With its medieval castle and timeless seafront, this Welsh town is a beauty in its own right, but it’s also a good base from which to explore the surrounding mountains and beaches. Words: Ruth Addicott
There are not many towns in Britain that can boast the sea, snow-capped mountains and a medieval castle as a backdrop. Criccieth in North Wales is one of them. With its traditional Welsh tearooms, smart Victorian terraces and historic castle high on the hill, it’s a small town that’s full of character. It’s also a great base from which to explore Snowdonia and the Llyn Peninsula.
Although the town dates back to the early 13th century when the castle was built (it’s thought that the name ‘Criccieth’ comes from Welsh words ‘crug’ meaning hill and ‘caeth’, meaning captives), it wasn’t until 1867 when the trains of the Cambrian Coast Railway began to stop there that it really started to benefit from the boom in tourism. The town has two beaches (a mix of sand and pebble with rockpools at low tide), both popular with children, and a mix of independent shops, cafés, pubs and restaurants. In summer you can see dolphins swimming in the bay. The town hosts an arts and music festival each year in June and also attracts a lot of artists inspired by its iconic seafront and old-fashioned charm. Ask anyone what they love about Criccieth and the answer is always the same: ‘It never changes.’
10AM CASTLE VIEWS
Standing majestically on the headland that overlooks the town, Criccieth Castle is well worth a trip for the views alone. From the top, I can see the snow-covered peaks of Snowdonia, as well as the white sandy beaches of the nearby Llyn Peninsula and the outline of Harlech Castle across Cardigan Bay. Criccieth Castle was built in 1239 by Prince Llewelyn the Great, and there is a small exhibition with key facts about its history. You can still see where the stonework was reddened by fire, when it was captured and set alight in the 15th century. (cadw.wales.gov.uk)
11AM QUIRKY BOUTIQUES
Criccieth’s timelessness is most evident on its promenade. There are no amusement arcades, trendy surf bars or candyfloss here – just the sound of the waves lapping at the shore. Back on the High Street, I pop into local delicatessen Y Deli (Newydd), which sells cheese, meats, chutneys and jams. Nearby I browse through Fairtrade clothing, candles, soaps and ‘bamboo’ socks in a boutique called Raindrops On Roses (which actually smells of roses) and also visit 2nd Times, a shop owned by Leisha Keane and her daughter, Verity, specialising in retro and antique modern furniture. And in Siop Grefftau, which is run by local artists, I peruse paintings, ceramics, Welsh tea cosies and crochet blankets.
1PM BAKED DELIGHTS
Following my rumbling stomach to café No 46, I order homemade bara brith, a delicious traditional Welsh tea loaf with raisins and dried fruits. The café is buzzing and popular with locals – I’m lucky to find a seat.
4PM LOCAL ART
I call into the Golden Eagle gallery, owned by local photographer, Andrew Kime. His photos of Snowdonia are spectacular and he says the best view of Snowdon is from the Cob seawall in Porthmadog, a small coastal town five miles east. Nearby is Y Stiwdio, where artist Robert Cadwalader, whose family have been in Criccieth since 1790, is based. His bright watercolours depict the town in nostalgic hues. (imagesofsnowdonia.com)
7PM SEAFRONT DINING
I am given a lot of recommendations for restaurants (Tir A Môr, Poachers and the newly opened Dylan’s), but for fresh local seafood and location, The Moelwyn is hard to beat. This family-run restaurant, now in its 40th year, boasts a bar and lounge decked out in vintage décor but on sunny days, the prime spot is its outside terrace, which overlooks the bay. I tuck into a pan-fried fillet of seabass with chargrilled asparagus, and watch the sun set behind the castle and disappear into the sea. (themoelwyn.co.uk)
9AM WAKING TO THE WAVES
After falling asleep to the sound of waves on Saturday night, I wake up at Tide’s Reach, a B&B in an elegant Victorian terrace on the seafront. Owners Jo and Mark moved from Wolverhampton to start a new life in North Wales in 2013 and have given the rooms a luxurious feel as well as a personal touch. Post-breakfast, I browse the old postcards of Criccieth on the walls, including one sent by Mark’s dad, who came to the town on holiday as a child. (tidesreachcriccieth.com)
10AM UNSPOILT BEACHES
The sea is beckoning, so I go to explore the Llyn Peninsula, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It’s a 20-minute drive to Porthdinllaen, a long sheltered, sandy beach with a shimmering blue sea. As it’s known for birds and wildlife, I keep an eye out for grey seals as I watch the boats bobbing in the harbour, before making a quick lunch-stop at Ty Coch Inn, named one of the top 10 beach bars in the world. (tycoch.co.uk)
2PM MOUNTAIN STEAM TRAIN
I’ve always wanted to see Snowdonia but never fancied the hike, so I plump for a more leisurely mode of transport: a 150-year-old steam train on the Ffestiniog Railway, which chugs 13.5 miles from Porthmadog (a 10-minute drive from Criccieth) to the slate-quarrying town of Blaenau Ffestiniog, which also boasts the ‘longest zip wire in the world’ (zipworld.co.uk) and underground trampolines (bouncebelow.net). I take my seat in the old-fashioned carriage. The whistle goes and we’re off, rattling along the coast, past forests, mountains, waterfalls, and castles. A ‘Round Trip’ day ticket costs £21.50. (festrail.co.uk)
5PM AN ITALIAN VILLAGE
A short hop from Porthmadog and you’ll find Portmeirion, the Italianesque village developed by architect Sir Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis in the mid-20th century. I wander around the Central Piazza, taking photos of the colourful buildings, gardens and lake, before strolling down to The Hotel Portmeirion on the quayside. With its Art Deco dining room, waterfront setting and inventive cuisine, the hotel is one of the best places for fine dining in the area (two courses for £24, three for £30). Aside from warm pear pie with bubblegum crème anglaise, the highlight of the evening is the view. As I leave and look back at Snowdonia and the calm water of the estuary twinkling below, it’s clear why this corner of Wales is such an inspiration. (portmeirion-village.com)
NEED TO KNOW
Situated on Marine Terrace in Criccieth, the front-facing room (‘Morannedd’) not only has the perfect sea view, but a rocking chair to enjoy it in. All the décor is inspired by the coast, with coral, shells and driftwood dotted around. Double rooms start from £75 per night (tidesreachcriccieth.co.uk).
A 15-minute walk from the centre of Criccieth, this campsite is set within 11 acres and has views over the bay. It caters for tents and caravans, and also has Tipis for hire with log-burners for cooking marshmallows. Prices start from £13.50 (for a four-man tent), or from £55 to stay in a Tipi. Open from March to October (eisteddfapark.co.uk).
This Eviivo five-star B&B has spectacular views over the esplanade towards Criccieth Castle and the mountains beyond, as well as a sea-view patio garden. At breakfast, expect the finest meat sourced from a local butcher. Double rooms start from £83 per night (glynycoedhotel.co.uk).
HOW TO GET THERE
The A497 runs to Criccieth from Porthmadog or Pwllheli. Rail services are from Shrewsbury (visit arrivatrainswales.co.uk).