Llandudno: more than a pier and candy floss

by Joe.Shooman

Llandudno is a Victorian seaside town with more to offer than you might expect. Where else could you go skiing before walking down the pier and then end up in a punk rock gig?

It’s little wonder that Llandudno’s been such a popular seaside destination for hundreds of years. Easily accessible from the A55 or by train (just one station change from the main Holyhead-Chester-London route), this Victorian town has long been associated with visitors and its attractions entirely reflect this.

Having grown up in nearby Bangor, it’s also obviously the case that despite the odd day trip here and there I’d never spent enough time at Llandudno to really get under the skin of the place. Tht was something I’d long vowed to change, and the opportunity presented itself on one of the sunnier days of our early summer.

Having stopped off at our accommodation – the reasonably-priced St Hilary Guest House on Craig Y Don parade, one of many such hotels & B&Bs right on the seafront – the obvious first thing to do is take a walk along the promenade. This lengthy and very clean space is an ideal introduction to the bay and in the summer, with the tide out, it’s full of sunbathers, paddlers and toddlers building castles of sand. Today, however, with the wind up and biting, the best description is that of healthy.

After heading into town and stocking up on fresh, fresh fish and chubby chips from Tribells, we start scoffing them on the seafront. Big mistake. The seagulls here are well-versed in their job and before two minutes are done, one of the cheeky swine swoops down and nicks the fish out of my very hand before flapping away, cackling and scattering chips everywhere. So our advice is to eat in wherever possible, or at least on the tables outside the many excellent eateries here. There are tea rooms and restaurants aplenty, often offering fresh fish from the morning’s catch, and most of the pubs also offer traditional, home-made fare.

The cable cars from town up to the Great Orme – a rocky high point that juts its chin toward the Isle of Man – aren’t on today because of the wind, but when it’s clear the longest ride of its kind in the UK provides immaculate views to both northwest and northeast Wales. It's some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet, a real natural wonder. Today, we grab the tramway, which is a lovingly-kept and restored heritage attraction. A marvel of Victorian engineering, first opened in July 1902, it climbs a mile of track to the top, making it the UK’s longest funicular. Views from the tram take in the local flora and fauna, including two unique species of butterfly, wild Kashmir goats and rare flowers. It’s also possible to disembark and visit the award-winning Bronze Age copper mines, Iron Age forts, Stone Age remains and the 6th-century Church Of Saint Tudno, which gave the town its name.

Or you can do what we did: stay on to the top of the 679ft ride and play crazy golf (practising for some of the excellent full-size courses in this part of Wales, of course) before indulging in some excellently-priced and quite outstanding home-made pie and chips.

Refreshed, we stand and are delighted by Professor Codman’s Punch & Judy show, and are happy to pop a couple of quid in the proffered pot, as the current performer not only doesn’t get paid, but is also required to pay the council rent for the pitch. That’s not the way to do it! Boo council!

Nonetheless, the immaculately-kept and wonderfully tacky Llandudno Pier is a toffee-apple-and-amusements delight, with a fine inflatable playhouse and slide for the kids and all the sweet shops, bucket-and-spade tat, 2p horse-racing games and faux-Victorian photo booths you’d imagine. Luckily, the café at the top serves a restorative coffee as we sit and watch the anglers on the end of the pier try their luck in the very clear water.

Both North Shore and West Shore are award-winning, clean and safe beaches (weather permitting, of course) – but if you’re after a little more activity, try the dry ski slope at Llandudno Ski and Snowboard Centre, featuring the Cresta Run, the longest toboggan run in Wales, at 750 metres long. The centre’s open from 10am to 10pm and caters for all levels of experience and ability.

The town centre itself is something of a mixed bag; on one hand, all the tack and nastiness that every seaside town in the UK seems to be bedevilled by; on the other, an absolute wealth of charity shops in which to browse. Check out, too, the fabulous antiquarian bookstores on Madoc Street – particularly useful if the weather turns.

With the sun disappearing over the horizon, it’s time to search for an evening meal and, surprising though it may seem, Llandudno is one of the best places in North Wales for Italian food. Mama Rosa on Mostyn Avenue is a family-run and unassuming place with excellent pasta at reasonable prices, whilst others swear by Valentino’s at the other end of town in Gloddach Street. Either way, it’s a very happy accident to stumble upon eateries of such quality.

Llandudno’s pubs can get very busy indeed all day on bank holidays, sporting occasions and in the summer, but they’re mostly of decent quality and serve a selection of local and guest ales along with the fizzy keg lagers and ciders. After a swift few halves in The Kings Arms, we head back out and retrace our steps along the promenade to Venue Cymru, a fantastic state-of-the-art theatre, conference centre and music/performance venue where tonight the crowd is a capacity 2,500, gathered for a gig by South Wales’ punk-rockers Manic Street Preachers.

The blend of buzzsaw guitars and politically-charged lyricism hardly fits with the stereotype of Llandudno’s sleepy, Victorian boredom, rounding off a day and night with many twists and turns and quite a few surprises. Proof positive – if any were needed – that there’s one heck of a lot more than meets the eye in a town like this, especially if you grew up just down the road. We’ll be back…

Where to stay

Accommodation in Llandudno is plentiful, with a baffling array of options, but there are a few things to take into consideration when booking. A map is handy, so you can check the location of a  hotel or B&B before committing. Obviously, the further away from the promenade a place is, the cheaper it usually is, so if you don’t mind not having a sea view, the budget-conscious can be quids in here. Because of the competition for your tourist bucks, standards are kept reasonably high across the board: the days of Fawlty Towers-esque shambles&breakfasts are, thankfully, pretty much gone these days. Expect to pay anything from £30 to the thick edge of £70 per room per night in most B&Bs and anywhere up to £150 per night in the larger hotels, depending on season.

St Hilary’s Guest House is family-run and has free wi-fi, ensuite rooms and a choice of many excellent breakfasts. Being in the quieter area of Craig-y-Don, it’s a 20-minute stroll into town but is also very close to Venue Cymru – and some rooms have an incredible view across the bay.

The Britannia Grand Hotel is a 162-room, four-star traditional hotel that couldn’t have a better location, up on Happy Valley Road, with the pier literally on its doorstep. Handy for the Orme side of town, too.

The Empire Hotel is another of Llandudno’s more famous places to stay, with a gorgeous interior and all rooms furnished rather grandly, antiques and drapes all over the place. Standard rooms are at the front of the hotel but those on a budget have the option of a slightly smaller room nearer the back. There’s a really lovely and award-winning restaurant that is notable for its excellent local produce, too, which is obviously dependent on season. To push the boat out try next door’s No. 72, a Victorian town house hotel, which is part of the Empire and was also the site of Llandudno’s first bank.
 

Joe.Shooman

North Walian Joe Shooman has edited several travel guides to Liverpool where lived for nearly a decade, working freelance for a number of travel publications and guidebooks both (inter)nationally and locally and covering such diverse places as Faroe Islands, Spain, Lithuania, Turkey and all points inbetween. He is planning adventures much further afield. As well as his travel writing, he is a music journalist and broadcaster whose work has appeared in everything from Record Collector and Plan B to Mixmag, Metal Hammer and The Fly where he is live reviews editor. His fifth book, a biography of a hugely successful US Punk group, which will be published in 2010, and he is currently co-editing a fiction anthology, also to be published early in 2010. Joe is now based in the Caribbean where he is expanding his horizons from his Cayman Islands base.