Ah, Wales: Where Vistas Beckon, and The Surf Is Up
PEMBROKESHIRE, WALES — BUNDLED in waterproof ski gear, a handful of tourists admire the rugged Welsh coast from the safety of the cliff tops. Down in the water below, surfers in Arctic wet suits brave the frigid water, riding the high, white-crested waves considered the most ferocious in Britain.
This improbable winter scene, surfers and all, takes place with startling regularity at Whitesands Bay in the Preseli Pembrokeshire district in south Wales. This area of magnificent coastline and tiny villages rich in history is considered the best-kept secret in Wales.
Flanked by the rocky crags of Carnllidi and Cernedd-Ileithr, Whitesands Bay provides the most breathtaking views in the district's Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, a remote and rough landscape that is the district's - and Britain's - only coastal preserve.
Owned in part by the National Trust (Britain's largest independent conservation organization), the park stretches for 225 miles, much of it hugging the Atlantic coast. If you shy away from surfing, take heart: It's not only surfers who find entertainment here.
Surrounded on three sides by water, Preseli contains more than two-thirds of the park and its long coastal footpath. The district is carpeted by brilliant wildflowers in summer and by heather year-round. Salted with tiny seaside towns and their art galleries, shops, and Celtic tea rooms, the region is perfect for walking, hiking, shopping, bird-watching - and surfing.
''It's hard for us to imagine why people keep coming,'' says Michael Cooper, an Englishman who runs the Cnapan Country House for Guests in the Preseli town of Newport, ''but you get away from the orange glare of the street lights and are close to the elements. It is a very unspoiled corner of the world.''
Our three-day trip began in Newport, a small and tidy town near the coast whose medieval street patterns follow the flow of streams. As in many parts of this countryside, there is evidence of human settlement as early as Neolithic times. While we were eager to get to the beach, Mr. Cooper, a man of infinite patience and infinite travel brochures, persuaded us first to visit Pentre Ifan, a Stonehenge-like monument a short drive away that once marked the entrance to a Neolithic burial chamber, or ''cromlech.''
Nestled in a field alongside grazing sheep and cattle, the monument resembles a table from a distance. A large stone seems precariously balanced atop upright slabs that appear to grow from the ground. It was from the Preseli Hills, in about 1700 BC, that the ''bluestones'' (spotted Dolerite) were taken to form the inner sanctum of Stonehenge, some 150 miles southeast.
Back at the Cnapan - which is incidentally the name of an ancient game played between parishes with a wooden ball - we ate shortbread and Welsh cakes sprinkled with sultanas in the cozy living room. The Coopers live upstairs and only five rooms are available to visitors, giving the house the feel of an elegant private home.
A few hours later, having rested luxuriously in front of an open fire, we stuffed ourselves on roasted peppers topped with anchovies (better than it sounds), followed by delicately seasoned roast lamb, four kinds of vegetables, and rich chocolate brownies, all prepared lovingly by Mr. Cooper's wife, Judy.
THE next day we drove along winding country roads to the town of Fishguard, always busy because it is a terminus for the Irish Cross Channel service. Its harbor was the backdrop for the 1973 film version of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas's ''Under Milk Wood,'' starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
Fishguard is notable for its modern indoor fruit-and-vegetable market in the town hall and its winding main street. It was also the site of the last invasion of Britain, in 1797. Locals like to regale tourists with the story of how the invading French troops thought the militia had mounted a hearty defense - fooled by Welshwomen wearing black bonnets and red shawls.
But it was St. David's Head, home to the surfers of Whitesands Bay on the tip of the district's peninsula, that we liked the most. We ignored the winter gales to take in the rocky cliffs and crashing waves. The head forms the northern horn of Whitesands Bay (the Welsh call it Porthmawr), which was recently voted the best beach in Wales by Which?, a consumer magazine.
With a population of only 1,250, St. David's is still considered a city - the smallest in Wales - because of its 12th-century cathedral. It was built along with the now-ruined Bishop's Palace along the River Alun, in which the locals took refuge from Norse pirates. Erected in 1340, the palace's lead roof was stripped two centuries later by a bishop who wanted to provide dowries for each of his five daughters.
Finally, we arrived in Pembroke, one of the bigger Preseli towns, with one of the largest castles in Wales. Built as the possession of a Norman lord 30 years after the English defeat at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, Pembroke Castle has been extended and fortified throughout history and stands today as a relic of a glorious past.
We ate our last Preseli evening meal at the Pembroke Carvery, down the road from a surf shop with its brightly painted surfboards in the window. Despite its traditional name, the restaurant has adapted to modern times by offering Welsh, English, and Chinese dishes.
After a meal that was satisfying but paled in comparison to the Cnapan's fine cuisine, we ended up at the Old Cross Saws Inn. Its name derives from an old ''hiring cross'' located across the street, where laborers would gather once a year on Michaelmas (Sept. 29) to be hired out to farmers.
While that tradition is long-forgotten, Pembroke retains some of its other old customs, says Frankie Small, a robust woman who owns the inn with her husband, Bud, and Welsh collie Shep.
''You can drive a flock of sheep through town, but you can't carry a weapon,'' Mrs. Small says with a laugh, as she prepared us a typical English breakfast for our journey back to London. ''It's in our royal charter.''