Where to stay | Where to eat | Pembrokeshire’s best beaches
Striding along the very edges of where the land meets the sea always gives me a delicious sense of teetering on the brink of an adventure. Not, hopefully, the sort that involves crashing down a sheer cliff-face, but more a feeling that when I reach that cleft in the cliffs just around the next headland, by scrambling down the steep steps to the rocky beach below, I might just discover a dragon lurking in its cave, or a mermaid singing, or a smuggler, um, well, smuggling.
It hasn’t happened yet, but if it’s going to, then I’m convinced that it will happen in Pembrokeshire. And the coast path, all 186 miles of it from Amroth in the south to Poppit Sands in the north, provides the perfect setting for adventures aplenty.
“Don’t rush around Pembrokeshire, it doesn’t work in the car,” was advice I was given years ago by the boatman of the Dale Princess on a crossing to Skomer Island. He was bang on. This is an area of staggering natural beauty that has been formed by 700 million years of geological activity, so it’s not about to disappear anytime soon. Allow yourself to ease gently into the soft calm of a morning’s beach stroll, glory in the hazed midday sun while eating a bacon butty on a cliff-top, or revel in the pink glow of sunset on a headland, and you’ll truly have tuned into the mood of this richly historic land. On the coast path especially, with its secretive coves, ancient monuments, delicate wildflowers and romantic ruined castles, hurrying on by would be a shame.
The great thing about the coast path is that you can start at any point and do as much or as little as you like – though aiming for a pub and a bed at the end of a hard day’s hike isn’t a bad idea. That said, despite the best efforts of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority to make parts of the path accessible to wheelchairs and prams, you do need to be reasonably nimble to navigate its steep ascents and descents. There are flat bits, but they come at a price, in the form of aching calves and burning thighs.
Start near the southern end, heading in a southwesterly direction from Saundersfoot and you’re on one of the most testing stretches. At times you’ll be walking right up against the crumbling cliff edge but you’ll also, unusually, be walking in woodland for much of the way. Trees and coast don’t usually go together as salt spray tends to kill off the leaves, but here the woods are sheltered from the prevailing winds. Watch out for the tiny purple wild pansies that dot the way.
A good two hours of rugged walking later, the pale pink, pistachio, cream, blue and primrose yellow terraced cottages curving round Tenby’s old stone harbour come into sight. The town’s sandy beach is a big draw for families in high season, but if you’re looking for a seaside experience that’s rather more dramatic, then Barafundle Bay just up the coast is regularly voted one of the country’s best beaches. You can reach it from the coast path – in fact, if you’re walking this stretch, you have to drop down into it – or alternatively, park at Stackpole Quay and amble gently over a couple of fields to reach the classic semi-circular sweep of golden sand cradled between steep surrounding cliffs. Two natural stone arches at the westerly end, often used by climbers, are also well worth a look.
To find a beach that’s less frequented by the holidaying hordes, however, you need to backtrack a few miles. Manorbier Bay, towered over by the impressive medieval ruins of Manorbier Castle and cut into by a burbling stream rushing toward the sea, is a far more interesting prospect. It has limpet-covered slabs of rock to play on and the rockpools teem with life in summer. The bay has an intimate, natural feel and is all the better for the fact that there’s no tea room nearby. Sometimes simple is best.
If you’re walking this part of the path in early summer, don’t miss Bosherston Lily Ponds on the National Trust’s nearby Stackpole Estate. The shimmering white lilies share their freshwater home with the rare, shy otter and vast numbers of birds. There’s also coarse fishing available by permit from Ye Olde Worlde Café in Bosherston village.
Bird enthusiasts won’t want to miss the two soaring limestone shards known as Elegug Stacks. Situated just offshore at the westernmost edge of this section of path, they provide the best views of nesting guillemots you’ll get from land. But if you’re really into your wildlife, you need to head across a short stretch of sea from Martin’s Haven, near Marloes, to Skomer Island.
