I was going to call this an Adults Christmas in Wales as a bit of a riff on Dylan Thomas’ much loved work (I read it every year) but that sounded a bit iffy in this entendre rich world so instead I’ll just ask, what are you doing for Christmas?
Undoubtedly you have been asked already – I have, about five times – and this year the answer is, we’re going to host Christmas breaks in Pembrokeshire. We’re going to cook loads of food, chop loads of logs, light lots of candles and just be welcoming and relaxing and laid back and friendly to anyone who wants to come and have a non-gaudy, non-forced, peaceful and calm Christmas away from it all.
Back in mid-summer, when the garden was lush and green (it’s now orange and artfully strewn with leaves) and the coast path was encouraging walkers to tackle one more headland, we decided to open a couple of rooms as B&B. They were immediately booked and booked and booked again. It was fun, just like when we did it in Turkey. From America and Australia, mainland Europe and happily other areas of Wales, the guests came and we talked and we suggested and offered food cooked with love and rooms really cared for. People liked it. We liked it.
Come October and the sunlit flush of a spectacular autumn and with the year turning we decided to offer Christmas and New Year breaks. We thought about it, imagined it, planned it and now we offer it to you. For people who don’t want to be thrown into a full on itinerary, complete with sing songs and gala dinners, and who just want to relax and enjoy good food and wander around our beautiful corner of the world our Christmas and New Year breaks are a way to get away and enjoy the Christmas they need.
Three Night Christmas Break
Arrive on 24th December, depart on 27th December.
With only two rooms available you won’t be over crowded, instead read, write, relax, think about the year you’ve had, wonder where you will go next year. Eat well, enjoy the calm, make new friends and be, for once, genuinely welcome where you are.
Enjoy long, leisurely breakfasts each morning on the dining gallery or in bed if you’d prefer.
Come home to afternoon teas with festive homemade cakes after exploring our beautiful coastline.
Take your time over a four course Christmas Lunch of favourites I have been cooking for thirty years.
Spend your evenings picking from generous buffets to share and enjoy.
Twixmas Breaks – for those who have done everything for everyone else over Christmas relax and recharge between holidays.
Available from 27th to 30th December.
Give your overloaded system a chance to recover!
Enjoy lighter food, nourishing and clean, tons of fresh air and down time to just lie around, read those Christmas books and plan what resolutions you might want to break in January.
Lie in every morning, there is no set time for breakfast.
A sharing tray is provided at supper time so you can enjoy an early night.
Two Night New Year Breaks
Spend New Year at the famously friendly street party with fireworks and live music in Fishguard or just quietly enjoy a cosy evening with your loved one at a country house, the choice is yours on this New Year break that lets you set the pace and celebrate how you choose.
Arrive on New Year’s Eve to cakes and nibbles in your room.
Whether you go out and party or stay in and relax there will be a midnight snack to round the evening off before you retire to bed. Sleep in on New Year’s morning before taking your time over a New Year’s day Brunch.
Look forward to a flavour packed three-course supper on New Year’s Day to end the festive season and welcome 2017.
Spend a cosy second night between crisp sheets before enjoying another leisurely breakfast before departure on the morning of 2nd January.
I took the sunlight for granted, which was pretty stupid. I spent a decade in countries drenched in sunshine but because I never went in search of the perfect tan and the only bits of me that weren’t Celtic pale were the bits not covered by a wetsuit I didn’t think the sunshine mattered. It was just an always there part of life. Then I moved back to Wales and the long winters and the gone in a blink of an eye days you get this far west began to make me not just unhappy but downright ill.
My doctor told me I need serotonin, serotonin from sunlight. My brain was used to it; those years of squint eyed gazing at blue horizons and the silver shimmer of the olive trees had changed me, my brain wanted the sun back and was telling me, very loudly.
Now I try to regularly top up my serotonin levels as winter draws in and November is a great month to explore those areas of the world that have been hounded by hurricanes all summer. This November saw Nick and I exploring the Southern Yucatan, travelling a thousand kilometres through mangrove swamps and cenote riddled limestone lands. It was wonderful and the sun did me good.
This is the southern Yucatan, a land where the roads run out after running straight for hundreds of kilometres. Where the vanishing point you drive into can mesmerise you and the emptiness feels post-apocalyptic.
South of the Riviera Maya the jungle fights back, creeping over the plaster statues of the Virgin Mary in the roadside shrines. Butterflies dance in the verges, flitting between rampant vine and lighting blasted skeleton tree held up by its neighbours. Huge opal blue ones, with black edged wings like fluttering book pages, that you want to follow just so you can stay close to them and tiny vivid yellow ones, moving like fairies on acid.
