Where better to put together a modern, exciting itinerary than Wales? We find lots of Welsh ingredients to an action-packed, cost-effective tour
Ah, Wales! We think it's one of the best areas of the UK to introduce something a bit modern, a bit trendy, into a group tour. Many of its countless stunning monuments, castles, museums and parks are either free or low-price to enter, so it's cost-effective to build up a fantastic itinerary with some more exciting, unusual or high-end elements thrown in.
Our latest visit comes courtesy of Southern Wales Tourism working with Steve Reed Tourism, with its annual showcase event coinciding as ever with a fantastic three-day familiarisation trip. Mainline Coaches provided the travel between destinations, while the lovely Best Western Heronston Hotel in Bridgend hosted the guests.
Dine in style
On the first night we dined at Llanerch Vineyard, an upmarket bistro, bar, cookery school and hotel that offers special group experiences.
The vineyard was originally a 17th-century farmhouse, first planted with vines in 1986. The climate in Wales will never produce a good red, but for a nice dry white, you can't go wrong with Llanerch's Cariad (Welsh for 'sweetheart'). In 2010 the vineyard was bought by current owner Ryan Davies, and since then, it's been building on its offering.
Groups can enjoy the cosy bar with its rustic pub feel; they can experience Welsh cuisine in the state-of-the-art cookery school; take afternoon tea in the posh bistro; and dine in the flexible function space, as we did. Everything overlooks the vineyard itself.
The hotel currently has 11 rooms, but another 26 are being built.
On our visit, we enjoyed sparkling wine and Welsh rarebit canapes, before a fantastic three-course meal with roast lamb. Ryan gives an entertaining talk about the vineyard's history and the wines it produces, and then we have a tasting: He tells us how and why you should hold the glass by the stem, and teaches us how to appreciate the colour, smell, sensation and, naturally, the taste.
On the second night, we enjoyed a different side to the delights of Cardiff Castle.
This fantastic castle, its lavish Victorian interiors designed by William Burges for the Marquess of Bute, one of the wealthiest men in the world, is all the more romantic and atmospheric on an evening tour.
Our tour guide is effortlessly knowledgeable and amusing as he shows us the magical Smoking Room, the breathtaking Arab Room, the Great Hall and the current Marquess's private staircase, finishing this whistlestop tour in the Library. The tour guides at Cardiff Castle are very good at making you feel special and letting you into the secrets.
After the tour we were treated to a Welsh Banquet in the castle, simply a splendid way for groups to experience the culture and cuisine of Wales in its capital's most magical setting.
Welcomed into the 15th-century Undercroft with a glass of mead, the guests are fed with traditional Welsh cawl to start, then chicken in a Caerphilly cheese sauce. Throughout the meal we are serenaded with a traditional Welsh harpist, and between courses, the hilarious toastmaster entertains the crowd and introduces a quartet of professional Welsh singers.
They sing a wide range, from Deck the Halls (a Welsh folk fertility song before it was a Christmas song) and Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer (the 'Bread of Heaven' one) to The Green Green Grass of Home and Delilah.
With everyone full and fully entertained, the coach driver turns on the coach's sound system to play us The Green Green Grass of Home as we head back to the hotel. A lovely evening.
On the trail
Guided tours and trails are a popular and effective way to find hidden gems and local culture.
We recommend Steve Griffin of Griffin Guiding, one of the government-recognised Wales Best Guides, whose vast local knowledge, classic sense of humour and gentle voice are the perfect accompaniment to a long coach drive around the mountains and valleys.
Don’t miss out on Wales’ fantastic local cuisine. Sian Roberts at Loving Welsh Food works closely with groups of up to 30 to offer tailor-made tours of Cardiff on foot or the surrounding area by coach, taking in the surprising foodie scene.
We featured Sian’s walking tour of Cardiff in our December 2017 issue, but for larger groups, try a half-day ‘Coast, Country & Cuisine’ tour, including a Farm Safari on the South Wales Heritage coast, or a full-day ‘Castles, Welshcakes & Wine’ tour taking in a visit to one of the country’s 600 castles.
To really experience local culture, groups can try the Cardifferent Historic Pub Tour, a theatrical walking tour of the city’s historic taverns that takes place in the evening. These can be tailored to groups’ needs, with more pub time and less drama, for example, at a duration that suits your group.
When in Rome…
The National Roman Legion Museum at Caerleon allows groups to step into Romans’ sandals, and it’s free.
Caerleon was once one of the most important settlements of the Roman Empire, and as well as the museum of Roman life, you can visit the remains of Britain’s most complete Roman amphitheatre, the local baths, and the only Roman Legionary barracks left in Europe.
