Two Castles and a Kayak

I was invited the other weekend to go kayaking in Llanberis, a small town just on the western edge of Snowdonia National Park.  It wasn’t until the Sunday afternoon, so with no other plans booked in that weekend, I decided to make it into a little overnight road trip, finishing up Sunday lunchtime in Llanberis for a kayak with friends.

A Unesco sites that I had been meaning to visit, but was just a bit too far for a day trip, were 2 of the 4 world heritage castles on the west coast, in the county of Gwynedd; Conwy and Caernarfon. I had visited Beaumaris previously over on Anglesey and the 4th, Harlech is a lot further south, but Conwy and Caenarfon are only about 35 minutes apart, so seemed doable in the same day.

It’s super easy to get to Conwy from where I live and I didn’t even need to use my maps to get me there and 90 minutes later I was parked up at the main long stay carpark.  It sits behind the castle walls, easily signposted and payment is by app or card, so no fumbling for money needed!

Conwy Castle is an incredibly well preserved Medieval fortress, over 700 years old. Built by Edward I, Edward Longshanks to his friends, Edward was born in England, but was intent on conquering Wales. The four castles along the coast with their imposing walls, were all part of his successful takeover plan and sent out a very strong message to the Welsh that he meant business!

I have to say, Conwy Castle is one of the most impressive castles I have visited, for sheer size and how it has retained its features. You really do feel transported back in time as you explore the many chambers, climb the spiral staircases up to the towers and walk along the high walls. The views of the Conwy Suspension Bridge over the River Conwy and Snowdonia’s mountainous skyline in the distance, is spectacular, I can’t think of a more perfect location for a castle.

Having been to Conwy before, I just had a short walk along the harbour, and sat and had my packed lunch, watching the tourists queue up to visit the ‘smallest house in Britain’ while a vicious seagull attempt to eat a families bag of chips, quite entertaining really. Then I took the long way back to the carpark, via the main high street for a bit of window shopping, before heading down the coast, to Castle no. 2.

Just over half an hour later, I was pulling into the carpark down by the waterfront, staring back up to the imposing castle walls in the town of Caenarfon. Although the building of this castle started the same year as Conwy, this castle took over 40 years to completion, compared to Conwy’s quick 7 year build.

It’s an ideal spot if you’re going to build a castle, as it sits at the tip of a peninsula, edged by the Menai Strait and River Seiont, affording great views and lots of protection.

Unlike its neighbour in Conwy, Canaerfon isn’t in as good a state of repair inside, but the walls and main structure are still none the less impressive. Much of the interior hasn’t survived that well and some of the buildings weren’t ever fully finished. That said, I preferred this castle to Conwy, it takes a little more effort to get too, and was nowhere near as busy, and for me that gave it its charm. There is still lots to explore here though, spiral staircases to climb and outstanding views from the top, as well as a museum inside too. Part of the castle was in the process of being renovated during my visit, leaving a few spots out of bounds, but all us visitors got a free guidebook as compensation instead.

Highlights for me included, the dark atmospheric passages taking you through the basement and up the Well Tower, the narrow stone spiral staircases winding you up to the 2nd floor for epic but windy views from the Chamberlain Tower and a surprising single stone glass window.

Once done, I took a short walk through the town centre, but as we are still in Covid times and with some places still closed and restrictions in place, I decided to power on and head to my final destination for the day, Bangor.

I only knew of Bangor from my University days, as they used to have a school of Podiatry there, but I knew absolutely nothing else. The reason I chose it as a place to stay the night was it’s a University town, so I knew there was a good chance of there being some affordable hotel options as well as probably some plant based food for sale somewhere, and it was only a 20 minute drive from my meeting spot the next day.

But I was pleasantly surprised, once checked in I headed to Yugen coffee house, to pick up an oat latte and some vegan cheesecake, then headed to the coastline located a nice bench and then just sat and took in the breathtaking views, of the Menai Straits and Anglesey to the front and Snowdonia behind.

After a quick check of maps on my phone, I could see what looked like a pier, stretching almost all the way to Anglesey, so I continued to walk south, until I arrived at a place I had no idea existed, Garth Pier. A Grade II listed Victorian Pier, there are 2 colourful Kiosks to welcome you, and a small fee to enter. Then its a lovely walk right out across the Menai Straits, with local crafts, ice cream and art work being sold, as well as a coffee shop right at the top. I had just filled up on coffee, so I just sat on a bench completely taken in with the surrounding views of the Welsh landscape, texting family and friends about this new (to me) discovery and recommending it to everyone.