As we head further south the jungle turns to sky mirroring mangrove wetlands that flood the low lying roads with the clear, tea coloured water of the swamps until we come to a shore of thick white sand bordered by coral rubble blocks from hurricane hammer blows.
Here we pause a while, staying in off grid eco lodges along the shore. The sunrises sing from the sea, the sunsets sizzle into the jungle and the dark whorls of rain squalls balloon above the endless green of the wetlands and the roads peter out to sand tracks and lonely ends.
We turn inland, heading towards the Belize border and we find lake town Bacalar and we explore it’s waters and fringes, creeping in wonder through a massive resort half build and then abandoned to the snakes and the crawling green, haunted and haunting.
Here are the highlights, the eerie sights and the impressions left by the long road and the strange shores.
The Yucatan is honeycombed limestone, friable and sharp, riddled with caves and sinkholes that were sacred to the ancient Maya who saw them as glimpses of the underworld. The cenotes appear with magic randomness, new ones come, old ones change as the Yucatan continues to evolve in the rinse of the rain and the lipping of the sea. There is a cenote that cave divers can follow all the way to the sea, riding the thermocline wave, following the oil in water mix of salt and fresh, all the way to Akumal bay.
Beneath the flat scrubland and jungle the cenotes are other worldly, glass watered and silent. Spike stalactites glow with colour but I feel a sharp edge of fearfulness as the dark presses in and I sense the pressure of the sudden rainstorms above and I wonder how fast the water can rise.
In the silence underground I imagine the iron hard core at the heart of the Chicxulub impact crater, just west of us, lurking below the crust it barrelled into 65 million years ago, surrounded by a glittering halo of glass beads in rock. It is easy to let your imagination run away with you in the caves. The pastel shades of mineral in the rocks tease the eye, the strain of the swim through tiny spaces and the shadows thrown by rock forms play like Aluxo’ob, mayan sprites, in the light of Nick’s dive torch. It makes you think uncanny thoughts as the cool water laps at your face, soft licks.
Below me, in the super clear water the yellow strands of the ropes the cave divers follow whisper fearfully of consequences should you let go of the life line – it would be dark and chill below the thermocline, with the slowing cascade of bubbles from an exhausted tank ticking life away in silver coin flurries. I am not a huge fan of caves, it seems, I prefer the wide open waters of the sea where I have room to turn and flee!
When the roofs of the cenotes collapse they form wriggling watercourses through the land, heavily edged with foliage, packed at the rims with twisted mangroves these are sunny sacred places, smiling at the sky. Exploring them is much more relaxing. By kayak we trawl the perimeter, looking for the slow clumsiness of manatees feeding on the weed and snorkelling to find clouds of fish in the nurseries that form in the safe haven of the mangrove roots.
The sun burns down, washing my brain with serotonin rain. My energy levels rise and my wanderlust wakes, stretches, demands new sights to see. We begin the driving, getting as far away as we can from civilisation, looking for old Mexico and road’s end.
In Mahahual there is a blasted tree hung with single flip flops, faded by the sun, riders on strange tides that have eventually washed up here, tangled up in the sargassum weed, to find their end on an almost deserted shore.
Mahahual lingers and waits, almost comatose in the sun. It still exists because a remote cruise ship dock north of town brings a few boats a week. On those days it wakes early and all eyes are on the horizon as the cruisers hove into view. Beach cleaners lug weed in a sweat, vendors in a fever turn empty lots into packed trinket shops. The day visitors from the cruise ships ride their Segway’s along the pretty malacon and drive open top jeeps through the shallow edges of the mangroves on roads they churn away on their almost adventures. Massages on the beach, cycle rides and snorkel trips, there are a few hours of brief frenetic activity and then Mahahual goes back to sleep, shuts the doors, lays up waiting for the next ship to dock and while they wait the rain storms make the mangroves bleed raging red water into the sea and the jungle bides its time.
This feels like somewhere that hangs on, against the odds and some would say, against reason. If you ever wanted to run away then run here, nobody will find you.
At the rag end of town I saw a semi-trailer parked up on a rough lot machete cut out of the jungle. It was missing the tractor unit. There was just the trailer, with a sagging black rectangle of an awning and a punch bag hanging on the edges. I wonder who lives there; some man who takes his anger at himself out on the punch bag whilst waiting for the pain of his past to be eroded away by the endless wind from the sea. I could write a book from that one image.
We drive up and down the coast from Mahahual, north as far as the edges of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere, protected and pure and south to Xcalak where the road runs out and the Belize border is a skimming stone away across the sea.
On a quiet stretch of coast we find Almaplena eco lodge and feel at home there, enjoying nights of starry skies and a beach to ourselves. Scoops of pelicans do low level fly past’s in formation whilst flings of sandpipers scavenge amongst the weed. I find glossy sea beans in the tangled weed and they feel lucky in my hand.
