[Art of War: Legions]20 reasons why Pembrokeshire is the best place for a family holiday this summer

  I like to think of Pembrokeshire as Cornwall without the crowds (well, not quite as many, anyway). It has the cute, picture-postcard villages, fresh fish and chips that can be enjoyed by the harbour and beautiful sandy beaches, but far, far fewer people (and much more availability).

  Before the pandemic hit, it had become an October half-term tradition for our family of four to drive to Pembrokeshire, hole up in a cosy cottage for a week and do as little as possible for the duration.

  Unlike the bulk of visitors to Pembrokeshire each year, I have never really found the south of the county appealing. Tenby and Saundersfoot have a certain bucket-and-spade allure I’m sure, but they’ve always come across as a bit too self-aware for my liking, offering a version of old-world charm that only exists on a chocolate box.

  No, for me, it’s north Pembrokeshire every time. It’s a wilder place, where nature flourishes – and it’s less pretentious and ever so much quieter.?

  North Pembrokeshire is the kind of place my dad used to drag me away to for bonding time when I was young, which I thought was incredibly dull at the time, but which I now appreciate with renewed enthusiasm.

  And so, it is my turn to be the parent to deny my children the beaches with potential playmates, the gift shops with their displays of cellophane-wrapped rock and the tempting jangle and hypnotic lights of the arcades. But with a coastline feathered with empty beaches and clandestine coves, where long days can be spent rock pooling, I find they rarely think about what they’re missing.

  Our most recent stay took us to a former fisherman’s cottage just 300 yards from the sheltered beach of Abercastle. I’d chosen this little holiday home for a few very important reasons – I wanted a beach we could walk to, access to the Pembrokeshire Coast Path and a decent pub within a short drive (I had hoped for walking distance, but you can’t have everything).

  abercastle bay, pembrokeshire

  The harbour at Abercastle, where the Coffey family stayed in a fisherman’s cottage

  Credit: Getty

  Abercastle is a sleepy village, with houses creeping down to the water’s edge and I couldn’t resist a walk down to the shore in the dark on our first night to gulp down the invigorating sea air.

  The next day, loaded with packed lunches, we walked down to our little beach, a mix of sand and shingle, where Alfred Johnson landed in 1876, having become the first person to sail single-handedly across the Atlantic.?

  Of course, my two kids weren’t interested in this nugget of trivia, but they were interested in skimming stones and chasing waves as far as they dared before running away at just the right moment (or in the case of my eldest, leaving it a little too late).

  We walked south on the coastal path, following a little track up from the far side of the beach. With two small children we didn’t plan on walking far, but just to be out and feel the crisp wind on our faces within a few minutes’ walk of our house felt good.?

  The reason for the excursion was to visit Carreg Samson – a 5,000-year-old Neolithic cromlech, consisting of several upright stones topped with what looks like a perilously placed capstone – which my husband had spied on a map.

  Pembrokeshire has more scheduled monuments than any other Welsh county, except Powys, but they are very rarely signposted. In true folklore tradition, this exposed burial chamber was supposedly built by St Samson, who according to legend placed the capstone on top using just his little finger. The kids, as expected, were nonplussed.

  We had more joy getting their attention ahead of a walk to the tip of St Davids Head to see another burial chamber, Coetan Arthur. Purely, I believe, because it shared a name with my eldest. And so, it became an adventure.?

  We parked up at Whitesands Bay, a handsome wide expanse of beach, and walked north, along the coast path, with my husband happily snapping away while I spent my time trying to ensure the children weren’t being too gung-ho in their endeavours as the path ascended high along the cliff edge.?

  They amazed us, completing the five-mile return walk with minimal whinging. The views along this rugged stretch of coastline are astounding, with vivid blue seas and secret bays carved into the coast. I’m told in summer the cliffs are ablaze with wildflowers, with sightings of peregrine falcon, gannets, dolphins and porpoises possible.?

  Seals also frequent these shores and we had two sightings: a pair at the Blue Lagoon in Abereiddy (a former slate quarry that is now a popular water-sport activities base) and while swimming in the sea by a rocky beach after a visit to Melin Tregwynt mill.

  Sally’s children play on the beach

  Sally’s children play on the beach

  The stone from quarries like Abereiddy was once brought into the small harbour hamlet of Porthgain, just a few miles south of Abercastle on the coast path, and this became our go-to place for dinner. There are two main places to choose from: the Shed for top-notch sit-in or takeaway fish and chips; or the Sloop Inn, a welcoming, unfussy pub, which does good food and has a pool table. For me, north Pembrokeshire is a less twee version of Cornwall, offering everything England’s south coast does, without crowds of other holidaymakers spoiling the view.

