When I tell people that I’m obsessed with Wales, they assume I mean whales. That makes sense. After all, which seems more likely: that I would be infatuated with some of the world’s most magnificent creatures, or a small country that many folks a) have never heard of or b) assume is an odd part of England?
But, yes, it’s the land of dragons that has captured my heart. It started when I had a meet-cute with the town of Abergavenny, randomly ending up there with no real plans. It blossomed into a full-blown love affair when I spent all of June there last year.
At home in Toronto, I felt stuck in a rut. Bored, depressed, out of shape, lacking in confidence and so stressed I was having anxiety attacks. Something had to change. I had to change.
I decided to hike the 300-kilometre Pembrokeshire Coast Path in southwest Wales by myself. Not with a group or through organized means. Just me, my guidebook and a pack on my back. Training for it would give me focus, and walking it would, I hoped, give me time to think about how I wanted to live.
The more I researched, though, the more I added to my list of things to see and do. The more wild and crazy – and uniquely Welsh – it was, the more I was attracted to it. Thus, a (tongue-in-cheek) idea was born: I’d shake up my life with five ways to die in Wales.
1: Jump on an underground trampoline
Twenty-four hours after my arrival in Wales, I play it relatively safe to start. At Bounce Below, a multilayered trampoline park built into an old slate mine in North Wales, I’m more likely to die of embarrassment than any sort of injury. You know who goes to playgrounds deep in the Earth? Families. With children. And the odd young couple. Not solo women in their late 30s. I’m feeling self-conscious. Perhaps this was a mistake.
We all head down into the chilly depths. What opens up before me is a Miami nightclub crossed with the gymnasium of my childhood fantasies. Adults jump on massive nets. Lights paint the stone walls in purple, green and yellow. Kids hurl large (soft) balls at each other’s heads. Pitbull blares from the speakers. Teenage girls whoop as they speed down multistorey spiral slides.
I step out onto one of the nets – and almost immediately fall ass over teakettle. This is not the trampoline I remember as a kid. This is intense. Even walking is a challenge, so I just start jumping. And jumping. Higher and higher, tucking my knees, flailing my arms. I’m giddy – and I don’t need to a mirror to know my smile is taking up most of my face. I feel like I’ve relinquished control of my body to this netting. I could try to steady myself but what’s the point? I fall on my knees; I bounce back up. I fall on my backside; I bounce back up. I fall face forward; I bounce back up. I don’t give a damn if I look like a fool. For the next 30 minutes, I am invincible.
2: Brave the world’s fastest zipline
The next day, I accelerate the thrill factor at Velocity 2, the world’s fastest zipline. I fear being suspended in midair (I whiteknuckle every chairlift ride), yet here I am.
Velocity 2 sends four people at a time zooming 500 feet over the abandoned Penrhyn Quarry; riders can reach speeds of up 160 kilometres an hour as they fly, Superman style. Rationally, I know the experience is safe. But I can’t stop my heart from racing as I’m kitted out in a helmet and a large, heavy apron accessorized with numerous straps, clips and metal loops. I am jealous of everyone else, laughing nervously with friends and family. One negative of travelling solo: You have to psych yourself up.
When it’s my turn, I lie belly down on a padded table. The cable is above me, and the attendant clips me in and explains how to position my arms. I ask her to make sure everything is attached. She assures me it is. The bed lowers. I dangle in mid air. I ask the attendant to make sure everything is attached. She assures me it is. “Can I move my head to look around?” I ask. “If you want to wobble, sure,” is the answer. I decide not to look around. A countdown starts. 5, 4, 3 – “Are you sure everything is attach … holy shhhh … aaaaaaaaaaaah.” And that is the sound I make the entire time I soar over the sparkling turquoise water like a red kite. A minute later, it’s over. I did it. I conquered a fear, all by myself.
3: Walk the Pembrokeshire Coast Path
Up next is the biggie: conquering the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. Its 300 kilometres wind through one of Wales’s three national parks, from St Dogmaels to Amroth, tracing the spectacular coastline of the Celtic Sea. Walkers don’t typically tackle it as a through hike. Except me. I plan on doing it in 10 days.
I spend the night before I set off in a charming Airbnb advertised as a “cottage for women.” As we sit in her cozy kitchen, my wonderful host, Jen, shares stories about other hikers who have passed through her door. “All of these women have had a reason for doing the coast path,” she says. “I don’t know what you’re looking for, but I hope you find it.” I bite into a biscuit and fight back tears.
The next morning, under bright sunny skies, she sees me off with a hug. I give up and let the tears flow. I say goodbye and put one foot in front of the other, as I will thousands of times for the next 10 days. This, to me, is the beauty of long-distance hiking. You are completely dependent on yourself. You cannot blame faulty equipment, or benefit from some new gizmo. It’s not a matter of “making good time” or a nailing personal best. It’s about getting from point A to point B, on your own terms, on your own steam.
From the outset, the views are stunning. Much of the path runs atop 100-metre-high limestone cliffs, as close to the edge as possible. These parts are not suitable for anyone with a fear of heights. Even I balk at times as I glance down. The path itself in often only half a foot wide, a mere foot or so from certain death. Other times, I have to fight through bracken with my hiking pole. And quickly realize that although I am physically prepared, I hadn’t anticipated the mental challenge of the walk. My previous long hikes incorporated old drovers roads, or Roman walkways; they were designed to get people around as efficiently as possible. The point of this path is to hug the coastline – which curves in and out like so many fingers reaching into the water. A town may be two kilometres away as the crow flies, but it takes me five kilometres to reach it. They call the trail the “Welsh Everest” because its 35,000 feet of steep ascents and descents is roughly equal to the famed mountain’s height.
