A private fantasy

Valerie Lawson samples a not so rare bit of Welsh countryside.

It looked like a message from the goblins, and as for pronouncing the words - well, even a doctor in linguistics might stumble on this: Gobeithio y gwnewch chi fwynhau eich arhosiad yma.

The words were a Welsh welcome: "We hope you have a pleasant stay in Portmeirion." Fantasy words for the fantasy village of Portmeirion, in north Wales. Here the shopkeepers and staff speak to one another in Welsh, adding to a sense of displacement and slight alienation in a place made famous as the setting for the cult TV series The Prisoner.

More than 250,000 visitors come to Portmeirion each year, but this private village on a rocky peninsula in Snowdonia still seems like a secret place. Open to the public by day, it closes at night to all but guests in the Portmeirion hotel and those staying in village rooms such as the Upper Fountain suite, where Noel Coward wrote Blythe Spirit during one week in 1941.

The spirit of the architect Sir Clough William-Ellis hovers over the coastal site, which he bought for £5000 in 1925. It took five decades to fulfil his vision of showing how an ideal village could be built without spoiling an idyllic setting.

His legacy is a grab bag of architectural styles. He rescued bits of dilapidated buildings, some salvaged from demolition sites, and reconstructed them at Portmeirion using what he called "a light opera sort of approach".

This was his "home for fallen buildings", among them a colonnade built in 1760 in Bristol and a "gloriette," a kind of summerhouse on steroids, with columns from an 18th-century mansion in Cheshire.

Anyone old enough to remember The Prisoner, the 1960s series set in the village and starring Patrick McGoohan as secret agent number six, will recall some of the structures - including an Italianate campanile, a triumphal arch, a Gothic pavilion, a pantheon and a statue of Hercules. The most magical way to see the village is from the swampy sand on the beach at sunset (after 9pm in summer), when you can gaze at the Mediterranean pinks and greens of buildings lit by the last rays of sunlight.

Guests stay at the Hotel Portmeirion - which has 14 rooms in the main building and 26 rooms and suites in the surrounding village - or at Portmeirion's 17 self-catering cottages, or in the 11 contemporary styled rooms and suites at the recently renovated Castell Deudraeth.

The best choice, when it is not booked for a wedding or party, is the main hotel with its Mirror Room, Indian-style bar and airy, bay-windowed restaurant.

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I stayed in an ensuite room in a block called Salutation. At £135 (about $340) a night it was hardly a bargain, but at least some of the money went to a good cause: Portmeirion is owned by a charity dedicated to conservation in this part of Wales.

Another coastline, another room. At Cardiff Bay, the entrepreneur Sir Rocco Forte has built one of his five-star hotels, the St Davids Hotel and Spa. Described recently by The Sunday Times as a glazed pamper palace, the hotel's claim to fame is a luxurious hydrotherapy spa with two hydrotherapy pools, warm jet massage and a 15-metre swimming pool. The luxury lies in the detail (two giant showerheads in one pool spill water like a mini-Niagara Falls onto tired backs), the health screening and the studio offering Pilates, boxercise and yoga.

The bayside rooms look over Cardiff Bay, a precinct being rebuilt as a cultural and leisure centre but curiously empty when I was there. Perhaps it was the unseasonably cold summer days of late June, but the waterfront seemed desolate, as if the crowds were offstage waiting for someone to shout "action".

The action might come with the opening of the Wales Millennium Centre in November. Home to the Welsh National Opera, the building is as solid as the Sydney Opera House is airy, chunky rather than soaring, and designed in strata-like bands formed in a number of patterns and colours of stone.

The miraculous feature of the building is a classical device - an inscription carved into the facade. It spells out the poetic words, in Welsh and English, "In These Stones Horizons Sing". Each letter of the inscription makes a window, allowing the lights of the foyer to shine through at night.

The centre will give heart and soul to Cardiff Bay which, like many airbrushed former working bays and harbours, is in danger of being just another regeneration scheme and waterfront playground, with too many cafes and tourist shops and not enough people. A few streets back from the waterside is Butetown, once known as Tiger Bay, a name with much more grunt and a reminder of the days when this part of the city was a working harbour. Among the buildings around the bay are the Norwegian Church, an 1868 building restored under the direction of the writer Roald Dahl, and a building housing the National Assembly for Wales, established in 1999 with the partial devolution of the Welsh from English control under the Secretary of State for Wales.

Since 1967, learning Welsh has been compulsory in schools and all the signs through Wales are written first in Welsh and then English.

Near the English border, some St George flags fluttered in the land of the Red Dragon, but on the west coast of south Wales and especially in north Wales I sensed a slight coolness to outsiders, perhaps a natural reaction to centuries of invasion.

The most beautiful landscape in Wales is the west coast, where the houses are painted lilac and Wedgwood blue, pale green and custard colours. Away from the town centres, full-blown roses flower in the gardens of stone cottages, the whole landscape a reminder of the pictures on grandma's biscuit tins.

At the westernmost tip of the coast is St Davids, the smallest city in Britain. It is dominated by the purple-stoned St Davids Cathedral, built on the banks of the River Alun in the 12th century, and the nearby magnificent ruins of the St Davids Bishop's Palace, once as lavish as the cathedral is severe.

St Davids has attracted pilgrims for 14 centuries. In 1124, Pope Calixtus II declared that two pilgrimages to St Davids were equal to one to Rome, and that three were equal to Jerusalem.

St David and his followers wore animal skins, lived frugally, prayed and ploughed their fields. Not so the bishops who later lived high on the hog in the Bishop's Palace, which was built largely by Bishop Henry de Gower in the 14th century. Gower lived more like an emperor than a bishop, within numerous highly decorated rooms. In vault-like rooms under the ruined buildings are excellent models and descriptions of how the palace once looked, including sample menus.

One day in 1337, the bishop and guests treated themselves to 20 conger eels, 20 cod, 18 pollock and 30 slated hake, among other delicacies, and 86 gallons (390 litres) of wine, 28 gallons of "good ale" and 60 gallons of "ale less good."

The palace buildings, laid out around a quadrangle, look like a perfect setting for Shakespearean plays; certainly for Hamlet, where one can imagine the ghost flitting through the arched parapets and the prince wandering skull in hand down the steps from the porch of the great hall.

After an afternoon exploring the cathedral and palace, I climbed the 39 steps back to the main street of the town to find a little hotel that advertised all kinds of tempting fish for dinner. But by 8pm almost all the fish had disappeared, as had the diners, back to their homes or B&Bs and leaving me with the one remaining fish dish and a slice of pudding - the whole reminding me of my childhood days in central Otago, New Zealand, where the sun in summer also set at 10pm.

And, by the way, nothing about Wales reminded me of New South Wales.

DESTINATION

Wales

GETTING THERE

Various airlines such as Qantas and Singapore fly to Britain. See travel agents for details. Portmeirion is about 3.5 hours' drive from Cardiff and about 2.5 hours from Birmingham. By rail, it is four hours from London Euston to Bangor; the taxi from Bangor to Portmeirion takes 45 minutes. Other options for rail travel can be found on the website www.portmeirion-village.com

First Great Western trains run from London's Paddington to Cardiff, with a journey time of just over two hours. Cardiff Bay is a 20-minute walk or five-minute drive from central Cardiff. The train from Cardiff goes as far as Haverfordwest, and it is a further 25 kilometres to St Davids by car or coach.

MORE INFO

Wales Tourist Board, phone 1300 854 599 or see www.visitwales.com

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