Wales? What? Why?
I first found out that I could be going to Wales in August while residing in my temporary home in the Pacific Punch.Â Lindsay, who writes as often as she can for JohnnyJet about her numerous global treks, received an invite for a Great Wales Challenge : Blogger’s Press Trip being put on by Visit Wales, the country’s tourism board.Â As they gear up for ‘holiday’ season, this first time blogger press trip was another way to reach potential visitors. “Do you want to go to Wales September 24th through the 30th?” she inquired of me from her office.Â After checking my pretty much blank end of September calendar page, I answered enthusiastically, a resounding: YES!
Of course I said YES! before I knew one iota about Wales except I was pretty sure it was in the U.K., it was rainy, and they ate a lot of lamb there.Â As a vegetarian (ok, fine, I eat some fish and some chicken and some turkey) who worships the sun, I was hoping I wasn’t about to experience a strong case of buyer’s remorse. It’s not often I go into things totally blindly, however, I do love me some “adventure.”Â The platform of the trip divided up 17 bloggers from across Europe and the U.S. into four themes.Â Adventure, Culture (there were two teams) and Food.Â I had opted for Culture by default.Â I wrinkle my nose at the type of adventure where you have to wear a helmet and a wetsuit and food – I mean, food?Â Believe me you, I don’t need any help eating.Â So culture it was. Besides, I figured the Punch readers would enjoy learning about a well-rounded experience.Â And well-rounded it turns out, was exactly what our Culture group got.Â But let us not get ahead of ourselves.
As I was prepping myself while back in D.C., I began to throw around, “Hey guess what? I’m going to Wales for a blogger trip!”Â The responses were all over the map from “I spent the summer there, you will love it, it’s so gorgeous” to “For what? What’s in Wales?” to “When? It should stop raining by then. At least I hope for you. Bring a lot of raingear” to “WHY?” to “As in the U.K.? That’s a city in England, right?”
What to Wear
Fast forward to October 24th.Â It has taken me a full week to over pack then unpack, then repack, then really pack.Â Built on the advice of friends, I was to bring cool rainy weather garments, comfortable walking shoes/boots, and all casual clothes. Typically it wouldn’t be too much trouble packing, but we have learned each group would be on the move, on the run. This equals a type of packing that would accommodate dragging my suitcase, handbag (or satchel) and carry-on bag. You know, unloading out of a van, taking to a room (not a lot of elevators where we were headed) unpacking, search-and-recovering outfits, and the next day early in a fuzz, getting the stuff all together and dragging the luggage down the stairs and then loading up in the vehicle. And then wash and repeat.Â And wash and repeat.
Now to the typical travel blogger, that type of moving about is standard.Â Lanee Lee of This Boundless World reminded me there would be no male model bell hops like from whence I came during New York City’s Fashion Week.Â So, it was all about packing leggings, flat boots, jeans and sweaters, wraps and tee shirts that could all mix and matched.Â And in a suitcase that should I decide to stand on it and jump up and down so as to make sure it zipped properly, I wouldn’t mind a scuff or five on it.
And We Are Off
I arrive at Reagan National Airport to take American Airlines to O’Hare and from Chicago, I was to fly to Manchester, England.Â The reason we were flying into Manchester and not to Cardiff, Wales was part of the master plan created by Visit Wales.Â Every blogger and tour guide would start out in North Wales and take our respective routes south so we would end up together on Day 6 in Cardiff.Â My group, Culture II, was to stay on the coast for the most part until Day 5 when we were to start making our way inland.Â Then everyone would leave for home from Cardiff. I knew I was flying back home through JFK in New York.Â Through some wonderful friends, I had been upgraded to first class from D.C. to Chicago.Â Love American.Â The experience was quick, painless, easy and I even ran into a friend on the plane and we chatted. He told me where to go in Cardiff, the St. David’s Hotel Spa, a world-renown luxurious place to get away.Â This is going to be a piece of cake I thought.Â Note to self: Never say before you reach your final destination that your trip will be a piece of cake. Just don’t.