This is the Lake of Seven Colours, Laguna Bacalar, down near the Belize border, a sixty kilometre freshwater lake floored with gleaming white sand, shaded with deep dark cenotes and fringed with reeds.
The backpackers have found Bacalar, they always find the best places first. They quietly fill up the hostels around this gigantic lake and bathe in the multi-coloured water and have bbq’s and epiphanies on its water lily edges.
The little town of Bacalar itself is sweet, quiet, typical Mexican with a zocala that hums with happy family life every evening and the scent of frying churros rises like sweet fog above playing children and strolling adults. It is wonderfully civilized. We adored it.
We swam in the vodka light water, scrubbed ourselves with the silver sulphur sands and explored the shifting channels that centuries ago led pirates in from the Caribbean Sea. One high cloud afternoon we snorkelled amongst the bulbous stromatolites that grow in the lake shallows. These ancient, almost lifeforms, trap sediment in mats and then gradually turn to stone, like sad grey green coral.
Bacalar is a place to return to, definitely, but I still want to go further south.
How the road goes on and I feel the itches of the forever traveller. The itch in the eye that wants to see around the next bend and the itch in the heart that longs to find somewhere else to fall in love with. The itch in the head that feels the world turning and turning faster and faster around me and wants to learn more, live more, find more and the itch in the feet that makes me want to run and run into the great unknown. Those itches twitch in me; once I start to feel them it is hard to ignore them and finally stop.
It takes a beautiful moment to bring me back to myself. We stopped at Akumal on the way to catch our flight home, staying the night well out of town in a small hotel on a quiet stretch of beach. That night the rains came, I saw the storm clouds building, a grey puree in the sky and I lay and listened to the mighty, land changing, rain fall. I got up at dawn. I went to photograph the last sunrise here and as I stepped onto the rain pitted beach, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the instantly recognisable flipper awkward flutter of a turtle hatchling struggling across the sand.
I have seen the sadness of the turtle dead, exhausted and worn by endless migration, washed up on our Welsh beaches by the gulf stream. I have seen the determination of the turtle egg laying, where the mothers, ungainly and huge, drag themselves ashore on Isla Mujeres and laboriously dig their nests. I have seen the living grace of turtles in the deep sea, swaying on the swells, gleaming in the blue. And now I have seen the piercing joy of the hatchling.
Soft of tread and wondering of eye Nick and I follow the hatchling across the beach whilst dagger billed frigates sulk on the palapas and the dawn sings a welcome. We watch over it until it reaches the lace edge of the waves. We watch it tumble in the wake, right itself, find its buoyancy, feel its flipper stroke. We watch the first breath it holds. We watch on and see the first time it breaches, twenty metres out, taking a breath of sunlight before it heads to the deeps for decades. It was a perfect moment.
“Will you marry me?” said Nick, and who am I to refuse such impeccable timing.
The roads we don’t travel – I regret the roads I didn’t take because I thought I had more time. When we lived in Turkey there was a weekly train service from Selcuk to Damascus. We talked about taking it. The names of the stations en-route conjured Silk Road dreams and stirred the old, almost memories that make them familiar from the dry recitations of holy books, Afyon, Karaman, Iskederum, and Damascus itself.
We should have gone. We didn’t find the time. We thought we had longer. But we didn’t and now I don’t know if that route will ever open again and I wish I had seen Damascus before these days came.
The right kind of light wakes me. I was deep in a weird dream and the light must have prodded and poked at my closed lids until I opened my eyes and looked out of the low window and saw the sunrise on the long ridges of ripples in the sand. “Finally, golden light!”
I wriggle to the end of the bed, accidently kicking Nick who grunts and mutters “What?”
“Sunlight,” I say, “Dawn sunlight.”
I grab my small GoPro camera from the cluttered dressing table and kneeling on the carpet, my elbows on the cold smooth slate, I press the lens of the camera to the window and take a couple of shots in case a rogue cloud ruins it all before I can get outside.
I throw on a hoodie and wriggle sockless into boots before I creep down the stairs. At the bottom Dilly pushes her face against the baby gate that keeps her in the kitchen. “Nick will let you out in a minute” I tell her, because he will, he won’t stay in bed now he has been disturbed and he is bound to let her out even though she isn’t his dog, he’s like that, all dogs will be made into friends.
Outside on the slate terrace the thin rain of yesterday has mottled the glass top of the dining table with fat glittering globules that run together and gleam in the glass. The dew lies heavy on the wooden benches, the air is thick with the slow hand light of dawn and below me, on the sands of the estuary, the edges of the ripples in the sand catch the sunrise and for a few moments are thrown into sharp gilded relief. Welsh gold chains across the sand.
