Family holidays take a special kind of planning when the kids get too big for bucket-and-spade beaches but are still not old enough to travel alone. North Wales has the answer: an epic landscape of mountains, lakes, caves and beaches, the perfect setting for active adventures that even teenagers – and their families – will enjoy. Mostly within Snowdonia National Park, some activities are free, others cost money, but all are guaranteed to never be boring.
Thanks to a turbulent history – mainly English invasions in the 13th century – North Wales is dotted with castles, and many are impressively well-preserved (and protected as a Unesco World Heritage Site), so exploring dungeons or striding along the battlements makes for a great day out. It can even be a history lesson for the kids, delivered by stealth. Star of the show is Caernarfon Castle, with its immensely thick walls and huge octagonal towers climbed by spiral staircase. Wooden swords entertain younger kids, while teenagers can enjoy “Game of Crowns” (see what they did there?), an exhibition with life-sized models of key historic figures set out on giant chessboard.
The landscape of North Wales means high mountains and sheer cliffs. And the quickest route from top to bottom? Zip line, of course, with the daddy of them all, Velocity 2, billed as the longest in Europe and the fastest in the world. Teenagers can forget about Xbox simulations; this is the real deal. Kitted out with helmet, goggles and flying suit, brave participants whizz over a former slate quarry and deep blue lake, topping 100 mph (160kph) in calm conditions. With four lines side by side, families can go together. Screaming is obligatory. Fear or exhilaration – you decide.
Hiking and biking
The best-known (and highest) mountain in North Wales is Snowdon. Hiking to the top takes a few hours but isn’t especially difficult, and reaching the summit provides a great sense of achievement for junior trekkers. And for everyone, the reward is a view (on a clear day) across the surrounding mountains of Snowdonia National Park out to the coast, and sometimes even to Scotland and Ireland, hazy on the horizon. The popular paths up Snowdon can get busy, so if you’re properly kitted out aim for quieter routes on the nearby Glyder and Carneddau ranges. If you want to explore the wilder zones with confidence local guides can be hired; local tourist offices have details.
If simply hiking through the mountains of North Wales doesn’t appeal, active teenagers can take to two wheels. The region is criss-crossed by tracks and bridleways which are open to bikes as well, but remember that many bridleways were originally designed for hardy pack-horses, so may be too serious for all but expert (or crazy) bikers. Families may be better off at one of the purpose-built mountain bike parks, such as Coed-y-Brenin Forest Park, which offer bike hire and trials of varying difficulty. For easy cruising, North Wales has some wonderful (and flat) cycleways on former railway lines, such as the Mawddach Trail, while the historic Ogwen Trail links the mountains and the coast.
Back in North Wales’ industrial heyday, slate was quarried or mined from deep underground, leaving vast caverns. Today, the once-abandoned voids have been converted into Zip World Slate Caverns, a spectacular series of zip-wires, where the thrill of flying is made all the more exciting thanks to coloured spotlights above and a dark abyss below. Add monkey bars, cable bridges, ladders and ‘via ferrata’ (traversing the cliff face horizontally on metal steps) and it’s the perfect spot for older or more energetic teenagers. For younger kids, in the same location is Bounce Below – an underground trampoline park.
For a deeper insight, exploring the labyrinths with local company Go Below gives a fascinating historical perspective as well as an energetic underground challenge. No multi-coloured spotlights here; this is a genuine adventure in authentic surrounding where the only illumination is the lamp on your helmet as you follow shafts and levels hewn from the natural rock by miners in centuries past. Along the way, you climb ladders, abseil down rock-faces and traverse deep chasms, so some fitness is required, but with minimum age 10 or 14 (depending on the trip) it’s an ideal family activity.
With the gargantuan slate quarries of North Wales enjoying new life as adrenaline-boosting activity centres, the latest additions are Quarry Karts, chunky three-wheeled buggies which hurtle downhill on a dirt track. Complete with sweeping bends, steep berms, chicanes and even tunnels, it’s a cross between skeleton-bob and mountain-biking, and effortless fun. Minimum age is 15, and teenagers under 17 need an accompanying adult, so mums and dads have no excuse: get on and ride!
North Wales has many great surf beaches, including the Llyn Peninsula, while an unexpected but impressive addition to the scene is the inland lagoon of Surf Snowdonia where a giant paddle creates perfect waves every 90 seconds. Even better, the wave height can be adjusted, creating different conditions for beginners, intermediate or advanced surfers. If you know your breaks from your barrels, you simply book a slot and do your own thing. Alternatively, lessons are available. Kids must be eight years old to go on beginner waves, and over 13 for intermediate waves. A perfect mix might be some instruction in the lagoon, followed by a day on the beach.
Every parent’s conundrum: what to do with the kids on a rainy day? Step forward Adrenaline Indoors, beside the surf lagoon at Adventure Park Snowdonia. Parents can point teens at the aerial assault course, parkour bars, giant slides or multi-coloured climbing wall. For more thrills, there’s artificial caving – perfect for contortionists – while outside (if the rains tops) is a zip-wire across the lagoon and heart-stopping ‘freefall drop’.
For most visitors, North Wales is conveniently reached by car via Chester, just over the border in England. By train, the nearest mainline stations is Bangor. As a popular tourist destination, North Wales has plenty of family-friendly places to stay, from campsites and hostels to hotels and self-catering cottages. Organised activities can be booked on-line in advance, and this is recommended in school-holiday times and other busy periods; many can be booked through Snowdonia Attractions portal site, while the Snowdonia Pass gives discounts for families.
David Else travelled in North Wales with support from Snowdonia Attractions. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.