet my surface experience as a tourist seemed largely untouched — except that now I had sterling to spend on a proper pub pint instead of a 99p can of Speckled Hen from the local Sainsbury.
Speakers’ Corner, a Sunday institution that celebrates “free speech,” belongs in the British Museum. The setting, the crowds, the English nationalist talking about the dilution of her breed, have all been cast in marble. I wasn’t the least bit surprised when I turned away from the eugenics nonsense to see the same American preacher in a cowboy hat and U.S.A. flag shirt climb his ladder and begin, with a sly smile, to warn listeners of the dangers of “evilution.” Eight years had passed, but the anti-evilutionist and xenophobe’s spouts were still preserved in amber. As was the crowd’s response: unabashed mockery or visceral rancor for the racist; good-natured ribbing for the always-smiling preacher man.
Some recollections seemed preordained. My lady and I had lunch at Cafe Below, located in the 11th-century crypt of St. Mary-le-Bow Church, a Christopher Wren-designed building that was mostly destroyed during the Blitz — except for the crypt. As we walked down the stairs, I remembered a passing comment from our 6’3″ bearded professor, who took our class there for a lecture. “Oh, they have a wonderful cafe in the crypt,” I could hear him muttering in his slightly grizzled voice. Dining on local farm-sourced lamb burger and a pint of pear cider, I had to agree.
I headed back to Portobello Road for the mobbed Saturday market of antiques, sundresses, bric-a-brac, and food vendors hawking German fast food, crepes and Turkish stew in steaming mega-woks. I had lunch again at the Grain Shop, a vegetarian spot where you can fill a tin with multicolored salads, stews and stir-fries for about four quid. Just as in ’03, I followed my somewhat healthy vegetarian lunch with a second course of spicy Bavarian sausage with sauerkraut and mustard.
Also on the dining front were the ever-present takeaway paninis, a cheap lunch eaten hot-pressed or cold. But I couldn’t find my favorite sandwich spot from 2003, a purveyor of an addictive salad with roast ham, mature cheddar, hard-boiled egg, pickles and mayo. I’d been waiting eight years for that sandwich. The loss was hard to bear.
Even thoughtless moments triggered memory flashes. At my first busy crosswalk, I recalled how cab drivers seemed to speed up if they sensed the slightest intention to cross.
On Tube platforms, the once ubiquitous Cadbury machines had vanished. The emergency phones, should you need to report a sugar crash, remained. I may have splurged on an 80p chocolate three times in three months in 2003, but I could taste the absence of fruit and nut during pre-train idling.
I remembered hurrying down Tottenham Court Road, a central artery clogged with electronics and home furnishing stores, and chain cafes like Nero, Pret a Manger and Starbucks. Not much had changed, including my closely guarded opinion of it as the worst street in Central London.
Finally, at night, I remembered how the streets buzzed after football matches. On the evening after Brazil beat Scotland 2-0, the kilted army marched from pub to pub belting out victory songs. Perhaps they stopped watching before the players had left the pitch. I suppose only giving up two goals to Brazil is a victory.
Have you ever revisited a place after a long absence? What changed and what stayed the same? Tell us below.
– written by Dan Askin
London is full of free things to do. A bunch of world-class museums, such as the British Museum, the National Gallery, the Tate Modern, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, offer free admission. There’s no charge to watch cheeky orators embarrass themselves and others in front of large crowds at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. And it’s free to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.
Travelers to London can also enjoy complimentary comedy shows in the heart of the city, which I accidentally discovered on a trip earlier this week.
Searching the Web for something budget-friendly and fun to do on a weekday night, I came across an online listing for “The Ideas Factory,” a free comedy show at a bar in London’s Covent Garden neighborhood. On a whim, I showed up at the bar (Old Crown on 33 New Oxford Street), and was directed to a small room upstairs. It was a tiny, dimly lit space with two beat-up couches and some folding chairs. There were just three or four people standing about drinking beer. The place looked like a sad and poorly attended party hosted by college students in a studio apartment — no stage, no audience and no microphone; this didn’t seem promising.
Despite my unease, I stayed, expecting a mediocre show at best, and an embarrassing flop ending in violence at worst. Yet the show was brilliant. The comedians, who hammed it up just inches from a tiny group of roughly 10 people, were polished, professional and delightfully clever. Performers included Matthew Highton, Paul Duncan McGarrity and Jay Cowle, established British comedians who also do standup at the “real” comedy clubs — you know, the ones that charge admission.
