Untamed, underrated, and ripe for adventure
If you think Wales is all drizzle and sheep-grazed hills, you need to go further west. In Cardigan Bay’s southwestern crook, Pembrokeshire is an instant heart-stealer. Here, purple-grained cliffs fall abruptly to golden bays, caves, and rock stacks lashed by the Irish Sea. There are mood-lifting views as you ramble through kissing gates, over stiles and across gorse-clad headlands on the 186-mile coastal path; and enthralling wildlife on islands where puffins, dolphins, porpoises and grey seals are often spotted.
North of cathedral-topped St Davids, where Wales’s patron saint was born 1,500 years ago, single-track lanes twist to off-the-radar coves and whitewashed taverns with vast sea views and just-caught fish on the menu. Adventure, you say? You’ll find it kayaking or coasteeering around the rugged coastline, surfing on the broad sands of Freshwater or Newgale, or striding into the heather-brushed moors of the Preseli Hills in search of ancient hill forts and standing stones.
Hot right now . . .
Kerry Walker, our resident expert, offers her top tips on the hottest things to do and places to eat this season.
Take the bumpy boat across to Skomer from Marloes (get the first crossing) as the puffins return to their burrows after a long winter at sea. Come in the second week of July to see ridiculously cute pufflings.
Now the weather is brightening up, drive a stretch of the 180-mile Coastal Way – one of three recently launched touring routes designed to showcase Wales’s natural beauty. The road trip takes in the full sweep of Cardigan Bay: from St Davids in the south, to Aberdaron in the north.
Late spring and early summer are prime foraging time, and Ed Skyes from Llys Meddyg (East Street; 01239 820008) in Newport will show you where to find the likes of razor clams, samphire and sea purslane. After the walk, the fresh ingredients are cooked up for lunch – either on the beach or in the garden.
Summer’s in the air, surf’s up, and Café Môr (07422 535345) is back on the beach at Freshwater West – with Jon Williams serving locally sourced seafood and seaweed from his funkily converted fishing boat.
48 hours in . . . Pembrokeshire
Launch your coastal road trip in the cheerful seaside town of Tenby, where Georgian townhouses in chalk-box pastels rim the harbour. Grab a freshly roasted espresso or ice cream cone at The Stowaway (2 Penniless Cove Hill; 07971 783319), tucked under the harbour walls, then head down to cliff-backed Castle Beach – a fine scoop of sand that does a vanishing act at high tide.
Boats depart from here to the more peaceful Caldey Island, where around a dozen Cistercian monks live in the monastery. On the island, make for secluded Priory Bay and St Margaret’s Island – a nature reserve that’s home to grey seals and seabirds. Return to Tenby for lunch on the sea-facing terrace of The Salt Cellar (The Esplanade; 01834 844005), where locally sourced food is served with panache. Look out for the Pembrokeshire beef with slow-braised ox cheek and smoked mash, and chamomile panna cotta with blackcurrant parfait.
Driving 30 minutes to the west, you’ll reach Stackpole, where you can park and take a half-mile walk over cliffs and dunes to pinch-yourself pretty Barafundle Bay on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. This golden curve of sand, which shelves into clear turquoise water, regularly ranks highly in polls of Britain’s best beaches. If you’re visiting in summer, drive a few minutes westwards to see dragonflies skimming across the Bosherton Lily Ponds.
A 15-minute pootle northwards brings you to Carew Castle: originally a Norman motte and bailey, later an Elizabethan mansion, and now highly romantic ruins. Take the mile-long walk to the beautifully preserved tidal mill, then veer west along the coastal road that fringes crescent-shaped St Brides Bay – perhaps stopping for a drink at clifftop Druidstone (01437 781221). In the evening, you can spy sunset from the quaint fishing village of Solva.
Your base for the night is the coastal honeypot of St Davids, the UK’s dinkiest city, which is home to just 1,800 lucky souls. Book ahead for dinner at Cwtch (22 High Street; 01437 720491), an intimate stone-walled bistro serving the likes of homemade fish cakes and duo of Welsh lamb.
Nightlife in St Davids is deliberately low-key, but on warm nights there’s quite a buzz on the patio at the back of The Farmers Arms (16 Goat Street; 01437 721666) – and occasional live music and jam sessions at Oriel Y Parc (High Street; 01437 720 392), the visitor and cultural centre.
Begin with a wholesome breakfast (think smashed avocado on sourdough with poached eggs, toasted seeds and chilli oil) at endearingly retro The Meadow (18 High Street; 01437 720990), then make your way across to mighty medieval St Davids Cathedral, a riot of soaring stone pillars and intricate coffered ceilings. Pilgrims have flocked here for centuries to glimpse the shrine that allegedly contains the bones of Welsh hero and patron St David, who was born here in the 6th century.
After a mooch around art galleries in town – such as Goat Street Gallery (28 Goat Street; 01437 721119), housed in a former chapel – get some fresh sea air on the magnificent hour-long circular walk around St David’s Head. The ragged, gorse-draped cliffs offer stirring views of Ramsey Island, and lead to an Iron Age hill fort and Neolithic burial chamber.
