Snowdonia's coast is beautiful. Stretching from the estuary near Maentwrog all the way down to Aberdovey and the Dyfi Estuary are uninterrupted views out across Cardigan Bay. The views of mile after mile of sandy beaches overshadowed by the stunning mountains inland are awe-inspiring. From Harlech to Dyffryn is a long line of sand dunes that are important wildlife sites. Behind these the land changes to green farmland interspersed with characteristic boulder stone walls. Harlech Castle is an imposing sight as it dominates the flat hinterland below.
Snowdonia's coast is punctuated by seaside towns that have a mix of typically old Welsh town and bucket and spade seaside fun resort. The string of caravan parks all along the coast are testament to the area's continuing popularity. No doubt the traditional resorts have seen their heyday, but there are signs of regeneration and rebirth as holiday accommodation is revamped into contemporary bed & breakfasts. With the views, sandy beaches combined with fantastic mountain scenery and walking, this area still has everything to offer for a varied and active holiday.
As you come out of the steep wooded valleys of the Maentwrog area towards the coast you're struck by the strange, but gorgeous sight of mountains and sandy beaches in the same view. The coastline from Harlech to Barmouth has to be among the most stunning in the country. For the most part the main road, the A496, takes you pretty close to the coast or you're up high with views out over the blue expanse of Tremadog and Cardigan Bays.
Harlech is the first main town along this stretch of coast famous for its stunning, fairytale castle dominating the town. Even if you're not a history buff going into the castle is well worth it on a clear day for the views back up towards the Llyn Peninsular where the light catches Moel-y-Gest and other rocky mountains towering above Porthmadog. You might even be able to see Portmeiron glinting in the sunlight.
As you carry on south leaving the steep streets of Harlech behind you'll pass through the small villages of Llanfair, Llanbedr, Dyffryn Ardudwy. These areas are more renowned for Neolithic sights. There are two imposing standing stones at the northern of end of Llandbedr village in a field northwest of the petrol station. Across the road is the parish church of St Peter which contains an ancient stone grooved with a spiral pattern, apparently a common design from other pre-Christian sites.
Two of the most impressive Neolithic sites are at Llanddwywe and Dyffryn Arududwy. Opposite the church in Llanddwywe turn right and continue for a mile to get to Cors-y-Gedol Burial Chamber. There is unrestricted entry and access is fairly good depending on whether there are cows in the field or not! What remains of the burial chamber today is a capstone leaning against the cairn and a single standing stone to the east. It is still impressive to think even that much has managed to survive from Neolithic times.
Signposted off the A496 behind the school in Dyffryn Ardudwy is the communal Dyffryn Ardudwy Burial Chamber.This comprises two supported capstones amongst a bed of small boulders the base stones of a mound thought to be 100 feet long. Pottery, finely polished stone plagues and bones have all been found here from an archaeological dig in the 1960s. These are now on display in the National Museum in Cardiff.
Barmouth appears to be moulded into the steep cliff sides as the buildings of the old town climb steadily upwards. It was once a shipbuilding centre and it still retains a nautical air with many visitors coming to Barmouth to launch their boats. There is also a passenger ferry over to Fairbourne across the Mawddach Estuary that runs from Easter to October and you can take sea angling and sightseeing trips from the quay.
There are some rather jaded looking fairground attractions along the beachfront and a characterless shopping arcade with takeaways and the usual beachfront fayre. The rest of the town has a grander appearance of bygone days. The town is, however, a good base for a family seaside holiday with the huge expanse of sandy beach and traditional seaside fun like donkeys rides; or leave Barmouth and go exploring further afield up into the mountains or along the Snowdonia coast.
It is no overstatement to call the scenery around Barmouth breathtaking - beautiful expanses of golden sand of the Mawddach Estuary contrasting sharply with the mountains beyond. Here you can see why Wordsworth referred to it as 'a sublime estuary'. The sands really are golden in the Mawddach Estuary - prospectors flocked to the estuary to pan for gold in the 1860s gold rush. One of the most interesting sights on the Mawddach Estuary is the Barmouth Bridge that spans the estuary and takes cars, trains, cyclists and walkers.