During a break in the show, I asked one of the performers why he bothered to appear at a free show in such a dark and diminutive room above a bar. He explained that this kind of intimate performance is common in London, where comedians arrange small events for the purpose of testing new material in front of an audience.
Spending the evening as a comic guinea pig in London was an unforgettable experience. To find free comedy shows in London, check out Time Out London (www.TimeOut.com/London).
– written by Caroline Costello
Every Tuesday, we’ll feature the best travel bargain we’ve seen all week right here, on our blog. Be the first to find out which deals make the cut by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our weekly deals newsletter.
The Deal: British Airways rarely runs airfare sales — in fact, the airline slashes prices on economy-class flights only a few times per year. But luckily for travelers heading to England’s capital city, British Airways recently published a spate of cut-rate spring fares to London, including roundtrip flights for as little as $380 plus taxes and fees. Expect taxes to amount to roughly $200 roundtrip. The cheapest total price we found with this sale was $570.97 roundtrip including taxes and fees for a midweek nonstop flight from New York to London in March — an economical price for a trip across the pond.
It’s not difficult to unearth the cheapest possible flight for your London vacation. British Airways’ convenient rate calendar allows travelers to clearly see on which days the least expensive fares are available.
The Catch: Travel dates are limited, as the absolute lowest fares are only offered on a few select dates. Plus, the British Airways sale page states that “Prices and availability are updated every 24 hours,” which means that your window of opportunity to book these low fares could be rather limited.
The Competition: Lufthansa is currently offering reduced fares to Europe, which include flights to London for as little as $209 each way plus taxes and fees for travel this spring.
Find these bargains and more money-saving offers in our Airfare Deals.
–written by Caroline Costello
It’s not a royal wedding without some kind of commemorative plate set. Or a vinyl Kate Middleton doll (the Franklin Mint is working on one, enticing collectors with the glitter of limited availability — only 5,000 will be made). Keep an eye out for souvenir royal wedding condoms too, which are already for sale in England.
Luxury hotels certainly aren’t above cashing in on the big event along with nearly everyone else in the British Isles. The Milestone Hotel, a posh five-star London property overlooking Kensington Palace, is offering a four-night Royal Occasion package that includes a set of fine English bone china commemorative plates and mugs, crafted by Royal Worcester. Package prices start at 2,418 pounds (that’s about $3,894 as of this posting) for two people staying in a superior queen room between April 24 and May 3. Here’s what’s included:
– Four nights’ accommodations
– Daily English breakfast
– A royal Champagne afternoon tea
– A seven-course meal prepared by the hotel’s chef
– Two tickets to Kensington Palace
– Luxury car transfers from London Heathrow Airport
– And, most importantly, that commemorative plate set
Add-ons range from a Champagne sabrage (that’s when a bottle of Champagne is ceremoniously opened with a knife or a sword) to an elegant picnic in Hyde Park. I’m no luxury traveler, but any package that includes a guy hacking at a Champagne bottle with a sword is something to consider. Plus, the painful price of nearly $3,900 isn’t quite as paralyzing once you realize the package covers two people staying for four nights in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
Excuse me while I try to think of a clever way to scare up four grand. In the meantime, tell us: Would you book a luxury package in London for the royal wedding — or will you just stick with a few commemorative plates and some souvenir condoms?
–written by Caroline Costello
We’re celebrating our 20th anniversary — and we want you to celebrate with us! That’s why we’re giving away a free trip for two to London from Monograms. The vacation includes roundtrip airfare from the United States, three nights in London, airport transfers in London, daily breakfast and a sightseeing tour, plus free time to explore the city on your own.
But a trip to London is just one of many fantastic prizes. We’re marking 20 years with 20 days of giveaways, including a NOOKcolor e-reader from Barnes & Noble as well as 20 IndependentTraveler.com T-shirts. You can enter once a day through February 14. The more entries you submit, the more chances you have to win! Click here to enter.
(Sorry, international readers: for legal reasons, we can only open the giveaway to residents of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.)
For more festivities, including a slideshow featuring the highlights of two decades of travel, check out our 20th Anniversary page.
And now we want to hear from you. Which trip of your own stands out the most from the past 20 years — your honeymoon, a once-in-a-lifetime African safari, your first glimpse of the Great Wall of China? Post your favorite travel memory in the comments below.
– written by Sarah Schlichter