Rugged cliffs, sandy beaches, postcard-pretty seaside villages, puffins galore, a countryside covered with stone circles, medieval castles, wildflowers, and little lambs – all put together into a tidy 200-mile walking holiday package. Wild weather is a well-known feature of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path (map), but even the stormiest day has bright spots: a farmer, oblivious to a torrential downpour, will stop to tell you tales of Welsh farming and fishing, and you can be sure that the next little village will boast a cosy tea room and a pub, each with a sign proclaiming “muddy boots welcome.”
Full of surprises
The Pembrokeshire Coast Path in western Wales has it all: the route is scenic, hospitable, and easy to navigate. Our first surprise was that this trail is so lightly-used by through-walkers (those who walk the entire trail, end to end).
Only 100 to 200 people apply each year for a free certificate offered by the National Park Authority to those who have walked all 186 official miles from St. Dogmaels to Amroth.
Of course, some walkers may be averse to filling out application forms, but even so, these numbers seem low for a national trail opened in 1970 and named third-best walk in the world by National Geographic.
Other surprises we encountered during our three weeks on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path:
- Beautiful beaches. Arches, blowholes, and sea stacks we expected on a coastal walk, but we didn’t know that Wales had so many beautiful, sandy, and often secluded beaches.
- Hospitality. Each night’s accommodation was unique, but one thing was consistent: gracious hosts to welcome us with a cup of tea and a piece of cake.
- Heated towel bars. All bed and breakfast bathrooms had towel bars heated by hot water or electricity. These gadgets are great for drying rain-soaked socks. We want one!
- Fries with that? All pub meals, even lasagne and beef stroganoff, come with chips (french fries).
- Hardy souls. Single-digit temperatures and storm-force winds? Beach access trails to challenge a mountain goat? No problem. Families with swimsuit-clad toddlers scramble down the trails and jump into the sea; we wouldn’t go near that chilly water without a wetsuit.
- Foolhardy souls. Rock-climb to the top of a cliff, jump off the cliff into the sea, swim into a sea cave, swim through the swells to the next rock cliff, and repeat. It’s called coasteering, a unique adventure sport developed in Pembrokeshire. No, thanks!
- Sheep are not getting any smarter. Doug rescued a sheep that had gotten stuck trying to squeeze its large body through a small hole in a fence. This sheep seemed just as dimwitted as the one Doug raised for 4-H Club in the 1950s. The little lambs are cute, though – right??
There is nothin’ like a puffin
Extra days may be added to the walking schedule, and we added five. In the colourful market town of Cardigan we searched for scarves (weather forecast: sleet and 40 mph winds) and visited the Welsh Wildlife Centre. In Newport we met locals at the launderette and admired the Preseli Hills, ancient hills where the bluestones of Stonehenge were sourced.
In Lower Fishguard it was way too windy to travel far, but Anthony got us into caves and showed us marine life along a short stretch of coastline. Wetsuits and paddle jackets were provided, so we were kept toasty warm in our sit-atop kayak. Pembroke Castle, birthplace of Henry VII, looms above the main street of Pembroke town. This medieval monument is one of the largest castles in Wales, and it took us almost all day to see it all.
Ten thousand puffins breed on Skomer Island, and these charismatic birds are so obliging! Puffins pose for photos as they make their way to and from their nests in burrows in the grassy banks above the cliffs. A boat service makes the fifteen-minute crossing from the tip of the Marloes Peninsula, and this trip is a must-do.
Coastal cheese sandwiches
“You will get very tired of cheese sandwiches,” we were advised at our first bed and breakfast. Here is the walker’s packed lunch: cheese sandwich (with sweet pickle relish and/or onions, unless you request otherwise), crisps (potato chips), apple, two Welsh cakes (a cross between a scone and a pancake). Fortunately, we like cheese sandwiches, but three weeks is a long time for Doug to go without peanut butter and jelly.
What exactly is a walking holiday, and how does it work? Our North American friends may not be familiar with the concept, so we will explain a bit.
The United Kingdom is laced with long-distance walking paths, and there is a well-developed industry to support them. Choose a path, a pace, a start date, and a walking company (we choose Contours, but there are many others). The company arranges your accommodation (bed and breakfasts, country inns, farmhouses), provides maps and a guidebook describing the route, and transports your luggage between overnight stops, so that you carry only a day-pack with your cheese sandwich, water bottle, camera, and other essentials.
You walk independently from one place to another, stopping somewhere different each night. As long as you accomplish the day’s walk (we did ten to fifteen miles per day, for sixteen walking-days), you are free to walk at your own pace. Enjoy the landscape, stop for photos when you want, and spend as long as you want exploring the villages or sites of historical interest along the trail. It’s pretty easy, and that is why it is sometimes called slack-packing. Try it!