South Wales was where I spend my first holidays – long beach days of sandcastle-building, rock-pooling and ice-cream eating. But this part of Wales isn’t just about the beautiful beaches, it’s got plenty of historical, cultural and literary sights to explore well as some fantastic foodie spots, individual, locally owned gems taking advantage of the delicious seasonal produce on their doorstep. So as part of South West Wales’ Year of Legends, I set out on a South Wales road trip for a long weekend of castles, beaches, gardens, shopping, eating and drinking.
South Wales road trip route
How long do you need for this South Wales road trip? We spread it over three days and two nights (one night in Laugharne and one in Llansteffan). But you could also squeeze it into two days or take a more leisurely pace and do it over four. Another option is to base yourself in one location for a week and combine day trips out with a few lazy days on the beach.
Margam Country Park
After travelling west from Cardiff (30 miles), the first stop on my South Wales road trip was Margam Country Park near Port Talbot. This historic estate stretches over 850 acres and is a lovely open green space with lots of walking and cycling routes. But there are also some of the estate’s historic buildings still standing, like the orangery and 12th-century abbey.
We took a tour around Margam Castle to find out more about the building’s history. This 19th-century Tudor Gothic mansion was built for the Talbot family. Outside it looks pretty well preserved – I could almost picture its Victorian residents parading around the gardens in their finery – but inside most of the interiors were gutted in a fire in the 1970s.
Now it has an eerie deserted feel with big echoing rooms, crumbling towers and an impressive sweeping staircase at the centre. Its emptiness has made it the perfect blank canvas for film shoots. Though as it’s a listed building, everything that’s added has to be taken away at the end of each shoot as it’s returned to its original ruined state. But fans of Doctor Who, Da Vinci’s Demons (or TV spook hunters Most Haunted!) might recognise it from on screen.
From Margam we travelled 30 miles further west to the Gower. This peninsula was designated as the UK’s first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty 60 years ago, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s only a 10-minute drive from Swansea but feels like a different world, swapping the city suburbs for wild moorland, dramatic cliffs and miles and miles of sandy beaches.
Most famous of the beaches is the three-mile-long Rhossili Bay, which has been voted one of the UK’s best beaches, but there’s also Three Cliffs Bay with its ruined castle and over 20 other beaches. If you want to get adventurous you can try surfing, coasteering, climbing or abseiling. But we stuck to a more sedate – but stunning – walk along a stretch of the Wales Coast Path.
Our next stop was the coastal town of Laugharne, 54 miles away in Carmarthenshire. It’s on the Taf Estuary with a ruined medieval castle and a big, wide open bay stretching as far as you can see. But a former resident is Laugharne biggest claim to fame. It’s where legendary Welsh poet and writer Dylan Thomas found inspiration for some of his most famous works.
Thomas described Laugharne as a ‘timeless, mild, beguiling island of a town’ (or ‘the strangest town in Wales’ if you’d rather) and it was the real-life setting for his book Under Milk Wood. He fell in love with the town when he was just 19, and it’s where he spent his final days – he’s buried under a simple cross in the churchyard of St Martin’s Church in the town.
The boathouse Thomas and his family lived in is now a museum about his life and work. Some rooms have been left as they would’ve been in the 1950s and others display his manuscripts and letters. But his real sanctuary was a writing shed on the cliff above the house, a tiny place with an imposing position looking over the bay. Peer through the window and you can see cigarette butts and piles of paper, making it seem almost like he’s just popped out for a minute.
You can visit the locations which inspired him on the Dylan Thomas Birthday Walk, which traces his Poem in October line by line along a two-mile stretch of the coast. Or take a pilgrimage of another kind and raise a glass in his favourite pub, the 1950s-style Brown’s Hotel.
Next we followed the coast road to Saundersfoot (13 miles) past Pendine Sands, a beach so wide and flat it was used to set the World Land Speed Record back in the 1920s. The Pembrokeshire seaside resort of Saundersfoot was the base for years worth of family holidays when I was young, so arriving back in the town brought back all kinds of memories.
There was the street where my favourite fudge shop was, the tunnels through the cliffs to get to the quietest patch of beach with the best rockpools, and the massive hill we had to climb to our holiday cottage. Saundersfoot’s vast stretch of sand is just perfect for a good old-fashioned seaside day trip of sandcastles, sticks of rock and long walks along the beach.
North of Saundersfoot (8 miles), Narberth is a pretty market town with pastel-coloured Edwardian and Georgian buildings lining its streets. It’s got old-fashioned charm in buckletloads, and is also an unexpected shopping hotspot, with a great set of independent shop – antique emporiums, art galleries, boutique interior design, delis, clothes, jewellery and gift shops.
It’s a good place to wander around, browse and see what catches your eye. Narberth’s also home to one of the cutest town halls imaginable and, being Wales, of course there’s a ruined medieval castle to explore in there too. There isn’t much left of Narbeth Castle but it’s home to fascinating myths and legends going back to 12th-century Welsh folk tales called the Mabinogi.
From Narbeth we headed east to Llanarthney and one of South Wales’ most impressive gardens, the National Botanic Garden of Wales (29 miles). The gardens cover 570 acres with a mix of meadows, lakes and gardens. There’s an arboretum, traditional apothecary’s garden, Japanese gardens and eco education exhibits. But the centrepiece of the site is its giant glasshouse – the largest of its kind in the world – bringing the Mediterranean to South Wales.
You can walk across bridges past lakes and waterfalls, through trees from South Africa and past flowers from Australia, all without going outside (making it a great place to visit on a wet day). But my favourite spot had to be the butterfly house, a sub-tropical rainforest oasis with colourful butterflies drifting through the air and a hatchery where you can see newborn butterflies emerge from their chrysalis and spread their wings for the first time.