Across the wide acres of sand the other side of the estuary is a symphony of low hills in soft blues and umbers whilst the hard edged mountains of Snowdonia rise black behind them. Above it all a sky of summer blue is made dramatic by high mackerel stripes and low nimbus clouds flare at the edges in the shallow sunrise and stay dark at their heart.
I start shooting. The GoPro has no viewfinder and no screen but use and habit and experience lets you feel the span of its wide angle lens, your memory draws invisible lines out from its black eye. I will cut and crop later but now I want the light on the sands and the clouds and the widest vista I can get in the crystal clear light that only comes at dawn and dusk, and paints the world in rich tones and acid etched detail.
“Good shots?” Nick asks from behind me. I turn round; Dilly sits at his feet looking up, her pale pink nose twitches, her liquid Labrador eyes trusting and hopeful. He is feeding her crisps. He just can’t help it; all dogs must be given treats and bound to him.
“Brilliant!” I say, “Just the light I’ve been waiting for.” Apart from a good day at Llangollen when the light on the falls and on the canal was rich and burnished this trip has been mainly low skies and dim light, no good for the rich coloured shots I prefer.
“Coming down onto the beach?” Nick asks.
Dilly follows us down the steep embankment to the narrow slice of hidden cove beneath the house. She looks away in embarrassment when a roguish rabbit sneers at her from the edge of the garden; apparently she doesn’t like rabbits, which must be a problem as the headland here is inundated with them. We don’t have many rabbits where we live; I tell Nick the panthers ate them all!
Down on the beach the sand is soft and our feet sink in leaving deep tracks. The wide ribbon of the river that carves through the estuary is flat calm, the tide hasn’t turned yet and the river’s road to the far off sea is untroubled and easy.
We sit on the smooth rocks. Below us an elliptical pool at the foot of the rocks, fringed with weed, teeming with glass shrimp, reflects the sky. I bore Nick rigid with tales from the Mabinogion and the Black Book of Carmarthen. He is very good about it. He puts up with my mystical drivel with good grace.
“Out there,” I say, pointing to the wide sands, “Legend says that Pryderi was killed by Gwydion, the trickster magician and hero of the forth branch of the Mabinogi. They fought in single combat after Gwydion stole Pryderi’s magic pigs.” Nick looks dubious, he likes bacon as much as the next man but hell!
“It’s called Traeth Mawr, ‘big sands’,” I add, “and the whole thing was originally the tidal estuary of the River Glaslyn. It’s shorter now since they cut a chunk off it when they built The Cob that the narrow gauge railway at Porthmadog runs on.”
We sit for a while, watching the light change on the water and the hills. I have always preferred the coast of North Wales, the mountains are pure drama; waterfalls of stone and great glassy slides of grass but their height and deep shadows oppress me and I prefer the wide seascapes where if I look carefully I can see the palaces of the Lost Lands through the blues where sea meets sky.
Cantref y Gwaelod, the lost lands of Welsh legend that allegedly stretched from Ramsey Island in the south to Bardsey Island in the north. A flat, fertile, wondrous kingdom of shining cities, fields and orchards, lost beneath the waters of Cardigan Bay. I like to think they are still out there below the restless waves. The dykes that held back the sea have tumbled beneath the iron hard storm waters but the old kings in their halls still sit listening to their bards as the sea rushes in. I imagine them, caught in the silent stretched instant between the time it takes the bells in their towers to toll, forever waiting under the frozen break of the wave.
“Look,” I say to Nick. I point at the slow growing cast where a razor clam burrows beside the rock pool. The looping noodle cast it is pushing up is darker than the sand on the surface, dark as the rich soil below, dark as the fertile silt of the lost lands buried just beneath the shifting sands.
We watch the clam cast until it stops growing and the tide turns and the river through the sands becomes boisterous with current as it fights and loses the battle it wages twice a day with the relentless sea.
We make our way back up to Rose Cottage, the single room B&B that we have been lucky enough to find and book. We eat breakfast (aga cooked, local eggs) at a huge wooden table that looks out at the wide angle, Technicolor view.
Our stay here had been too short, just two nights, but it has been long enough to fall in love with the location and the easy going charm of the owners who encourage us to stay and relax and just enjoy the quiet and the rabbits and the view and the low impact company of Dilly the Labrador.
We leave with promises to return. When I have a horrible deadline or my brain is even more fried than usual or I just need to again touch the places of myth that remind me how Welsh I am then we’ll be back, to watch the light and the tide and the patchwork shadows of clouds on the distant mountains.
If you want to stay at Rose Cottage Bed and Breakfast near Porthmadog then you can book direct here – Rose Cottage B&B – but book soon because they fill up quickly. I can’t wait to go back in winter and see that view in snow, it will be amazing.
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