My journey, much like the path itself, is series of highs and lows. Near the end of a 40-km day, I have to backtrack after dropping my phone in a field of sheep. Once, feeling weary, I turn a corner to see a white wild pony standing on a hilltop, a ray of sunshine beaming down upon it. I find unexpected joy on a rickety swing someone built in the middle of a forest. Puffins walk two feet in front of me on Skomer Island, beaks full of sand eels to feed their young, and seals frolic in the shimmering blue waters. I climb sand dunes, walk through herds of cattle (actually somewhat frightening), pass standing stones and iron-age forts, encounter foxes, badgers and rabbits and sleep like a baby every night. And through it all, I am warmed by the kindness of Welsh people. They offer advice, store my excess goods, give me free lifts (never to skirt the path, of course), come to my aid in times of distress and provide the encouragement to keep going.
By the halfway point, I have found what I was looking for: courage to make changes in my life. I am feeling stronger – both mentally and physically – than I have in a long time.
4: Try coasteering and jump off some cliffs
Partway through the hike, I take a break to go coasteering – essentially jumping off cliffs and being sloshed about in open water. Coasteering has its origins as an organized activity in Pembrokeshire, and one of the most popular spots to enjoy it is at the Blue Lagoon (the site of an abandoned quarry) and surrounding waters at Abereiddy.
I head into the surf with Rob, James and Ed from Celtic Quest Coasteering and three other women. We clamour onto craggy rocks of various heights, walking on barnacles in waterlogged sneakers to keep from slipping and then leap back into the water. Next, we spend a few minutes in the “washing machine,” an alcove where the water rushes in and out, the swells churning us around and throwing us into rocks as it goes. I swear this is more fun than it sounds.
Finally, it is time for the true test of nerve. The group swims from the open water into the lagoon, an oval-shaped natural pool circled by the remains of the old quarry buildings and cliffs (built into one is 25-metre-high platform used by the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series). We scamper up a brick structure to a height of about 15 feet. “For the higher jumps, you have to go in straight like a pencil,” James explains, keeping his legs and arms together as he plunges down. Easy peasy. And, yet, it’s not. For me. The other women – including the one celebrating her 60th birthday – nail it. I try, and try again, but in an effort to land far enough out I keep flinging my legs forward and smacking the surface with my butt. This hurts. And it means that when we climb to the top level – 30 feet – I hang back. I can’t stop having visions of myself landing awkwardly and injuring a leg (or worse). I chicken out, but I don’t beat myself up over it. I jumped off a cliff for the first time. I pushed myself way past my comfort zone. I did what I set out to do. And I wasn’t in Wales to prove anything to anyone but myself.
5: Go canyoning and slide over a waterfall
Hike done, I have one daredevil day remaining. I head out to Waterfall Country in South Wales for a morning of canyoning (a.k.a. gorge walking), coasteering’s inland cousin.
Peter Savage, the owner of Savage Adventures (yes, that is his real name), immediately wins me over. Enthusiastic, positive and radiating energy, he’s a bit of a goofball, yet still extremely knowledgeable and professional. As I walk behind waterfalls and scramble over boulders, Peter talks points out rare local flora, helps keep me steady on slippery surfaces (“you’re like a baby deer learning to walk”) and picks up trash we come across. I watch in awe as he slides down a riverbed like an otter while I awkwardly scoot along, and I trust him enough that I tumbled backward, headfirst, over a small waterfall. After coasteering, this is all a breeze.
Until the final jump. It’s not as high as the Blue Lagoon jump, but it’s from a rocky, uneven cliff, as opposed to a smooth brick surface. “Just take a big step out and you’ll clear it,” Peter chirps before he back flips into the water below. I remain unconvinced.
“Then come down here for a look,” he calls from the water. “You’ll see it’s not really that high.”
I scurry down a path, swim out and gaze up. Wide-eyed, I turn to him. “What on Earth are you talking about? That’s even taller than I thought. Forget that!”
“Really?” he says with a laugh. “That usually works.”
“Nah, I’m good,” I say.
And I am, I really am.
The writer received free admission to Zip World’s Bounce Below and Velocity 2. It did not review or approve this article.
Looking for a calmer getaway?
Book a tour with Discovery Wales
I’m confident in saying owner Kyle Rendall is the best guide in Wales. His love and passion for his country is infectious – and his easygoing demeanor calms any nerves about spending a day with a stranger. Book a set tour or work with him to customize your own adventure, from an afternoon spent climbing Pen y Fan in Brecon Beacons or a multiday itinerary exploring castles from north to south. discoverywalestours.co.uk
Get your foodie fix in Abergavenny
The market town is home to an acclaimed food festival; the Angel Hotel, one of only nine outside London that is part of the UK Tea Guild; and the Walnut Tree, one of Wales’s seven Michelin-starred restaurants. Book a room at the charming Abergavenny Hotel and, if you want a classic Welsh pub experience (i.e. slightly rowdy), stop by the Coach & Horses. abergavenny.org.uk
Escape to postcard-pretty Tenby
With its brightly coloured houses, aquamarine waters and chill vibe, the Pembrokeshire resort town is a perennial favourite. Grab a fresh crab sandwich and a local ale to eat on the beach. Show friends your pictures and they’ll think you went to a Mediterranean village. visittenby.co.uk
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