Our final stop took us 10 miles further east of the Botanic Gardens to Llandeilo, another of Wales’ picturesque market towns, this time on the edge of the beautiful Brecon Beacons. Llandeilo is known for its impressive setting, with brightly painted houses lined up alongside Wales’ biggest single arch bridge. But as we arrived the rain started poring down so there was more dashing for cover between its shops than exploring the outdoors.
Llandeilo is another place with lots of independent shops and restaurants, including Ginhaus Deli – a café-come-deli that’s a must-visit for gin lovers with over 240 different varieties. There’s also a good range of boutique clothes, craft, antique and interiors shops to browse. From Llandeilo we finished our South Wales road trip by heading back to Cardiff, but if you’ve got more time you could carry on east to explore the Brecon Beacons or Wye Valley.
Where to stay
Mansion House Hotel, Llansteffan
Mansion House is tucked away among five acres of gardens on the top of a hillside overlooking Carmarthen Bay, and would be a great spot for a romantic break. The original Georgian mansion has been lovingly restored by owners Wendy and David, who’ve retained lots of its period charm. The main house holds most of the bedrooms as well as the bar and Moryd Restaurant, with a couple of extra rooms in a modern annexe. Rooms from £115 a night B&B.
St Brides Spa Hotel, Saundersfoot
For a seaside hotel with a touch of luxury, the St Brides Hotel and Spa sits on a headland overlooking Saundersfoot’s harbour and beach. Inside it’s light and airy, with big windows to make the most of the views and a few nautical-inspired decorative touches. There’s a bar and restaurant and an award-winning spa, with a wow-factor outdoor hydrotherapy infinity pool where you can watch the boats come in as you soak. Rooms from £185 a night B&B.
Holiday rentals in Laugharne
Although there aren’t many hotels in Laugharne, there’s a good selection of rental properties. These include the historic Great House which sleeps 10 with four-poster beds and roll-top baths, and has its own heated pool in summer and a wood burner for winter nights. Or you can rent Dylan Thomas’ former home Seaview, where he lived before moving to the Boathouse, a Grade II listed property which sleeps nine in five bedrooms and has a courtyard garden.
Where to eat
Cefn Bryn is the highest point in the Gower, and on a clear day you can see the coast and beyond to the Bristol Channel and Brecon Beacons. But if the weather’s not so good, you can hole up next to a roaring log fire in the King Arthur Hotel in nearby Reynoldston instead.
The cosy dining room at this historic pub was just what we needed to warm up on a blustery day, with a glass of local Gower gin and the prettiest pumpkin risotto I’ve ever seen, decorated with colourful edible flowers. And we weren’t the only ones, the place was packed with windswept walkers, tucking into classic pub dishes and eyeing up my coveted spot by the fire.
The quirky Cors is one of those places you need to be tipped off about, set in a country house down a long driveway. It feels more dinner party than restaurant, with lots of local regulars and owner, chef and former artist Nick chatting as we gathered in the lounge for drinks.
The handwritten menu is small but packed with local produce, from saltmarsh lamb to the intriguing smoked haddock crème brulée and my tasty monkfish with local samphire and Bloody Mary sauce. Tables are spread through the ground floor dining room, lit by candles with abstract artworks on the walls. It’s a relaxed place where you can easily go in for dinner and come out several hours (and several glasses of wine) later, wondering where the time went.
Coast Restaurant is a new addition to Saundersfoot’s seafront since my childhood holiday days, but has a fantastic location right on the edge of Coppett Hall Beach. It’s ultra-modern with a big outdoor terrace where you can enjoy the sea air and the views of the beach.
As you’d expect the menu is heavily focused on seafood, with fish straight from Saundersfoot Harbour plus a few more unusual options like cuttlefish. It’s open for lunch (from Wednesday–Sunday during autumn and winter) and dinner, and if you don’t manage to time it right then there’s a café downstairs in the same building where you can get drinks and snacks.
Right in the centre of Narbeth, PlumVanilla Café is a tiny, bustling place that was packed full when we visited. The café is run by the brilliantly named sisters Plum and Vanilla Harrison, who’ve created a bright and colourful, boho-style café with a menu that features some surprisingly exotic dishes like Thai curries and Moroccan tagines.
There’s a good selection of veggie and vegan options available too, with colourful salads, healthy juices and not-so-healthy but delicious cakes. I went for a bacon, roast potato and blue cheese salad which tempted me to abandon my usual soups despite the chilly autumn weather.
Wright’s Food Emporium is just a few miles from the Botanic Gardens. From the outside it looks like a traditional roadside inn, and that’s what it was for two centuries. But it’s had a modern makeover and is now more bistro than pub, with light airy rooms and bright modern décor.
One one side there’s a deli where you can pick up local produce or refill your bottles of wine. And on the other there’s a café which serves breakfasts and lunch dishes like sandwiches, salads and quiches. We tucked into tasty Welsh rarebit and a warming pumpkin soup – and made sure to leave room for a giant slice of homemade coffee and walnut cake.
When it’s grey and rainy, what do you need? A big dose of hot chocolate and cake of course, and we found the perfect spot for it at Heavenly Chocolates in Llandeilo. The shop is a treasure trove of chocolatey goodness, packed with their own delicious handmade creations.
The interiors are cosy and colourful, with bright fabrics and vintage lampshades – the sort of place to cheer you up however bad the weather is outside (though I left their famous ice cream for another trip). I went for a gluten-free chocolate macron heart with chocolate filling but there were lots of tasty options, and some seriously impressive wedding cakes on display.
Many thanks to Carmarthenshire, Neath Port Talbot, Swansea and Pembrokeshire for hosting me on my South Wales road trip. All views and opinions are, as always, my own. This article contains affiliate links, where I get a small commission at no extra cost to you, thanks.