Cold climate, warm hearth

Scott Ellis finds the welcome overwhelming on a visit to his ancestral homeland.

If you want to know where you're going, so the saying goes, you have to know where you've come from.

Which is why, as a (relatively) young man embarking on married life and wondering where it all would lead, I decide to take a trip to my ancestral homeland in North Wales.

I still have no clue where I'm headed, but I can safely say that where I'm from is a slightly seedy resort town on the Irish Sea where the wonder and beauty of a country steeped in history has been reduced to a string of caravan parks and holiday camps for English tourists who can't afford to go to Blackpool.

It's good to know.

It's even better to know that while the top end of Wales in its daunting off-season can be a cold, wet and windy place, it's still one of the most welcoming places on earth and a destination well worth checking out even if you have no connection to the place past owning a Tom Jones album.

Almost universally, the locals are happy to have visitors.

The towns and cities are a constant string of surprises and the scenery, particularly in the north I'd come to explore, looks like Peter Jackson's vision of Middle Earth, with a castle every five minutes and towering crags galore.

In fact the only glitch in the whole picture was coming from the first Welshman I'd ever met, my Dad, whose incredulous voice was screeching into my ear courtesy of a ludicrously expensive phone call back to Australia.

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"You're where?" he asked, as I stood proudly on the beach at Rhyl, home of my father, my father's father (and so on) while horizontal rain pelted me in the face and the wind cut through three layers of allegedly windproof clothes.

"What on earth are you doing there at this time of year? There's no donkeys on the beach at this time of year you know!"

Indeed I did, but thankfully there's a lot more to see than donkeys.

Stepping on to Welsh soil (or more precisely, tarmac) at Holyhead after a surprisingly stable ferry ride from Dublin, the first impression of Wales is how easy everything is.

It's very late and the rain is threatening to do what it usually does in North Wales, but there's a bus waiting to take us to the nearby ferry terminal.

Despite the fact the office closed hours before, someone from the local car rental agency is more than happy to put off dinner to pop back and hand over the keys to the pre-ordered car.

And when we hit the road with absolutely no idea what the speed limit is and therefore cruise along a good 30kilometres under what we should be doing, the other drivers just calmly wait until they can pass.

The next impression is how striking Wales is.

Much has been written about the beauty of Ireland, rural England or the Highlands of Scotland but, possibly because I was seeing it all through eyes genetically geared to love the place, Wales beat them all.

Even at night, the coastline looks like a giant hand has just folded the country over until a piece snapped off; it's jagged - unfinished in a way few other places manage, with the wild seas hammering away.

After passing through Bangor (which led me to having a truly terrible 1980s folk song stuck in my head for days) the first stop on my Wales Roots Tour was Conwy - more specifically, the Castle Hotel, which stands on the site of a Cistercian abbey.

In use as a hotel since at least the 15th century, the Castle is owned by the Welsh Lavin family in partnership with a man whose skills come into play once you've unpacked in the luxuriously antique rooms (which overlook nearby Conwy Castle) and gone down to dinner.

The hallway leading to the restaurant seems to be filled with awards which are explained the moment the menu arrives.

Head chef Graham Tinsley has managed to use local ingredients to come up with a menu which would be right at home in any Michelin-rated restaurant.

The town itself is walled, with 22 towers joined by a largely intact stone wall and the key feature, the striking Conwy Castle, one of the fortresses built by England's Edward I as part of his "iron ring" to contain the locals.

More than 700 years later, it still looks up to the job, with the massive turrets and walls solid enough to allow visitors access to a brilliant view from the Conwy Estuary to the Snowdonia Ranges.

Just off the A55 motorway, Conwy is the perfect base to see the north.

First stop, of course, is the aforementioned Rhyl, a vibrant holiday town in summer so I'm told, but slightly less enthusiastic in winter.

The boardwalk is lined with deserted gaming arcades, the various electronic beeps and flashes trying desperately to lure in the few brave tourists who have defied nature to take in the unforgiving but beautiful Irish Sea.

None of that matters, however, as I'm here to visit the house where my father was born and where my grandparents first hatched the idea of moving to the other side of the world.

Straight past the train station, left at the kebab shop, then follow the rest of the instructions scrawled by a friendly local on the back of a bread-shop bag and I arrive at - a vacant block of land.

Not only has the family left Wales, it appears the house has as well. So.

Hitting the road again, this time with the knowledge the speed limit is actually 80kilometres an hour, not 30, the next stop is arguably Britain's most beautiful village, Portmeirion, just outside Porthmadog.

Best known as the surreal setting for cult 1960s television series The Prisoner, Portmeirion was built by the Welsh architect Clough Williams-Ellis from 1925 to 1973 to prove buildings can actually add to nature's beauty.

Mixing styles and designs from around the world, the result is an architectural grab-bag which somehow makes his point while still surprising at every turn.

A Tuscan-style villa, for example, stands near a statue of Buddha in a grotto, overlooking an old-English fountain decorated with Balinese dancers.

There's even a mock tall ship cemented into the dock, with the whole lot dominated by Castell Deudraeth, a Victorian castellated mansion.

The entire village is currently operated as a hotel, with 53 rooms and suites scattered throughout plus restaurants, gift shops and bars.

There's a slight theme-park quality during the day, but if you can drag yourself out of the Castell's penthouse suite - no mean feat considering it has its own entrance (lined, of course, with local slate), open fire and a view of the bay through the tower's arrow slits - a night-time trip through the village proper is spookily beautiful. Actually it's more spooky than beautiful, but still not to be missed. Heading back to the coast, take the A487 east through the heart of Snowdonia and then link with the northbound A470; the reward is miles of stunningly craggy mountains and beautiful villages dotted throughout an area which looks little-changed from centuries ago.

In fact it's only when you cross the border back into England that things start to look modern again - and not in a good way.

Mountains and green give way to featureless grey until, by Liverpool, we're back into a bleak 21st century.

There's no donkeys on the beach in Liverpool either, but you get the feeling if there were, they'd be wondering just how long the walk back to Rhyl would take, no matter what the weather is like when they get there.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there: Qantas flies direct to London (Heathrow) for about $1700. See http://www.qantas.com.au. Cardiff is about two hours from London's Paddington station by train or a two-hour drive (take the M4 Motorway from London).

Staying there: Double/twin club rooms at the Castle Hotel Conwy (bed and breakfast), from $112 per night midweek, $122 weekends. Castell Deudraeth penthouse (bed and breakfast), $574 per night midweek, $615 weekends.

Getting around: A flexipass railpass offers access to all main rail lines, from about $100. See http://www.walesflexipass.co.uk. For car rentals throughout Wales, see http://www.vroomvroomvroom.com.

Further information: Suggested road routes, places to visit, weather information and more information tailored to Australian travellers can be found at www.aus.visitwales.com.

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