It was built as a wooden railway viaduct in 1867 by the Aberystwyth and Welsh Coast Railway spanning 2253 feet. Bits of it have been strengthened over the years with developments in transport, but it still has a rickety look to it. Don't let that put you off, it's a fabulous way to see the estuary, but for sightseeing you'll need to go on foot or on your bike as there's nowhere to stop along it in your car. It is a toll bridge, but the prices are affordable.
Further upstream from the Barmouth Bridge at Penmaenpool you can cross the estuary again on what was the first road crossing across the estuary. This is also a toll bridge suitable only for motor cars and light vans. There are several old timber buildings at Penmaenpool stemming from the days of the railway that used to run through here. The RSPB has a centre in the old signal box as they have reserves here on the estuary and at Mawddach Woodlands nearby where you can see a variety of wading and woodland birds including pied flycatchers, wood warblers, redstarts, ravens and buzzards. There is a small car park, toilets and access to the Mawddach Trail here.
The Mawddach Trail follows the Mawddach estuary for 15 kilometres (9 miles) from Abermaw to Dolgellau. It follows the former railway track and has now been converted into a leisure route for walkers and cyclists giving you fantastic views of the estuary. It is part of the Sustrans Cross-Wales Cycling Route - No 8. The surface is largely tarmaced so is smooth and flat so pushchairs and wheelchairs won't find problems.
The rest of the coast is dotted with a few small towns and villages. Although past it's heyday Fairbourne is still well worth a stop. You can take a ride on the Fairbourne & Barmouth Steam Railway. This is a short run from the village down to the coast edge where you can pick up the passenger ferry to Barmouth. Along the way the views across the estuary are absolutely stunning. Cadair Idris looms up over the soft, sandy beaches clearly showing the two extremes of landscape of Snowdonia.
Tywyn is your traditional family seaside resort and a good base from which to explore the beautiful Tal y Llyn and Dysynni valleys. Its long straight beach is popular with visitors and can be good for surfing. Attractions include the Church of St Cadfan that houses the five foot high St Cadfan's Stone that bears the earliest example of written Welsh dating from around 650 AD.
A popular family attraction is the Talyllyn Railway first opened in 1865. It was built in the 19th century to carry slate from the Bryn Eglwys quarries near Abergynolwyn. Today it takes visitors on a scenic, relaxing journey through the Fathew valley that takes about two hours. You can hop on and off the journey as often as you like giving you the opportunity to have a look at The Narrow Gauge Railway Museum at the Tywyn Wharf terminus that houses an important collection of artefacts relating to Narrow Gauge Railways in Britain throughout a period spanning some 200 years.
Aberdovey is the archetypical Victorian seaside resort. The tall, bay fronted terraces along the seafront are evocative of that era, although many are now being modernised to provide contemporary B&B accommodation. The town lines the Dyfi Estuary, another fantastically, picturesque estuary with lovely sandy beaches.
Sunning yourself and having a go at watersports seems to be the order of day here. The resort has recently been awarded the Blue Flag Award for its bathing water quality. You can become a temporary member of Dovey Yacht Club if you have your own windsurfing or sailing equipment. Boat trips are available around the estuary, with some pushing out along beautiful Cardigan Bay. Kitesurfing and fishing are also popular in the area.
Just outside Aberdovey town centre is Aberdyfi Golf Club is an 18 hole championship course that runs alongside the train track and separated from the sea by a ridge of impressively high sand dunes. If you want something a bit more exciting than lying around on the beach the nearby Adrenaline Antics provide adventure activities like "Big Canyon Adventure" and "Adrenalin Combo"?! You can sign up for an activity or make a longer break of it if you're heart can stand it.