Finally, all my plant based dreams came true and my bet on Bangor being vegan friendly paid off, the first fully plant based restaurant in Wales happened to be a 5 minute walk from the pier. Called Voltaire although they were fully booked, they were happy to let me have some take-out, so with one of their signature burgers and fries bagged up, I hotfooted it back to my hotel, and tucked in, it’s pretty much a whole reason in itself to return.

The next morning, feeling refreshed, I took the short drive to Llanberis and found myself a nice free parking spot by the lake. I arrived an hour early, so did a loop of the town, remembering the places I had visited previously, investigated the lake we would soon be sailing on, and watched admiringly the sweaty, tired looking hikers who were returning from Snowdon’s summit, which I had done a year earlier.

After a hearty breakfast with my fellow kayaker’s at Pete’s Eats we headed down to Snowdonia Watersports and got our kit. For £25 we got full kit hire and 2 hours out on the lake, you also get access to indoor changing rooms, a locker and hot showers, so absolutely worth it.

Of course I fell in, whilst the others gracefully climbed into their kayaks, but I regained my composure and tried again with my second attempt being successful, all while keeping my hair dry!

Then we were off, for a glorious, peaceful sail around the lake, with incredible 360 views of the lakeside steam train, the welsh mountains and the sun reflecting off the rippling water. It was a perfect sunny Sunday afternoon.

Once back on dry land and warmed up with a hot shower, we all headed back to Petes Eats for a hot drink, then it was time to load up another podcast for the drive and head back home to have that kind of deep rejuvenating sleep you can only have after a full day out in nature. Wonderful.

Petra to Wadi Rum Roadtrip 🇯🇴

 

 

An absolute must for mum and I’s Jordanian adventure was getting ourselves to see the Unesco sights of both Petra and Wadi Rum. We researched and researched looking at various ways to get there, how much time would it take to travel, how much would it cost and of course how much time did we have to squeeze it all in. After much deliberation and playing about with dates, we decided to hire a car, driving to Petra first as thats the closest of the two destinations from Amman where we were staying, then continuing onward to the Wadi Rum late afternoon, where we would stay overnight, spending most of the 2nd day exploring the desert, before driving back that evening.

Getting there – The cheapest way to get to Petra is by public bus, there is just one bus that leaves Amman daily from the Abdali station to Petra. This bus leaves at 6.30 AM costing 11 Jordanian dollars (£12) and takes 3 hours dropping you off right by the entrance. This is great if you just want to visit Petra as the return bus back to Amman is 16.30PM so perfect for a budget day trip.

The problem we faced is that we also wanted to visit the Wadi Rum afterwards, instead of returning back to Amman, and the bus from Petra to Wadi Rum only leaves once a day at 6AM, taking 2 hours. This meant public transport wasn’t really a convenient option for us as we didn’t want to spend night in Petra, we wanted our overnight to be in the Wadi Rum.

Taxi’s of course will drive you to Petra from Amman, but the average cost seemed to be over £100 each way! So not an option for us budget travellers.

All the tour companies offer trips to Petra as its the most popular sight in the country. The costs are really expensive though, but there are plenty of options available, from day returns, overnights, add on’s to the Wadi Rum, Aqaba or the Dead Sea, but we struggled to find anything within our budget, that included an overnight to the Wadi Rum as well. If you want to squeeze in both together in one day, you are probably looking at a 4AM start, otherwise tours that include an overnight, start at around £400+ for two people minimum.

So we hired a car, and picked an early 8AM pick up time, returning the following evening, costing us a budget friendly £50 plus petrol. We picked up the car from Amman airport, meaning we didn’t need to navigate the chaotic roads inside the capital, and from the airport its pretty much one straight road south for about 3 hours to Petra.

 

We didn’t even need Sat Nav, we just used the GPS on our i-phones,  there is free wifi in the airport, so I connected to that, and then downloaded the directions before we set off, so I didn’t need to use any data.