  I think perhaps it’s time to upgrade Pembrokeshire from our half-term hideaway to our summer holiday destination of choice.

  Sally Coffey

  With its candy-striped beak and oversized red feet, the puffin has the demeanour of an apologetic clown. And the antics: ungainly in the air, it’s positively calamitous when landing. Yet these avian entertainers, so comical individually, are mesmerising in numbers – and from April to July, you can encounter more than 20,000 of them in the breeding colony on Skomer. Visitors in early summer will also see hundreds of thousands of Manx shearwaters, plus guillemots, gannets and razorbills, and from August the fluffy white pups of grey seals. Visitor numbers are limited, and advance bookings essential.?

  Boat fare and landing fee £40; pembrokeshire-islands.co.uk

  The Pembrokeshire Coast Path – Wales’s first National Trail, which opened in 1970 – covers 186 miles around the entire seaboard between Amroth and St Dogmaels, revealing en route the region’s extraordinary natural beauty and diversity. Following this undulating path – completers conquer an Everest-worth of ascents – you’ll traverse bluebell woods, dunes and wildflower-festooned sea cliffs. You’ll also encounter castles and prehistoric monuments, Britain’s smallest city and more than 100 beaches: broad sandy swathes, remote coves and surfer’s playgrounds such as Freshwater West and Newgale.?

  Celtic Trails’ self-guided trips range from two-night tasters (from £230pp) to the full trail (from £1,320pp); celtictrailswalkingholidays.co.uk

  pembrokeshire coast path

  The Pembrokeshire Coast Path at Porthlysgi Bay, near?St Davids

  Credit: Alamy

  Before the Normans, before the Vikings and even before the Romans, this craggy corner of Britain was the homeland of the Celtic Demetae tribe. For a taste of daily life 2,000 years ago, explore the reconstructed Iron Age roundhouses at Castell Henllys hillfort, where costumed re-enactors explain the nitty (and very) gritty of ancient survival with demonstrations of spinning, dyeing, weaving, grinding grain and basket-making, plus singing, storytelling and weaponry. It’s all delightfully hands-on – and, from this year, feet-on, thanks to a new barefoot riverside trail.?

  Pre-booked three-hour slots £4.50 adults, £3 children; castellhenllys.com

  The idea of “coastal mountaineering” is simple enough: clamber up lofty rocks, leap into foaming waves below, repeat until exhilarated and exhausted. Yet coasteering, which evolved on the cliffs around St Davids in the mid-1980s, is a surprisingly varied experience, combining climbing, body-surfing, cave-exploring, rock-pooling and wildlife-watching with a healthy dollop of self-confidence boosting. It’s best enjoyed in its birthplace along Pembrokeshire’s craggy shores with an experienced outfit such as Preseli Venture.?

  Half-day coasteering adventures start from £52; £235 for weekends including equipment, guides and (for weekends) full-board accommodation; preseliventure.co.uk

  Pembrokeshire’s shoreline is an ample al-fresco larder, yielding all the ingredients for a wild feast – if you know what to look for, and where. One man who does is Craig Evans; join him on a coastal foraging course and you’ll go to beaches and dunes, rocky coves, saltmarsh and estuary, harvesting the best of each ecosystem’s littoral bounty – clams and oysters, crabs and prawns, an aquarium’s worth of fish – and cooking it on his portable stove. The vegan menu is extensive, too, with samphire and sea spinach, purslane and pennywort. Work up your appetite first on a stroll peppered with local history, geology and marine biology.?

  From £80pp; coastalforaging.co.uk

  coastal foraging, pembrokeshire

  A platter of foraged fare from Coast Foraging

  Credit: coastalforaging.co.uk

  Fortifications litter the coast and countryside of south-west Wales: Pembroke’s hulking bastion, the hilltop bishop’s palace of Llawhaden Castle, Cilgerran Castle’s romantic ruins and mighty Manorbier. The pick of the crop is Carew Castle, where activities lead young (and not-so young) historians on an entertaining canter through 20 centuries of battles and bloodshed. Explore the stronghold’s Norman, later medieval and Tudor structures – slighted during the Civil War – within the footprint of an Iron Age hillfort, and spare time for a spot of crabbing from the tidal mill causeway.

  Entry £6.50 adults, £4.50 children; carewcastle.com

  If you’re among Britain’s burgeoning legions of wild swimmers, the prospect of striking out from an isolated Pembrokeshire cove, past rock stacks and hauled-out seals, is a tempting one. But a dip in a placid local pool is one thing; taking the plunge into the Atlantic is a very different but hugely rewarding challenge. Learn to handle cold water, currents, waves and tides with experienced instructors in the sheltered waters of newly revamped Wild Lakes Wales near Narberth. Wild Swim Wales offers introductory courses and coaching, plus open-sea sessions in favourite coastal haunts.?