Among the highlights are the Bathstone Coffin containing a third-century man, the glittering lost property of decades of careless bathers who lost their gems while bathing, and the oldest piece of writing in Wales. Outside the museum, the lovely Roman Garden allows you to explore an ancient take on what an ornamental garden should look like.
Llancaiach Fawr Manor offers another excellent opportunity to see life as it was in times gone by. The year is 1645 – a time period not usually explored in attractions like this – and the servants at Llancaiach Fawr will never break character as they tell you candidly about their life serving the master of the house Edward Prichard, an important man in Civil War times.
The tour starts in the servants' hall and takes in the kitchen, where you hear about servants’ life, the Great Hall, where you learn about crime and punishment at the time, and some of the bedrooms – the Master's Bedroom in particular is special, as it has a real carpet! There are lots of rooms to explore – tours can vary depending on how long you’ve got.
It’s recommended that tour groups visit in the afternoon, when the school groups have dispersed.
The Welsh Mining Experience at Rhondda Heritage Park offers a great way to find out about mining life, without the danger and claustrophobia of going down a real mine.
The recreated mine here, on the site of the real Lewis Merthyr Colliery, is a few metres underground and the most hair-raising part is getting in the lift – there's only a miner's torch for light, so you can imagine how cramped and dark the long drop down from the surface must have been for the dozens of miners squeezed in.
You're guided around the engine houses, lamp room and the pit-head wheel and winding gear, then the tunnels, by retired miners who tell you frankly about what life was like, including for women, children and animals. They tell you about the disasters and explosions, the equipment used, and the rich men who ran these operations from a distance.
The centre has a small but very worthwhile museum about the Valleys' industrial heritage, as well as a smart function room that can be used for group refreshments.
You can add special touches to a tour of Rhondda Heritage Park, and on our visit, these special touches made all the difference. Our refreshments were accompanied by a Welsh harpist, and on entry to the centre, we were greeted by a traditional male voice choir singing their hearts out. Such choirs were a big part of the social life of the Valleys' mining communities, and the effect is very uplifting and poignant. Browsing the museum while you hear it makes your heart swell.
Coal mining wasn't the only industry to transform south Wales: The iron industry was hugely important too, and it's worth a visit to Cyfarthfa Castle to learn about it. This imposing mock-fortress was built in Georgian times by the Crawshay family, infamous ironmasters, whose journey from Yorkshire to London to Merthyr Tydfil was made thanks to the abundance of raw materials here.
Driving through Merthyr today, it's difficult to imagine that this was once a bleak industrial landscape, the smell, noise and numerous furnaces of which meant at night it “looked like Hell.”
Today Cyfarthfa Castle is a museum with the largest collection in Wales outside of the National Museums. It's a spectacularly varied collection – but everything has a connection to Merthyr.
We enjoy an excellent guided tour around the museum, taking in the family history and some of the building's most arresting artefacts, including 15,500 bottles in the wine cellar, and a collection of very early photographs taken here in the 1850s.
Blaenavon World Heritage Site also offers ample opportunity to see the industrial landscape of both iron and coal. It’s been an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000, and offers the excellent attractions of Big Pit National Coal Museum, Blaenavon Heritage Railway, Blaenavon Ironworks and Rhymney Brewery Visitor Centre all a close distance to each other.
We’d recommend you start a visit at the Blaenavon World Heritage Centre, a small, modern and free museum with a good café and shop where groups can get a good grounding of this landscape before they head out to explore it.
Monuments to Wales
The brilliant Southern Wales Showcase event was held at the National Museum Cardiff, part of the beautiful classical architecture of the capital’s civic quarter.
After the event we were given a tour of the museum and art gallery, starting in the historic art section. There are many famous artists showcased here, with the Impressionists Gallery particularly impressive – you can see works by Rodin, Renoir and Monet. Most of the galleries are themed by period and country – in a gallery dedicated to British art around 1900, you can see the influence of the impressionists, and some of our favourites are the contrasting styles of Welsh brother and sister Gus and Gwen John. This international-quality museum is free, and well worth a visit.
National Museums Wales in fact offers seven excellent museums, all of them free. These include the National Roman Legion Museum and the famous Big Pit National Coal Museum at Blaenavon, as well as:
- St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff
- National Waterfront Museum, Swansea
- National Wool Museum, Llandysul
- National Slate Museum, Llanberis.
Another monument worth seeing – a scheduled ancient monument no less – is Caldicot Castle and Country Park in Monmouthshire, 900 years old, and it’s currently redeveloping its group offering. It has beautiful gardens, Victorian restored interiors, a lofty keep with great views over the Severn, a Banquet Hall for groups’ use – and free entry. It also plays host to several festivals over the summer.