“Please don’t step off the paths, as you’ll crush the birds in their burrows and break their eggs,” is the warden’s dire warning as you set off on your Skomer odyssey, but it turns out you’re so close to the birds that there’s no temptation to stray nearer.
Hundreds of portly puffins wander around the cliff edges, often clasping a blade of grass or a single sea pink in their beaks as nesting material. Late in May and early June, when their pufflings have hatched, an afternoon tramp around the island to the seabird cliffs at the Wick is the best chance of seeing adult puffins whirring into land with silver sandeels clutched in their beaks as dinner for their young. Large groups of grey seals regularly haul-out on the Garland Stone, and you might see some porpoises if you’re happy to sit quietly for a while and gaze out to sea.
Go in May for the huge drifts of bluebells; by June the cliff-tops are swathed in the deep pink of red campion. This island truly is a magical place, giving succour to the soul. But the thing to remember before hopping on the boat to get here is that it won’t give any succour to a hungry tum: bring your butties with you, as apart from some guest accommodation, the only facilities on this wildlife island are the newly installed eco-loos.
As you carry on up the coast, drop in on the little town of Solva, once an important trading port. If you’re not on foot, leave your wheels in what is possibly the best situated car park in the country, right on the harbourside. On the eastern side of the creek are the remains of old lime kilns; others can be seen in harbours right along the Pembrokeshire coast, and were used for burning limestone up until the start of the 20th century. The resulting quicklime was used to enrich agricultural areas inland. From Solva it’s a day’s walk westwards to St Davids.
Along the way, deep red sandstone cliffs contrast gloriously with turquoise seas on this stretch of path, which once again is very up and down, so a measured pace is advisable, as well as plenty of provisions to fuel the journey. Cut north towards St Davids at St Non’s Chapel, which is sadly somewhat underwhelming, or carry on to see stunning cliff scenery unfold as you progress towards the headland overlooking Ramsey Island. By the time the unusual St Justinian lifeboat station hoves into view, it’ll definitely be time to head inland for a beer, a bath and a good long kip.
The must-see in Britain’s smallest city, and very likely its most laid-back, is St Davids Cathedral, dating from the 12th century and built of locally quarried purple stone, which lies in a gentle dip in the land encircled by lichened walls and a peaceful churchyard. Wooden cloisters similar to those which once adjoined the cathedral have just been rebuilt. Next door are the haunting ruins of the Bishop’s Palace, which even in their current state stand testament to the power and splendour of the church in the Middle Ages.
A wander along the streets fanning out from the main square leads to the notable St Davids Studio Gallery, the newly opened Oriel Y Parc Landscape Gallery showing artworks from the National Museum Wales, various surf shops and a selection of vibrant cafés, pubs and restaurants. If you’re interested in local crafts, the family-owned Welsh woollen mill Melin Tregwynt is just a short drive north. Its superb products are stocked in fashionable boutiques worldwide.
Meanwhile, the nearby Whitesands and Caerfai bays are great for a family activity day out, with surfing, windsurfing and rock climbing tuition bookable through Tyf Adventure
in St Davids.
There are still 55 miles to go to the end of the path, with Strumble Head Lighthouse just south of Fishguard one of the best points along the way for seabird sightings, as well as for glimpsing Cardigan Bay’s resident population of bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoises. For a better chance of seeing them, take a boat trip around Cardigan Island
when you reach the northernmost tip of the path, defined by the River Teifi, which drains into Poppit Sands.
You’ll have walked some of the wildest scenery and highest cliffs to be found in Pembrokeshire on the route between Newport and St Dogmaels, so if something gentler than a bone-shaking jaunt feels more appropriate, why not mark the end of the coastal path with a mellow canoe trip up the Teifi Gorge
(www.adventurebeyond.co.uk)? Keep a beady eye out for the blue flash of a kingfisher diving for its dinner.