There’s lots of parking at Petra and its only a short walk to the front entrance, where there are toilets, stalls, an information centre, lots of places to rest and free wifi. We had our Jordan Pass which includes entry to Petra, otherwise it will cost you £54 for a day pass, £60 for a 2 day pass and £65 for a 3 day stay. If you are travelling over from Egypt or the Israel Palestine border, and aren’t planning to spend an overnight in Jordan you’re looking at close to £100 pounds for entry.  If you travel over from another country and go straight to Petra before staying elsewhere in the country, you pay the 90JD (£98) and then get £43 back the next day.

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Setting off around 8am meant we got to Petra just before lunch and we had already brought snack bars and water, so we could head straight off down the track to see as much of it as possible, keeping a close eye on the time, as we needed to be at the Wadi Rum for sunset.

 

Staying focused and hydrated, with map in hand, we set off to explore this architectural city, which was home to people as far back at 7000BC, incredible! Also known as the Rose City, its a beautiful walk through the pink rock coloured passages, or Siq, until it all opens out and the world famous Treasury stands before you. It really was a trip to be stood right in front of this unmistakable world wonder that I had seen so many times, over so many years in magazines and on TV. Beyond the Treasury, the city opens up even more, and as you walk along the Colonnaded Street you see a huge theatre built into the rock face,  a pool and garden complex. If you have budgeted to spend the best part of the day there, then continue beyond the ‘city centre’ out towards the Monastery complex. We didn’t think we would have time to see The Monasatery if we were to make the drive onward to the Wadi Rum, so we slowly took our time walking back to the entrance, making sure we didn’t miss a single thing that we may have missed on our way in, as I was quite overwhelmed on arrival, not quite believing we were actually there!

Driving onward to the Wadi Rum takes about another 2 hours, and we arrived close to sunset at the main carpark, which is housed just outside the desert valley, timing it perfectly to meet our Bedouin host for the next 24 hours.

Wadi Rum is also known as the Valley of the Moon, and you really do feel like you have been transported to a far away planet as we were  driven across the lunar like desert in a 4×4. Sandy wind in our hair, and the most incredible pink mountains above, orange sand below and a setting sun, we had truly been transported to a different world.

 

As it was getting dark and cold, our guide with Wadi Rum Nature Tours took us straight to our tent where our evening meal was already being prepared, and we settled in to enjoy an incredible 3 course meal of flat breads, dips, casserole and sugary sweet pastries, and lots of hot Bedouin tea with sage. We had planned to enjoy the dark desert skies to do some star gazing (I had even downloaded a star map app), but the night was lit up with the most magnificent full moon, which although impressive in its own right, it made finding other stars and the milky way pretty impossible to spot. Then it was off for a deep sleep with extra blankets in our traditional tent.

The next morning after a hot shower and more hot tea we were off with our guide for a full days drive across the desert, with a lunch stop and plenty of tea stops of course. So taken with the local Bedouin tea was I, that I ended up buying lots to take home, and it still tasted as good once I got back.

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On the day trip we took there were many highlights, from famous rocks, sand dunes, scenes from famous films and lots of popular selfie spots, but for me, it was the entire experience. You can only travel across the desert with a guide, by foot or camel, so there are no cars, or roads or massive groups of people, which means you really feel like you have left modern civilisation behind, it was like being in some incredible sparsely populated landscape that only you and a few others know about, like some epic secret, that you want to keep for yourself.

 

Of course the Wadi Rum is famous in the west for it being the place where the 1962 film Laurence of Arabia was filmed (which I watched on the flight over actually) and the more modern film, Martian from 2015 as well as the recent Star Wars sequels. So tours will inevitably stop at Laurence’s Spring,  the Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Laurence’s House. But don’t worry if you’re not a fan or have no interest in any of the films made here, there is so much more. There are rock bridges, ancient carvings inscribed into the rock faces, you can hike sand dunes while spotting the camels walking down below, and the incredible endless views of desert from the 4×4, there were many tent stops along the way to buy local produce, and ample opportunities to just to sit and drink tea with your guide.

I was felt truly happy and settled here and was not quite ready to get back into the car to drive the 4 hours up north to the loud, busy capital. But once dusk started to appear it was time to head back to the village just on the inside of the protected area to collect our car. I could quite easily have had a 2nd night here and then carried on south to the Saudi border, which was only a short drive away, so if I ever return thats going to be on my agenda, but for now, I have lots of amazing memories, many many pictures and a few bags of local sage tea.

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