We experience what some might call “a total nightmare” in O’Hare, you know, mechanical issues, delays, disembarking, a few too many glasses of wine at an airport bar, embarking on a bigger plane (we went from a 757 to a 767) and low and behold, if you keep that positive attitude, you never know what can happen, because my upgrade went through to Business Class and we were on our way. Again, thank you American Airlines. The staff was professional, upbeat and kept their cool during what went from an early evening trans-Atlantic flight into a red-eye.
Arriving and the First Adventures
The next morning we awake to hearing we’d be landing much later of course, into Manchester. I am more concerned that our tour guides are waiting around for hours for us to appear.Â Once we land at the airport, bedraggled after so many hours of travel I look for my luggage, venture into the ladies room to scream at what I see in the mirror, then shrug it off, and then I walk out to find our group.Â There is one American writer, Rachel, who was on my Chicago flight. I spot her with two other women, whom I meet and learn are Ceri who is with Visit Wales and Rhian, an official Wales tour guide. Both I also find out (and this will matter later in our trip) are from North Wales not South Wales.Â We wait until the group from Paris arrive; French bloggers made up of guys and girls who are split amongst the themed groups, just as my L.A. friends Lindsay, Lanee and soon to be new friend Karen will be from me.
After piling into the van, we are off.Â Rhian’s Welsh accent is heavy but oh so comforting as she drives (on the wrong side of the car! and street! ok, I’m joking), telling us historical anecdotes, noting points of interest as we speed our way along the highway away from England toward Wales.Â “For every question you ask about Wales, there are about ten answers, all different stories,” she laughs.Â I begin to understand the lore of Wales.Â She attempts to teach us some Welsh words, like the good students we are, we repeat the strange pronunciations back to her.Â I’m thinking that my tongue and teeth aren’t following her guidance and years of French and Spanish have not helped my first few minutes of Welsh.
I get my first glimpse of sheep along the green pastures.Â We are still in England.Â This is nothing compared to the amount of sheep I have yet to see.Â The air is cool, it’s cloudy, then sunny, then misty, like it’s trying to figure out what to do.Â We enter Wales.Â Rhian laughs from the driver’s seat, “Look it’s sunny now! Because we are in Wales.” I’m wondering if I brought the right attire. It’s time to forget about jet lag and start living in the present, something you have to do when you travel blog and that means at least for me, lots of photos.Â There’s nothing better than capturing moments, expressions, the right scene, the right bit of action, or the right stillness of the local life.
We enter Conwy, a little fishing village filled, well surrounded rather, with history. Rhian is actually from here.Â It could be straight from a movie set, I think as I stare up at the huge Conwy Castle walls.Â It’s unreal. I’ve never been this close to a castle.Â The town walls are nearly a mile long and almost fully intact.Â There are twenty one towers and three gateways.Â This is only one of 641 castles in Wales. 641.Â This is not the last castle I see during this trip.Â And by the way, if you see one castle, you do not “see them all”, they are all different and special and have their own stories.Â There are folks dressed in costumes with birds of prey, ready to have their photos taken outside of Liverpool Arms, where we decide to grab our very first Welsh beer.Â Inside the men are worshipping – the national religion of rugby, that is.Â There are pints (or paints) of beers all around our group and I’m pleased to have my very first frothy sip of Brains Beer, albeit served in a Bass Ale glass.
We move on, I’m still in awe of the castle walls, the air filled with seagulls, the ships that bring in mussels.Â We walk by the Smallest House in Great Britain.Â It’s 6 ft wide and 8 ft high and believe it or not (like Ripley’s) used to be owned by a 6′ 3″ fisherman.Â We see the small statue of Llewelyn the Great, who was highly revered.Â It starts to sprinkle rain; where did this come from? Our group makes a run for it to the fish and chips take out place on the corner.Â I can smell it a mile away.Â I’m in heaven. Good tasty, frothy, scented beer and now fish and chips?Â Ok it’s raining, but I can deal as I dig into the huge freshly fried filet, licking my fingers.Â Again, like I need any help eating…
Through the sprinkle and slight wind now, we make our way to the next stop on our trek to Nant Gwrtheyrn, where all of the blogger teams will be meeting, eating and sleeping only the first night.Â We are now at Caernarfon Castle which was Prince Edward I’s most impressive stronghold.Â It was built between 1283 and 1301 and because the polygonal towers and color-banded masonry were based on Constantinople’s 5th century walls, it proved to be virtually impregnable.Â It was also built as a seat of English government and a statement of English conquest over North Wales.Â Castles have so much more meaning that just the stones. They were power plays. There is a tower with an exhibit of the 1969 investiture of the Prince of Wales, Prince Charles.Â Our tour van is off to a harrowing drive down a steep drop off cliff to the tiny remote Victorian Quarry village overlooking the Porthdinllaen Bay and the Lyn Peninsula.
