South Wales, UK: Where to find the finest Welsh coastline

What does Old South Wales have to offer the Australian traveller?

One of the great mysteries of global exploration is why James Cook named the east coast of Australia "New South Wales". He never explained his decision, though presumably it reminded him of the south Welsh landscape.

Yet the two coastlines bear no obvious resemblance, and there's some doubt whether Cook ever set foot in Wales.

Still, here we are in Cardiff, the Welsh capital, about to explore the bottom third of what used to be a proud principality (and is now a designated country in its own right).

So what does Old South Wales have to offer the Australian traveller – especially now we can fly directly to Cardiff (via Qatar Airways and a change of plane in Doha) from NSW and Victoria?

CULTURE

Few parts of Britain have undergone a greater transformation in the past 50 years. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, these bays and valleys, mountains and mine shafts were a crucible of industry when steam coal literally powered the British Empire.

If you're in Cardiff Bay, spare an hour to visit the heritage-listed Pierhead Building (pierhead.org) – once the harbourmaster's HQ, which explains (through exhibits and an excellent 30-minute documentary) the era when coal was king.

Once Cardiff Bay was a hive of railway lines, docks and steamships: now it's an entertainment, education and leisure hub.

There are no working coal mines left in Wales. But there is the Big Pit National Coal Museum (museum.wales/bigpit/), staffed predominantly by former retired miners.

Our guide, Steve Powell – final son of a long line of miners, and a former National Union of Miners official – manages a fine balance between humour and hatred.

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Understandably, Powell isn't a fan of "Maggie" (the late Margaret Thatcher, Britain's first female Prime Minister) who – he insists – came into office in 1979 determined to smash the NUM.

Yet he praises the youthful Queen Victoria. "Once she learnt children as young as six were having to go down the pit to keep their family fed, she caused a fuss," Powell points out.

The Earl of Shaftesbury (known as "the Great Reformer") subsequently introduced the Mines and Collieries Act in 1842, banning women and children from having to work underground.

Going down the shaft in a "cage", and bending your back as you stumble through ever-diminishing tunnels to the claustrophobic coal face is an education in itself.

Along the way, Powell keeps up a stream of jokes. Some are classic "Merthyr Tydfil" sayings (Merthyr seems to be the butt of Welsh wit): "Where was you going when I saw you coming back?"

Others feature stupid questions he's been asked ''by Texans'': "How long does it take the coal to grow back again?"

Horses replaced women and children in the 1840s, hauling the coal trolleys along the rail. The underground stalls where the horses spent their lives, deprived of light and fresh air, are particularly haunting.

CASTLES

There are 641 castles in Wales – itself testimony to how raging the battlefield was between the Welsh and the English over the centuries. And many are here in South Wales.

Cardiff Castle (cardiffcastle.com) is the most accessible (and still proved its defensive value in World War II when its walls provided air raid shelter from Nazi bombing).

Others (for example, Laugharne Castle, now part of the Dylan Thomas trail) dominate tiny, picturesque ports.

My favourite? The romantic ruins of Carreg Cennin (castlewales.com/carreg) in Carmarthenshire – 26 kilometres north of Swansea. Perched on a steep limestone crag, Carreg Cennin has one of the most spectacular settings of any castle in Britain.

If you're puffed out by the 30-minute walk up the hill, think how exhausting it would have been charging up in battle.

Sustain yourself with the view from the top. Simply breathtaking – not least because the surrounding lush-green, sheep-grazing countryside is so peaceful.

CUISINE

Let me confess. I love "a full Welsh breakfast".

(And what's the difference between a full Welsh breakfast and a full English breakfast? Black pudding, laverbread and several pounds left in your pocket.)

Laverbread – once described by Richard Burton as "Welsh caviar" – is a boiled, green and edible seaweed, and it's obligatory to try it in Wales.

Just as lots of talented chefs have fled NSW and Victoria for Tasmania or South Australia in search of a more balanced lifestyle, so South Wales now has a surfeit of restaurants, gourmet food outlets and cooking schools.

The Culinary Cottage (theculinarycottage.co.uk), near Abergavenny in the heart of the majestic Black Mountains (training ground of Britain's SAS), is the home of TV chef Penny Lewis, whose career has been spent catering for aristocratic dinner parties (and yes, the Queen has often eaten her food without complaint).

A single mum, Penny didn't take cooking seriously until her 11-year-old daughter suddenly announced she was vegetarian.

"I thought I'd better learn to cook," Penny says (her daughter didn't last long as a vegetarian).

By the time we eat, our all-male group has prepared and cooked a three-course lunch under Penny's expert tuition: vegetarian Glamorgan sausages (breadcrumbed parcels of leek, egg, and cheese); pan-roasted local salmon with asparagus spears, potatoes and leeks in cream; and Welsh cakes, served with clotted Welsh cream.

In today's Wales, expect luscious lamb, bountiful beef, succulent seafood and the freshest of river-caught fish.

However, beware. Vegans aren't well catered for. And some Welsh names don't translate well. Who would guess "Blas", the name of Twr y Felin Hotel's award-winning restaurant in St Davids, means "Taste"?

CLASSICS

Hay-on-Wye (hay-on-wye.co.uk) is not only one of the prettiest market towns on the Welsh/English border (sandwiched between its own ruined castle and arguably Britain's most beautiful river), but home to one of the world's great literary festivals.

Do yourself a favour, and plan your visit to avoid the festival. You'll find Hay much more peaceful. And you can spend a whole day rummaging around the 40-odd second-hand bookshops – ducking into the cafes, shops selling Welsh woollens, and watch a movie at the town's cinema (expect a literary theme).

COUNTRYSIDE

I've alway been a North Wales kind of guy, having spent much of my school/ university holidays trekking in Snowdonia.

Yet there's no disputing (surely?) that the finest Welsh coastline is found in South Wales. The Pembrokeshire coast is one of the most spectacular in Europe. You can walk it (as part of the Wales Coast Path), surf it, fish it, sea kayak or sail around it.

Alternatively, you can take a scenic flight over it.

Helicopter, or four-seater fixed wing plane? Either way, on a good day, you'll witness St David's Cathedral (once visited by a Norman pilgrim known as William the Conqueror); endless sandy beaches; and a landscape that is so green and perfect you'd swear it had been cinematically enhanced.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/wales

visitwales.com

FLY

Qatar Airways is the first international airline to fly to Cardiff (via Doha) from Australia. See: qatarairways.com

STAY

St Davids (CORRECT) Hotel & Spa Cardiff (phcompany.com) has great views of Cardiff Bay and is convenient for the city centre.

Alternatively check out Holm House Hotel (holmhousehotel.com) if you prefer a classic seaside experience to enjoy Cardiff's equivalent of Bondi – Penarth with its pier.

In St Davids (CORRECT), the former windmill is now Twr y Felin (twryfelinhotel.com).

Steve Meacham travelled as a guest of Qatar Airways and Visit Wales.

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