In the last century, as coal poured out of the Welsh hills and made its way by rail to port, the Cardiff docklands became the busiest in the world. But as merchant seamen and miscreants congregated - about 57 languages were spoken here - Butetown, or "Tiger Bay," also became one of the roughest.
In 1913, the coal hoard reached its peak as 10 million tonnes of the black gold was shipped. And in the nearby Coal Exchange building, the world's first one-million-pound cheque was signed. But by 1964, coal exports stopped. And one only has to read author Trezza Azzopardi's evocative novel, The Hiding Place, to learn that even in the 1960s, citizens living in impoverished circumstances were getting pulled into trouble by the docks. "You just didn't go there," a Welsh friend says.
Well, baby, look at you now. Thanks to a huge waterfront regeneration project involving a barrage, locks, bridges and sluices that allow fish to migrate, the former rough-and-tumble Tiger Bay is now a purring pussycat. Citizens can whitewater-raft in a newly created 500-acre lake, cycle the coastal path, stroll the 12 kilometres of waterfront past chic shops, dine on Welsh specialties, ride the carousel and, soon, take to the skies for an aerial overview from a blimp. Cardiff Bay is now one of the hottest waterside districts in Europe. (Toronto, take note.)
TOURING THE ARCHITECTURE
From the simple, wooden Norwegian Church built for homesick seamen (where author Roald Dahl was christened) to the 1896 Pierhead Building and the new eco-friendly Y Senedd for the National Assembly for Wales (free tours daily), the bay is anchored by architectural gems.
Already, the new Wales Millennium Centre is the country's most visited attraction and an iconic image for Wales. Daily $9 behind-the-scenes tours point out fascinating details such as the 121 holes drilled into every seat for perfect acoustics. Most surprising: the Welsh words out front - "Creating truth like glass from the furnace of inspiration" - differ from the English: "In these stones horizons sing." "It encourages you to think," remarked our guide. Because texture and sound abound here, new tours for the visually impaired have been added to pricier visits with the architects, as have techie tours that let one operate the lighting board and feel the height of the fly-tower. Bute Place; 29-2063-6464; www.wmc.org.uk
FROM GLAMOROUS RINGS TO GLAMORGAN SAUSAGES
Craft in the Bay exhibits the country's best glassworks, weaving, jewellery and pottery, and offers talks, demos and workshops (including a make-your-own-wedding-ring workshop). Upstairs, Kemi and her staff serve delicious meals - Glamorgan sausages (no sausage involved, instead made with leeks, cheeses and spices) and meal-worthy salads washed down with local Black Dragon cider. "Have a fresh fig," the charming Kemi offers on the way out. On the waterfront, discover 28 riveting sculptures. The most haunting is Merchant Seafarer's War Memorial and People Like Us, which evokes immigrants such as Dame Shirley Bassey who made the area home.
- Craft in the Bay, the Flourish; 29-2048-4611; www.makersguildinwales.org.uk
- Public Art in Cardiff Bay (free location map from Visitors Centre), 29-2046-3833; www.cardiffharbour.com
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
Rent a bike (or "cycle" as they're called in Wales) from Pedal Power to ride the 10-kilometre Cardiff Bay Barrage Coastal Path from the Inner Harbour to Penarth and back. Or head to the nearby water park for a true rush as you ride the whitewater created by huge pumps. All ages get two-hours of adrenalin-pumping excitement in rafts, inflatable kayaks and on hydro-speed body boards. From $78.
- Pedal Power Cycle Centre and Bike Hire (by the Norwegian Church), Harbour Drive; 29-2039-0713; www.cardiffpedalpower.org
- Cardiff International White Water Park; 29-2082-9970; www.ciww.com
TAKE HOME A LOCAL TEA TIME FAVOURITE
The Fabulous Welshcakes shop in Mermaid Quay bakes handmade Welshcakes (a kind of soft scone with raisins) daily to be packaged up as hearts in a ribbon-laced bag, or eaten in the shop. These award-winning delectable morsels, found on tea tables throughout Wales, come in varieties from hazelnut to chocolate. Most popular: dark chocolate with orange, or white chocolate with lemon; about 75 cents (45 pence) a piece. The shop also sells homemade preserves, Halen Môn sea salt, handmade chocolates, and hand-carved Welsh love spoons to take home to your lovely one. Unit 14, Bute St., Mermaid Quay; 29-2045-6593; www.fabulouswelshcakes.co.uk
FROM FARM (OR SEA) TO FORK
With its mild climate, long growing season, Europe's most organic soil and clean coastal waters, Wales is a terrific place for fresh food. Londoners are now driving down to Wales to feast on seafood, Welsh lamb and renowned Welsh black beef. Visit Woods Bar and Brasserie in the historic Pilotage building for roast pheasant, salt marsh Welsh lamb or line-caught sea bass. Or try ordering Welsh specialties at the sleek and stylish Mimosa kitchen and bar: Welsh lamb cawl (stew) served with Gorwydd Caerphilly cheese, laverbread made with seaweed, or Welsh rarebit made with Y Fenni cheese. Described as "this year's restaurant for Cardiff" by the Sunday Times, Mimosa also serves full Welsh breakfast with bacon, mushrooms, tomato, sausage, eggs and gourmet pork sausages, guaranteed to counteract any wild night.
- Woods Bar and Brasserie, Pilotage Building, Stuart Street; 29-2049-2400; www.woods-brasserie.com
- Mimosa kitchen and bar; Mermaid Quay; 29- 2049-1900; www.mimosakitchen.co.uk
DISCOVER WHERE DOCTOR WHO CHOWED DOWN
Cardiff Bay is crawling with Doctor Who fans, searching for set locations where the eccentric humanoid alien has touched down while filming the world's longest-running science-fiction television show. A new interactive map on the BBC Wales Arts website points to film spots such as Mount Stuart Square or the Bosphorus Turkish restaurant where Dr. Who chows down. A permanent exhibit in the Red Dragon Centre gives fans a sneak peek behind the scenes and introduces the creators. Atlantic Wharf Leisure Village, Hemingway Road; 29-2025-6261; www.doctorwhoexhibitions.com/09/cardiff_about.html
WHERE TO STAY
The St. David's Hotel & Spa Named after the country's patron saint, these heavenly digs give sweeping views of the bay,. Inside, hydrotherapy pools bubble with salt water. Seaworthy appetites treat themselves to afternoon tea with champagne on the seaside terrace, or local fare. Rates from $173 (£109). Havannah Street; 2920-454-045; www.thestdavidshotel.com
The Big Sleep This design hotel offers affordability with wacky glamour: blue vinyl seating, Formica desks and languorous easy chairs. No surprise, the British prototype was the only budget hotel voted by Condé Nast Traveler as one of the 25 coolest hotels in the world. Rates from $87 (£55). Bute Terrace; 2920-636-363; www.thebigsleephotel.com