Meet the Groups
We finally arrive to our destination.Â The modern-day village of Nant Gwrtheyrn was refurbished in 2009 and serves as a Welsh language learning center for adults.Â The barracks have been transformed to accommodate up to 80 residential guests. Â Because we arrive in the pouring rain and so late, we have to quickly get ourselves together so we can meet everyone else and sit and dine with our new theme groups.Â I am so glad to see Lindsay and Lanee and finally meet Karen.Â There’s a camera crew following everyone around with the purpose of putting together an internal promotional video for Visit Wales.Â They are interviewing us, getting B-roll, but they are pros, non-obtrusive.Â We all meet in the main building for wine, beer, a light dinner and lots of greetings.Â I’m sitting with my Culture II group and introduce myself to Bill, our official Wales tour guide (bless his heart, he’s stuck with four women), Alex, with Visit Wales, who is this adorable blonde spunky girl, Megan, who has a slight Irish accent, and who is from “all over” but currently working out of London and Loreto, from Spain, who is literally, I mean literally attached to her BlackBerry and writes, tweets, blogs in Spanish, but whose English is just about perfect.Â We get to know each other a bit, it’s kind of a strange future dynamic, knowing we will all be in a van and going on these adventures down the coast of Wales together over the next few days and nights, but quickly, I can tell they are cool and there won’t be a high maintenance one in the group (except me maybe).
That night, all four of the groups have a hilarious Welsh language lesson then move onto to some traditional live music and raucous dancing, which has us perspiring and doubled over laughing.Â We also find out that the “Challenge” is a contest among the four groups.Â It’s a combination of creativity and a scavenger hunt.Â All four teams have a mascot. Ours is an adorable little stuffed lamb named Sioned (pronounced Sha-net, Janet in Welsh) who will go with us everywhere and even get her own Facebook page.Â I’m game and certainly competitive.Â Culture II reads over our itinerary and know it’s a busy one, we will be making our way in a van stopping in various places and sleeping in beautiful accommodations and eating well.Â We have pony trekking, beer tasting, steam train riding, even dolphin spotting on our list of things to do.
We are off to great start and can’t wait for the next morning, which we know will arrive way too early, as we depart for our apartments.
Note: I had brought the incorrect converters, which I purchased en route the next day for a few pounds, but always remember to find out which converter is the one you will need.Â Wales (the U.K.) uses a three prong, the two top ones are flat horizontal and the third is vertical.Â Also, I withdrew pounds from an ATM, always better than getting from the airport.Â The exchange rate obviously changes daily, but it wasn’t that bad while we were on this trip. Also, I since I have Verizon Wireless and a BlackBerry Curve, I had to work with Verizon to get a loaner through their program and set up the new device to work overseas.
Next up The Lore and Lure of Wales : Day 2
Pamela Lynne Sorensen is the founder of Pamela’s Punch, a leading source of information for the “who, what, when, and where” of Washington, DC’s elite social, professional, and philanthropic scene, which she founded in November of 2006. In 2012 she launched Pacific Punch, based in Los Angeles. Pamela comes from an extensive background in sales and business development from a variety of industries, has been involved with charities and fundraising for a number of years and holds several Board and leadership positions. She currently resides in Arlington, Virginia and when she’s not out on the town, she’s reading or writing while sipping fine wine, or traveling the country and the world ISO adventures, beauty, fun, food, style, libations, music, and the good life. Follow her on Twitter at @pamelaspunch.