  From £12 (discounts for block-bookings); wildswim.wales

  Tucked into a secluded dimple on its namesake peninsula, St Davids Cathedral (stdavidscathedral.org.uk) is deliberately low-rise; its recessive location chosen by that eponymous 6th-century founder to conceal it from Saxon raiders. But while this purplish sandstone edifice may lack stature, it’s certainly not short of beauty or charisma: the Norman Romanesque arches, choir and exquisite 16th-century oak ceiling are simply luminous. Elsewhere in this diminutive but captivating city, discover the Gothic ruins of the Bishop’s Palace, the outstanding Oriel y Parc Gallery (pembrokeshirecoast.wales/oriel-y-parc) and a handful of streets lined with tempting cafés, pubs and craft shops.

  Meet Pembrokeshire’s diverse and delightful animal inhabitants at the Welsh Wildlife Centre, which offers a family-friendly introduction to the region’s habitats and creatures. Follow flat walking trails and new boardwalks through Teifi Marshes Nature Reserve, pausing at hides to spot hunting peregrines, kingfishers, dragonflies and lithe otters fishing and frolicking in the waterways. Settle in with a picnic to watch grazing water buffalo and native wildlife, or join a guided paddle along the Teifi gorge with Heritage Canoes (£35 adults, £25 children; heritagecanoes.squarespace.com).

  Wildlife Centre open Wednesday to Sunday,?free; welshwildlife.org

  teifi marshes nature reserve, pembrokeshire

  You can spot peregrine falcons, kingfishers, and otters at Teifi Marshes Nature Reserve

  Whispers of past lives echo along the corridors of? Scolton Manor, a neoclassical country pile furnished as if the Higgon family – whose home this was for nearly a century and a half – just stepped out for a moment. For glimpses of Victorian life above and below stairs, visit the nursery, study and dining room, where the table is set ready for the meal being prepared in the kitchen beneath. Make time to explore the surrounding estate’s 60 acres of wildlife-rich parkland and bluebell woods, admire the Victorian walled garden and exhibitions on traditional rural life, and visit the Pembrokeshire Beekeeping Centre.?

  Museum entry £3.50 adults, £2.35 children; visitpembrokeshire.com

  You might think, after the tsunami of breadmaking unleashed by lockdown, that you know all there is to know on the topic. Think again: the famed laverbread of west Wales isn’t a baked delight but seaweed, boiled for hours, chopped and dried or rolled in oatmeal and fried. Harvest your own algae at Freshwater West beach, beloved of families, surfers and film location scouts – look for something akin to shredded black plastic clinging to rocks. Or simply order a laver-laden treat (with a dollop of “kelp-chup”) at Café M?r, a solar-powered seaweed-kitchen food truck housed in a converted fishing boat.?

  beachfood.co.uk

  Not all spiritual journeys are long and arduous: the sea crossing from Tenby to Caldey, Pembrokeshire’s holy island, takes just 20 minutes. Stroll around this compact isle to discover the remains of the medieval priory, including St Illtyd’s Church and its Ogham stone dating from the 6th century and the foundation of Caldey’s first Celtic monastery. You can also encounter the small community of Cistercian monks who continue the order’s traditional lifestyle of prayer, study and work, growing flowers with which they produce internationally famed perfume. Boats make the crossing frequently Monday to Saturday.

  Open Easter to October; £14 adults, £8 children; caldeyislandwales.com

  caldey abbey

  Caldey Island has been a place of pilgrimage for 1,500 years

  Credit: Getty

  Dr Sarah Beynon is a woman on a mission: to show that all creatures small are great. Her Bug Farm near St Davids is a child-charming showcase for insects and other invertebrates, featuring a museum, tropical bug zoo and British bug house, plus insights into conservation farming projects. More engaging still are the many immersive elements. Follow trails through the site’s wetland, wildflower meadow and bug farm to learn about these important insect habitats, then grab lunch at the Grub Kitchen, where squeamish eaters are eased into sustainable, eco-friendly entomophagy – cricket falafel, anyone

  Events and bug-handling sessions should resume soon. Entry £7 adult, £4.50 children; thebugfarm.co.uk

  The nutrient-rich seas around St Bride’s Bay and St Davids Head attract a wealth of marine and avian life, from peregrines, choughs and seabirds nesting on Ramsey Island’s 120m-high cliffs to seals and cetaceans that throng surrounding waters. Board a boat from St Davids and head through Ramsey Sound – home to a resident population of harbour porpoises – to Grassholm, a rocky outcrop hosting thousands of breeding gannets, and on to the Celtic Deep to watch for dolphins and migrating orcas, minke whales and fin whales.?

