A hidden gem South Wales Coast itinerary

7 September 2022

Somehow, the South Wales coast has been swept under the rug. When someone says ‘sand dunes’, we might think of the Gower Peninsula’s Oxwich Bay. ‘Castles’ might conjure up grand images of Conwy Castle or Chirk Castle up north.

Surfing is likely to go hand-in-hand with Pembrokeshire’s big swells. Filming locations? The Llŷn Peninsula or the Brecon Beacons National Park are the axes for that, surely.

Cardiff has snatched a lot of the limelight on the South Wales coast. However, limiting your South Wales trip to just the Welsh capital city would be an oversight. With the following itinerary, you’ll be all set to sledge down Wales’ largest sand dune, pick your way over some of Wales’ ripest surf and track down castle ruins and shipwrecks.

If you’d like to take a shot at completing the whole itinerary, you might want to camp and glamp your way across the south Wales coast, hop between holiday parks or pick a cosy rental close to each location. Otherwise, pluck a few ideas and schedule in a day trip from your permanent base.

Day 1: Surf, shipwrecks and seaside amusements in Porthcawl

In no short terms, Porthcawl is South Wales’ very own St Ives. It has a working harbour, sublime beaches and seafood restaurants in plenty. The harbour isn’t just for cruising; it’s also a prime spot to perch yourself on a stone slab, dangle bait over the wall and wait for a crab to latch onto the line.

That’s just the warm-up for the big action, which happens on the nearly two-mile-long Rest Bay. With the assistance of one of South Wales’ few surf schools, budding surfers

line up out back to catch some of South Wales’ best swells. If Nazare is the surf centre of Portugal, Porthcawl is the north star of surfing in South Wales.

From Rest Bay, continue - barefoot if you like - to Pink Bay beach. The name comes from its rocks, which glare pink in certain lights. At Sker point on the very far tip of the beach, the tide retreats to reveal a 7,000-ton steamship buried in the sand. The SS Samtampa met its demise in April 1947 and wooden slabs from the ship’s hull still poke their heads through the sand, as if to say ‘remember me?’.

In the other direction, Porthcawl’s promenade evokes a scene that’s more typical of Scarborough’s Coney Island or Great Yarmouth’s penny arcades. Grab some vinegar-drenched chunky chips from a local stall or slurp on traditional Italian ice cream from the parlours established by Porthcawl’s Italian community.

If you have any energy remaining, you may want to book yourself a slot on a bike tour around Newton and the Kenfig dunes; while the tour will reveal more, legend says there’s a drowned and sunken town residing under the Kenfig Pool.

Day 2: Treks and sand sledging in the Merthyr Mawr Sand Dunes

The 840-acre-wide Merthyr Mawr sand dunes have been lying low since at least the Neolithic age. The sand settled across a limestone plateau the size of at least 340 full-sized rugby pitches.

Just two miles from Newton Beach in the south of Porthcawl, it’s possible to walk directly from the town. However, there’s nothing quite like beginning in the dunes’ car park and watching the sea crawl closer as you rise and fall between undulating dunes.

The sandscape is littered with Bronze Age burial mounds, Iron Age hearths and Roman tiles.

Sling a sledge over your shoulder; sleighs shouldn’t be reserved for the snow only. The steep sand shelfs are slippery enough for sand sledging. Sand sledges, toboggans or disc saucers will all work well, just as long as any sledge has a smooth base.

The conditions are ideal when it’s slightly damp, but you shouldn’t have too long to wait for a sliver of drizzle to grace the forecast, considering South Wales’ climate.

Perhaps you’ll be brave enough to launch from the tip of Big Dipper, Wales’ highest sand dune, which is 200 feet tall.

Day 3: Ogmore-by-Sea and Dunraven Bay; castles, karst sinkholes, surf and viewpoint

When it comes to offbeat beaches in Wales, it’s a wonder that Ogmore-by-Sea beach and Dunraven Bay haven’t been assailed by holidayers yet.

Begin at Ogmore Castle, where there are a series of bitty ancient steppingstones available to cross the river Ogmore. In its heyday, it was one of three 12th-century fortresses that guarded Glamorgan against attacks from West Wales.

The rotting stone recalls its defensive past. The banks and ditches make for covert hide-and-seek spots nowadays, but once upon a time, the ditches would have been filled with sea water at high tide.

Call by Cobbles Kitchen to dine on local artisan eats in a 16th-century stone barn with a Grade II-listed stamp. Ogmore beach is half an hour’s walk along the estuary from Cobbles and the castle. The route is riddled with karst sinkholes that fill with seawater after high tide and frequented by golden-eye ducks and lapwings.

As an ‘undiscovered gem’, as the saying goes, you’ll need your own surfboard or paddleboard at Ogmore beach. Way out, Tusker Rock is visible at low tide. Very adventurous types take to diving from the rock’s surface, which is named after a Danish Viking who once invaded these parts.

Dunraven Bay is another five to 10 minutes’ drive across the bumpy green headlands. Below Southerndown village and cradled by steep, crumbling cliffs, it is often gifted with generous swells and the rockpools hoard leagues of crabs and fish.

The beach has been used as a Doctor Who set, it’s also often pillaged by sandcastle builders looking for firm, compact sand to work with.

While it’s tempting to stay in the surf, one of the best parts of Dunraven Bay is the surrounding cliffs, where there are castle ruins and walled gardens. Dunraven Castle was once a manor house, then a castle-shaped hunting lodge. Through its walled garden, Witches Point looks out over neighbouring Temple Bay.

Streaked with Blue Lias limestone and sandstone, the rocky surface of Temple Bay is consumed by the sea at high tide. A waterfall trickles over the edge of the distant cliffs, spilling over onto the beach that’s little-trodden due to its quick-minded waters. However, the hike that traces around the edge of Witches Point and looks over the two bays is a locals’ favourite haunt.

Day 4: Barrage bike rides, Wales’ smallest theatre and Gavin and Stacey locations in Barry

Bike rides over the barrage aside, Barry has quite the reputation for seaside breaks. It is best known as the set of Gavin and Stacey, which is South Wales’ cinematic treasure.

Set locations include the down-to-earth seafront Marco’s Café, where Stacey laboured away, and the slot machines in Island Leisure Amusement Arcade, where Nessa kept watch.

Barry is also home to Wales’ smallest theatre. The 20-seat Small Space has taken over a Victorian shop space, the size of a typical living room. It hosts magic shows where you can really keep an eye on the goings on.

Day 4: Treasured ice cream recipes, Flat Holm Island and sailing adventures in Cardiff

Rather than being the opening act, Cardiff is here to close the show on this South Wales itinerary. On a central pier, Cadwallader’s produces a Welsh ice cream recipe whose ingredients have remained unchanged since the 1930s.

Charter or jump onboard one of the speedboats to take a lap of the bay and the Bristol Channel. Five miles from Cardiff Bay, Flat Holm Island has been visited by Vikings, silver miners and smugglers. You could be next; there are free guided tours for all visitors and local ales and ciders sold in the island’s Gull and Leek pub.

For the ultimate offbeat experiences, Challenge Wales runs Big Boat Sailing adventure days on a 72-foot vessel where you can hoist the sails and really get a hands-on at-sea experience.

At the end of the itinerary, you might consider yourself a pro surfer, sailor or sand sledger. Yet, you’ve only scratched the surface of the Welsh coast, and perhaps you’ll want to extend your adventure over the Welsh Coast Path and see what else you stumble upon...