When it comes to looking for unusual things to do in North Wales, the fastest way to find something special is to step away from the west and stay east instead.
Snowdon, in all its peaky glory and romantic, snowy name, pulls in the crowds so fast that northeast Wales often gets whizzed right by.
And that’s a shame.
A real shame.
Because behind the scary-sounding Welsh names (like Pontcysyllte Aqueduct) you’ll find the country’s newest Area of Natural Beauty, an impressive 11 or so miles of UNESCO World Heritage Site, two National Trust Properties and miles and miles of coast.
See the first ever Welsh bible (more interesting and important than perhaps it sounds) and tiny churches in rugged landscapes, washed down with hot coffee in ground-breaking arts centres and medieval market towns amid rural charm.
And canals. Miles and miles of slow, beautiful canals.
So, instead of just teasing with you with this word sketch portrait, I thought I’d get right down to business and write you a list.
The itinerary and a longer, more soulful look at this part of North Wales will come later.
But if you’re in a hurry (and you’ve already booked your trip) then these are the concrete tips to help you make the most of it.
Wow. Oh wow. This aqueduct storms across the Dee River, oblivious to gravity and the wobbly legs of its walkers.
Completed in 1805 to carry the Llangollen Canal from A to B, it crosses at a remarkable 38 metres above the river valley.
Almost as surprising is the fact that you can visit for free, including a stop at the modest visitor centre.
Cyclists and pedestrians can walk across alongside canal boats that somehow manage not to fall into the valley below.
But, well, after 200 and more years, I suppose it’s reasonable to assume it’s safe by now.
Ruthin itself treats visitors to everything you’d expect from a beautiful Welsh market town. Half-timbered lanes, ivy tumbling down walls, a castle.
But it also has made space for an explosion of the arts.
The hub for this is the Ruthin Craft Centre, where artists, exhibitions, shops and activities for children rub shoulders alongside a brightly lit coffee and cake café.
But it’s the art trail through town that really stood out.
Pick up a map and walk back up the hill, looking out for hidden figurines and intriguing peep holes.
Wales is justifiably proud for being the first country to allow you to walk around its entire coast (all 870 miles of it) and one such spot is Rhyl.
The sandy flats that stretch out to sea first thing in the morning soothe the eyes.
After that, if fluorescent beach toys are your kind of thing, then you’ll be in heaven.
Parents of young children? The (free) children’s playgrounds on the seafront put the Cardiff ones to shame. Hours of fun there.
There’s nothing better than an unusual claim to fame and Rhyl’s claim to own Britain’s oldest miniature railway is the kind of thing that smiles are made of.
Opening in 1911, it still runs today around the grassy edges of the Marine Lake, with coal, steam, bells and whistles in abundance.
It’s hard not to get swept away by the names in this part of Wales. Either you have no idea how you say them or if you do, you wonder what on earth people were thinking.
Mold, despite its name, is another pretty medieval market town, surrounded by natural beauty. Official beauty, actually, the designated Area of Natural Beauty that is the Clwydian Range.
Check it out.
It takes a lot to stand out as a castle in Wales, especially along the border.
Where Holland has mills, North Wales has castles but few manage to round up so many different experiences into one castle as Chirk.
Looking for medieval knight costumes to dress up in? Done!
Vegetable patches to stroll around ? Yes.
Forests to walk in? Stately home staircases to swirl around in? Period libraries to muse in? A café to drink coffee in? (Sorry, but I haven’t slept properly for 18 months or so now. Coffee makes it onto my hit list!)
With Google translate at our fingertips, it’s hard to step back and imagine what life was like before.
But the first Welsh bible at St Asaph’s is famous not only for the power of translation but also as a way of preserving the Welsh language altogether.
I love a bit of urban regeneration and the Ty Pawb centre at Wrexham brings thought-provoking art right into the centre of town.
It also tries to bring the diverse community together, as exhibits focus on what makes Wrexham, Wrexham and displays striking images of the few remaining possessions of refugees.
There’s also good coffee. And great play areas for kids ;-)
Pontcysyllte may steal all the headlines, but it’s not the only aqueduct in town. There are loads of them!
And the one near Chirk sells ice cream through a canal boat window. Perfect sustenance before the short walk to England. Chocolate flakes included.
Disclosure – I travelled to north east Wales as part of a Routes to the Sea project supported by Denbighshire, Wrexham and Flintshire to highlight the positive parts of north Wales. But I had complete control to pick out which I thought they were. Otherwise, life just becomes so pointless!
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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