  Whale and dolphin boat trips £60 adults, £30 children; Ramsey Island landing trips £25 adults, £15 children; thousandislands.co.uk

  With its Neolithic Carreg Coetan cromlech, ruined 13th-century castle, medieval pottery kiln and 19th-century harbour houses lining the Parrog port area, the comely village of Newport encompasses Pembrokeshire’s story in microcosm. Head south into its wilder hinterland and the prehistoric past becomes even more palpable: hut and stone circles, hillforts and burial chambers stud the Preseli Hills, and an early iteration of Stonehenge itself may once have stood here. Stride out on a wild walk across Carningli Common, or explore on two wheels – rent bikes from the Carningli Centre (carninglicentre.com), an Aladdin’s cave of antiques, art, books and collectables.

  carreg coetan, pembrokeshire

  The Pembrokeshire landscape is littered with dolmens and stone circles – remnants of the regions Neolithic past

  Credit: Getty

  The sun-soaked, vine-striped hillsides of Champagne and Tuscany may be out of reach for the time being – but no matter: head to south-west Wales instead for sparkling compensation. The three-acre Velfrey Vineyard near Narberth offers weekly tours and tastings among its 4,000 pinot noir, solaris and seyval blanc grapevines; learn how the long, warm Pembrokeshire summers and clay loam soils nurture the fruits’ sugar levels, acidity and depth of flavour to yield an excellent white fizz.?

  Tours and tastings run Friday and Saturday mornings, June to September,? £15; velfreyvineyard.com

  The calm waters around Saundersfoot Harbour, sheltered from winds and waves, provide perfect conditions for your first paddleboarding experience, while the new Outer Reef Water Sports Centre, part of a £10?million harbour redevelopment project, provides expert tuition. For more demanding board-riding, join one of the outfit’s surf sessions; venues migrate around Pembrokeshire’s many breaks depending on swells, winds and experience levels. Newgale is good for beginners, while advanced surfers rate Freshwater West as among the most consistent in Wales.?

  Two hour SUP or surf lessons cost £35; outerreefsurfschool.com

  The pocket-sized, pastel-hued Georgian resort of Tenby rivals Cornish fishing villages for quaintness and bests most of them for beaches: here you can sink your toes into the soft sand of three Blue Flag strands just steps from the medieval town walls. Some seaside experiences are timeless – munching fish and chips on the seafront, mackerel fishing (the town’s Welsh name, Dinbych-y-Pysgod, means Little Fortress of the Fish) – but for more contemporary flavours, try the award-winning ales produced by HARBWR Craft Brewery; slake your thirst at the taproom, housed in a renovated bottling shed.?

  harbwr.wales

  stand up paddleboarding, pembrokeshire

  Pembrokeshire’s rugged coastline is made for watersports, whether paddleboarding in calmer waters or surfing off one of the many breaks

  Credit: outerreefsurfschool.com

  Newly released from captivity, many of us are plotting an escape into the wilds – but would you know what to do when you get there? Join a course led by Buzzard Chris Bushcraft and you’ll soon be building a shelter, making a bow-drill for fire-lighting and – that most essential skill for a wild (wo)man of the woods – whittling a spoon. As well as training to wield an axe and knife, you’ll adapt to the rhythms of nature, identifying trees and learning their uses.?

  A one-day Bushcraft Explorer course costs £60pp for adults, reduced rates for under-16s; buzzardchrisbushcraft.co.uk

  The earls of Cawdor have long since departed Stackpole Court, their mansion demolished half a century ago. Yet the grounds, created during ambitious Georgian landscaping and now managed by the National Trust, are magical still. Roam the shores of Bosherston Lily Ponds and you’ll likely encounter the estate’s most famous residents: otters, fishing for eels, pike and perch. Wander farther afield to discover what is arguably Pembrokeshire’s most alluring stretch of coastline, graced with wooded valleys, orchid-speckled dunes, the ancient cliff-wedged chapel of St Govan’s and everyone’s favourite “secret” beach, Barafundle Bay.

  nationaltrust.org.uk/stackpole

  Paul Bloomfield

  How to do it

  ? Trellyn Woodland Camping, just a short walk from Abercastle, offers a hideaway camping experience. There are just six pitches, two geodesic domes and three yurts (pitches from £330 per week; trellyn.co.uk)

  ? You can’t miss the bright blue cottage of Dedwyddfa, within walking distance of the local café and pub in the village of Trefin (sleeps eight from £767 per week; 01348 837871; qualitycottages.co.uk)

  ? Hafan Tresinwen in Strumble Head is a charming stone cottage with a bright red roof. It is ideal for families (from £505 per week; 01239 727029; underthethatch.co.uk/hafantresin)

  For more information see visitpembrokeshire.com. Read our guide to the best hotels in Pembrokeshire.

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