Brecon Beacons National Park
Rippling dramatically for 45 miles from near Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire all the way to the English border, Brecon Beacons National Park (Parc Cenedlaethol Bannau Brycheiniog) encompasses some of the finest scenery in southern Wales. High mountain plateaus of grass and heather, their northern rims scalloped with glacier-scoured hollows, rise above wooded, waterfall-splashed valleys and swooningly gorgeous rural landscapes.
There are four distinct regions within the park: the wild, lonely Black Mountain (Mynydd Du) in the west, with its high moors and glacial lakes; Fforest Fawr (Great Forest), whose rushing streams and spectacular waterfalls form the headwaters of the Rivers Tawe and Neath; the Brecon Beacons (Bannau Brycheiniog) proper, a group of very distinctive, flat-topped hills that includes Pen-y-Fan (886m), the park's highest peak; and the rolling heathland ridges of the Black Mountains (Y Mynyddoedd Duon) – not to be confused with the above-mentioned Black Mountain to the west.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Brecon Beacons National Park.
Dramatically perched atop a steep limestone crag, high above the River Cennen, are the brooding ruins of Wales' ultimate romantic castle, visible for miles in every direction. Originally a Welsh castle, the current structure dates back to Edward I's conquest of Wales in the late 13th century. It was partially dismantled in 1462 during the War of the Roses. On a working farm of the same name, Carreg Cennen is well signposted from the A483 heading south from Llandeilo.
Ascending Pen-y-Fan (886m), the tallest peak in the Brecon Beacons, is one of the most popular hikes in the park (around 350,000 people make the climb annually, giving it the nickname 'the motorway'). The shortest route begins at the Pont ar Daf car park on the A470, 10 miles southwest of Brecon. It's a steep but straightforward slog up to the summit of Corn Du (873m), followed by a short dip and final ascent to Pen-y-Fan (4.5 miles return; allow three hours).
Halfway up a thickly forested hillside in the Vale of Eywas, this tiny 11th-century church is like a time capsule of Welsh faith and culture, buried too deeply in these hills ever to change. Astonishing as it is in its perfectly situated, weathered simplicity, it's inside that its true wonders reveal themselves: a finely carved wooden rood screen and loft, dating from around 1500; medieval frescos of biblical texts; coats of arms and a red-ochre skeleton; and memorials to people long dead.
You're likely to have the impressive remains of Garn Goch to yourself. One of the largest Iron Age sites in Wales, it comprises a smaller hill fort covering 1.5 hectares, and a much larger one of 11.2 hectares. While what you now see are immense piles of rubble, it's sobering to know that these were once 10m-high ramparts, faced with stone and 5m thick. From the top, jaw-dropping views of Black Mountain country roll to every point of the compass.
Halfway along the impossibly beautiful Vale of Ewyas lie the atmospheric ruins of this Augustinian priory, set among pasture and wooded hills by the River Honddu. Perhaps the second most important abbey in Wales when completed in 1230, it was abandoned after Henry VIII dissolved Britain's monasteries in 1538. Running a close second to Tintern for grandeur, Llanthony's setting is even more stunning, and you won't have crowds to fight. JMW Turner was impressed, too: he painted the scene in 1794.
A series of dramatic waterfalls lies between the villages of Pontneddfechan and Ystradfellte, where the Rivers Mellte, Hepste and Pyrddin pass through steep forested gorges. The finest is Sgwd-yr-Eira (Waterfall of the Snow), where you can actually walk behind the torrent. At one point the River Mellte disappears into Porth-yr-Ogof (Door to the Cave), the biggest cave entrance in Britain (3m high and 20m wide), only to reappear 100m further south.
Originally the home of the Vaughan family, Tretower gives you two historic buildings for the price of one: the sturdy circular Norman keep, now roofless and commanding only a sheep-nibbled bailey, and a 15th-century manor house with a fine garden and orchard (now furnished with picnic tables). Together they illustrate the transition from military stronghold to country house that took place in late-medieval times. It's situated 3 miles northwest of Crickhowell on the A479.
Of the glacially sculpted hills that surround Abergavenny, Skirrid (486m) is the most dramatic looking and has a history to match. A cleft in the rock near the top was once believed to have split open at the exact time of Christ's death and a chapel was built here on what was considered a particularly holy place (a couple of upright stones remain). During the Reformation as many as 100 people would attend illegal Catholic Masses at this remote spot.
Though Wales has a long history of spirit distillation, this boutique distillery released its first malt whisky only in 2004, marking the resurgence of Welsh whisky-making after an absence of more than 100 years (due to the power of the temperance movement in the late 19th century). Visitors can witness the creation of the liquid fire that's distilled with fresh spring water in a single copper still, then matured in bourbon casks and finished in rich Madeira wine casks. Tours include tastings.