Who need dragons, mermaids and smugglers when you’ve seen the heart-stopping natural splendours of this remote yet welcoming corner of Britain?
WHERE TO STAY IN PEMBROKESHIRE
Cwtch cottage and restaurant
22 High Street, St Davids SA62 6SD
Three-night stay from £190. Three-course dinner £28.
This strawberry pink end-of-terrace cottage provides a calm sanctuary for tired walkers or indeed anyone in need of a comforting cwtch – the Welsh word for something between a hug and a cuddle – at the end of a long day’s adventuring along the coast.
Squashy leather sofas, witty artwork, antique mirrors and polka-dotted woollen throws and cushions from the nearby – and much acclaimed – Melin Tregwynt are complemented by sophisticated lighting and décor in a tranquil colour palette of taupe, ivory, cream, chocolate, silver and black.
Owner Rachael Knott is passionate about food and also runs Cwtch restaurant just up the road. One of four new Welsh entries to this year’s Michelin guide, its accomplished head chef, Matt Cox, makes the most of the fresh fish locally available in a creative and robustly flavoured menu. The kitchen also sources meat, cheese, cream, eggs and fresh produce from farms nearby. Look out for Welsh Black beef, St Brides Bay potted crab and some fine Pembrokeshire cheeses.
Marloes Sands YHA
Runwayskiln, Marloes SA62 3BH
Adults £13.75 per night, children £10.50
Right on the coastal path, this hostel is just a short downhill scramble to the craggily atmospheric Marloes Sands. It’s great for getting to Skomer too, as it’s a short amble along the coastal path to Martin’s Haven.
BLOW OUT STAY
St Brides Spa Hotel
Saundersfoot SA69 9NH
Double room and breakfast from £150
This stylish seaside hotel has friendly staff and sea views to die for – especially when you’re gazing out from the spa’s heated pool. The large, light bedrooms offer balconies overlooking Saundersfoot beach.
TASTE PEMBROKESHIRE: Top places to eat
St Davids Cathedral, St Davids SA62 6RH
For lunch, the newly opened and exceedingly family friendly Refectory in St Davids Cathedral does a small but tasty range of freshly cooked, locally sourced dishes of the day, soups and sandwiches. From June to September try the Summer Suppers, a daily changing menu that is packed with fresh, local produce. Don’t sit downstairs though – head for the mezzanine floor for great views of the cathedral through soaring church windows.
East Street, Newport SA42 0SY
The rooms at this tiny stone-built boutique hotel on the Nevern Estuary are as superb as its food, so this is the ideal place to make a weekend of it. The seasonal menu might include locally sourced crab cake or slow cooked shoulder of Pembrokeshire lamb.
5 Main Street, Solva SA62 6UU
As its name suggests, this was once a chemists. The produce is fresh and local, with dishes such as locally caught crab, lobster or Pembrokeshire lamb and beef. Bouillabaisse (fish stew) is also a speciality.
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PEMBROKESHIRE’S BEST BEACHES
Best for solitude – Marloes Sands
Though one of Pembrokeshire’s most dramatic beaches, Marloes Sands never seems to get particularly crowded. Perhaps this is because Marloes village is somewhat off the beaten track, and you then have to walk a short distance from the National Trust car park and down a steep path to reach the beach.
(Picture: Shutterstock / Chris Pole)
Best for swimming – Broad Haven South
Broad Haven South, on the southern edge of the National Trust’s Stackpole Estate and adjoining Bosherston Lily Ponds, is a perfect swimming spot, with fine golden sands and a complex of dunes to shelter in while drinking your hot chocolate afterwards.
Best for wildlife – Ramsey Island
The seals which pup on Pembrokeshire’s pebble beaches from late August onwards shouldn’t be disturbed or they may abandon their young.
So for the best chance of seeing seal pups without endangering them, take a trip around Ramsey Island. From a safe distance the boatman will point out the narrow, pebbly storm beaches where these cream-furred creatures can be seen lying in wait for their mothers to return.