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UK heaven on the cheap

CAPEL CURIG, Wales — With the summer solstice just a few days away in this northwestern corner of Wales, the sun doesn't set till about 10, then pops up again about 5.

Or at least that's the plan.

On this morning it popped up only to be obliterated quickly by roiling clouds and pounding rain that pummeled the slate roof of the Dyffryn Mymbyr cottage.

Minutes later the sun rallied. The rain retaliated. The sun rallied.

It was a remarkable display of nature's force and caprice.

But then, the cottage itself is remarkable, I thought, lying comfortably wrapped up in the covers while waiting to see if it was going to be a sunny or rainy day (the sun won, as it did most days we were there).

You see, Dyffryn Mymbyr is no newcomer to these battles. It has enjoyed its share of sun and been pummeled by wind, rain and snow going on 500 years now. Talk about sleeping with history.

You get to the cottage on a farm in Snowdonia National Park by driving up a steep, bumpy lane from the A4086 highway while ewes and lambs bolt in all directions as if you're the devil. You also get to the cottage thanks to the National Trust, a nonprofit organization that protects hundreds of historic houses, gardens and ancient monuments in the U.K.

Dyffryn Mymbyr is one of nearly 400 lodgings in England, Wales and Northern Ireland — many historic — that the trust rents to vacationers. Depending on the season, length of rental and location, the cost can be very affordable. A seven-night stay at Dyffryn Mymbyr during June, for instance, comes in at about $162 a night, including taxes.

Because my girlfriend, Sue, and I wanted to sample the seaside, too, we stayed only three nights in Snowdonia, then moved on for three nights in the Tri-A-Hanner cottage on the Caernarfon Bay side of the Lleyn Peninsula. A week's worth of mountains and ocean — what's not to like about that?

Wales may not register high on the radar for many Americans planning a trip to the United Kingdom, but it should. It's easily accessible, with northern Wales only about an hour's drive from the airport in Manchester, England.

It's also compact — about 140 miles north to south and, in the area where we spent most of our trip, roughly 60 miles east to west. In a week of exploring we racked up just 500 miles, which included getting to and from Manchester Airport.

But those are just conveniences. You want to go to Wales for the natural beauty, the history, the laid-back lifestyle, the genuinely friendly people — and the roads.

These are roads made for meandering. Many are narrow, winding, up-into-the-clouds, down-into-the-valley tracks that force you to slow down and enjoy the drive.

One morning we headed up the Conwy Valley to visit Conwy and its massive castle (conwy.com), which Edward I built in the 13th century when he was intent on conquering the Welsh. Lovely green mountains rose on either side of the twisty road, and here and there rivulets poured down their sides, reminding me of similar scenes in Iceland.

At Conwy we lunched at Amelies, a French bistro named after the 2001 Audrey Tautou film, then visited the Aberconwy House, the town's oldest house, which was built in about 1300.

After poking around the nooks and crannies of the sprawling castle, which towers over the bustling downtown area, we drove over the Conwy River for another dose of nature. The Great Orme is a massive rock dome that juts out into the Irish Sea. Alongside the one-way road that circles it we came across rock climbers scaling sheer walls, others who rappelled down the opposite side of the road onto the beach below and walkers just enjoying the sun, sea and warm weather.

We parked at the side of the road and tackled a steep, grassy hiking path flanked by yellow wildflowers. Soon we were high above the road enjoying views down the rocky shoreline and watching some of the Orme's Kashmir mountain goats tiptoe on spiny ridges.

Another day found us in Llanberis, whose fortunes, like many villages here, were once tied to slate quarrying. The scent of coal smoke wafted across the town, compliments of the steam locomotives of the Snowdon Mountain Railway (www.snowdonrailway.co.uk). Since 1896 the cog railway has been ferrying sightseers up the steep grade to the top of Mount Snowdon, Wales' highest mountain at 3,560 feet. That might not sound so high, but by the time the train made the peak, it had been swallowed by clouds, rain and heavy winds. Because we had left our rain gear at the bottom, we scrapped plans to take the train up and hike back down.

A couple of days later we headed to our cottage at the seashore but made a stop on the way at the Welsh Language & Heritage Centre (nantgwrtheyrn.org) to try to make some sense of the Welsh language's confounding combination of consonants and vowels. (The longest place name in Wales? Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.)

The center is in a gorgeous location at the bottom of an extremely steep, extremely switchbacky road. The village of Nant Gwrtheyrn (say, nant goorth-ayrn) was settled in the 5th century. Over the years it died three times, most recently in 1959, we were told by Pegi Talfryn, a onetime Seattleite who became enamored of the Welsh language early in life, came to Wales and never left. Today she oversees the language classes at the Nant that draw students from around the world.

A day later we were on a boat skippered by Colin Evans of Bardsey Boat Trips (bardseyboat trips.com), headed for a day trip to Bardsey Island, called the isle of 20,000 saints.

Bardsey's a pleasant place to spend a few hours hiking the interior trail or the coastal trail, spying foxglove and other wildflowers and checking out the seal colony. On the trip over, the rest of Evans' boat was filled with folks out to spend a week or two in the houses that are sprinkled around the island. They're substantial, expansive houses but have very basic facilities, making for a sort of indoor camping experience (enlli.org).

As we were hiking back to take the boat to the mainland, we met Daisy, a 16-year-old sheep dog who brought us a stick and wanted to play fetch. Daisy's "mom," as it turned out, is Evans' mother, Christine, a part-time resident of Bardsey. She schooled us in the island's history: Edward I came here in 1284, and over the centuries thousands of religious pilgrims came.

"The legend was that if you died here or on the way here, you would go straight to heaven," she said, explaining the claims that Bardsey is the burial site of 20,000 "saints."

Guess those early pilgrims didn't realize that when they were in Wales, they already were in heaven.

If you go

Getting there

Many U.S. and foreign airlines provide service from the U.S. to Manchester, England, the best choice for traveling to Wales. We flew US Airways from Chicago in June, connecting through Philadelphia, and paid about $1,150 apiece. In the offseason, cheaper fares will be available. A check for the first week in October found a nonstop from Chicago to Manchester for $787, a one-stop flight from Miami for $656 and a one-stop flight from New York for $720.

The National Trust lodgings

Many of the lodgings accommodate two to four people, but larger properties are suitable for a dozen or more. All have complete and well-appointed kitchens, washers and dryers and other modern amenities. Prices naturally can vary considerably according to season. A more-than-200-page color book can be ordered from the National Trust that describes in detail the lodgings available in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. That information also is available at nationaltrustcottages.co.uk; 011-44-844 8002070.

More info: Wales Tourism, http://www.visitwales.com; British Tourist Authority, visitbritain.com

Also of interest

Wales has about 200 golf courses, including Newport's Celtic Manor Resort, in southeast Wales. I didn't play there, but I did at Nefyn & District Golf Club, a 26-hole links course on the way to our cottage on the ocean. The location alone is worth an outing. nefyn-golf-club.com

ctc-travel@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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