Stop in Abereiddy, a few miles north, to see the startlingly turquoise Blue Lagoon in a flooded former slate quarry, before pushing slightly north for a fresh-as-it-comes seafood lunch at The Shed (01348 831518) in Porthgain. The crab sandwiches are excellent.
Follow this with a pint of local ale (try the malty, subtly hopped Felinfoel Double Dragon craft ale) at nautically themed tavern The Sloop (01348 831449), right opposite. From here it’s approximately a half-hour drive north to Strumble Head, a lonely, wind-battered headland, with expansive sea views and gulls swooping over the lighthouse.
Drive on through Fishguard to ravishing Dinas Island, where a National Trust three-mile circular walk leads over sheer wildflower-studded cliffs that plummet to smuggler’s coves straight out of a Famous Five novel. In spring, you might see puffins returning to these shores at Needle Rock.
Stay the night in the laid-back coastal town of Newport, its high street lined with cottages, galleries and cafés. Top billing here goes to Llys Meddyg (East Street; 01239 820 008), a Georgian coaching inn turned rustic-chic restaurant with rooms. Sip a cocktail (the Garden Mint Mojito is fabulously fresh) in the garden if the weather permits – or by the inglenook fireplace in the wood-panelled bar if it doesn’t. Foraged ingredients give dishes a unique twist: think home-smoked salmon with pickled cucumber and seabeets, and sirloin of Dexter beef with wild garlic and pennywort.
For a nightcap, hop in a taxi for the 10-minute drive back to Fishguard, where pubs like The Royal Oak (Market Square; 01348 218632) regularly host Celtic folk bands.
Where to stay . . .
Penally Abbey is perhaps Pembrokeshire’s loveliest bolthole, set in sea-view gardens just a 30-minute walk from Tenby. It is not, in fact, an abbey – though the ruined chapel in its gardens certainly add to its charm. All the hotel’s furniture was found in local antique shops and French markets, and there are soft Farrow and Ball tones for the walls. There are 11 rooms, all utterly unique in character.
Double rooms from £145. Penally, Tenby; 01834 843033
Owners Ed and Louise Skyes have done a terrific job of putting their own novel stamp on the Grade II-listed Georgian coaching inn that houses Llys Meddyg, without losing a jot of historic character. Expect painted wainscoting, sheepskin rugs, reclaimed wood furnishings, and works by local artists. Blankets from nearby woollen mill Melin Tregwynt add pops of colour in each of the eight rooms.
Doubles from £100. East Street, Newport; 01239 820008
Slebech Park, a Georgian manor on the shores of an estuary, is renowned for its enchanting views, stylishly understated rooms, and restaurant brimming with home-grown produce. Exposed stone, wood, high ceilings and warm hues give it Italianate flair, as do the olive trees on the sun terrace. Delve into the grounds and you’ll find compelling church ruins, hidden tunnels and walled gardens.
Double rooms from £95. Haverfordwest; 01437 752000
What to bring home . . .
Stop off at the Wickedly Welsh (Unit 13, Withybush Trading Estate; 01437 557122) chocolate factory, deli and café on the fringes of Haverfordwest. You can pick up artisan pralines, truffles and bars in myriad flavours – from Welsh sea salt and caramel, to rhubarb crumble and custard.
Close to the Neolithic burial chamber of Pentre Ifan in the Preseli Hills is Bluestone (Cilgwyn; 01239 820833), a microbrewery producing ales from the water that trickles through the rock of the same name.
When to go . . .
Pembrokeshire is wilder and wetter during the winter months, with gusty westerlies making it feel even chillier at times. If you get lucky, spring can be a terrific time to visit, with mild weather and everywhere erupting prettily with blossom and wildflowers.
Summer is best for camping trips and water-based activities like swimming, surfing and coasteering, but this being Wales, you should still expect the odd shower. Avoid school holidays to snag better deals and sidestep the crowds. Autumn can be lovely, with the odd golden day for quiet rambles in the Preseli Hills and along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path.
Know before you go . . .
Emergency fire and ambulance: 999 or 112
Emergency police: 999 or 112
Journey time: Approximately five hours by train from London Paddington
Currency: Pound sterling (GBP; £)
International dialling code: +44
Local laws and etiquette
There is a decent public transport network, with coastal buses connecting major towns and holiday destinations. There are a few different companies serving different sections of the coast, among them the Poppit Rocket and Puffin Shuttle. These run seven days a week from May to September, and twice weekly at other times. Check bus timetables here.
Pembrokeshire’s minor roads are beautiful, but they can be slow (thanks to tractors, stray sheep, pootling holidaymakers… you name it) – especially during peak season. Patience might also be needed when finding a parking space.
Based in the hills of Mid Wales, Kerry seizes every opportunity she can to head west to Pembrokeshire – where she’s in her element hiking on the coastal path, leaping off cliffs coasteering, or cooing over the puffins on Skomer.
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