The last time I was in Llandudno, I was on a ‘works’ outing with my mum and it was so long ago that some of her older pals still called the coach a ‘chara’.
Memories were sketchy at best and I set off for North Wales with a vague, preformed notion that I was maybe heading for another fading, Victorian seaside resort which had been sidelined by cheap foreign package tours since the 60s and was well past its best.
After crossing the border and noting that somebody had nicked all the vowels from the road signs since my last trip, we decided to follow the coast for old times’ sake – a mistake as the interminable caravan parks didn’t help first impressions, and Rhyl didn’t make me want to slow down, either.
But if I thought that Llandudno was going to be the same, with old-time splendour replaced with real-time shabby, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The first thing that struck me was the sweeping, almost Bath-like crescent of buildings along the prom which have lost little of their impact and kept much of their elegance.
Chief among them was my overnight base, the imposing St George’s Hotel, built as the first luxury hotel in the town and more than living up to its billing as one of the very best in Wales since it opened in 1854 playing host to luminaries like Bismarck and Napoleon III as well as seven British Prime Ministers, no less, including Disraeli, Lloyd George, Churchill and Thatcher.
Four stars and maybe even nudging five compared to a lot of others I’ve had the pleasure of staying in, the St George’s has a colourful history (worth checking it out online!) and encourages an almost reverent reaction as you gaze at the original, pristine facade and then step inside to the warmest of welcomes at reception from June, who comes from just round the corner on Anglesey, and from Egle, who comes all the way from Lithuania.
You then begin to appreciate what a gem of a place it is, with a tremendous amount of care taken to provide the most up-to-date facilities and must-have services like free WiFi, while keeping the best of the old – and some of the original features are just stunning.
The place was built by a certain Isaiah Davies and his initials feature in the superb carved wood door surrounds and panelling between the drapes of the Wedgwood Suite in particular, so-called because of the ‘Jasperware’ relief plasterwork which causes many a jaw to drop as you go in there for breakfast. Not the Sistine Chapel, but you can well appreciate the sheer effort and attention to detail in restoring and maintaining it.
That’s also reflected in the attitude of director and general manager Tony Burns, who emphasises that the owners and staff are merely custodians – their role, he underlined, is stewardship of a precious heritage, which so many places seem to have squandered.
The town seems to think the same, for even on a short walk back from the prom to the main shopping streets and along the prom to the pier, it’s apparent that the place hasn’t lost its old charms, yet is still managing to appeal across the generations.
A good place to start exploring is probably the most obvious – the Great Orme, a huge, looming hill that juts into the sea and has its own list of attractions to encourage a trip to the 679ft summit, as well as a four-mile Marine Drive round it if you want to be genteel. Walk it if you want to, or even drive, but most fun has to be the 111-year-old cable tramway, a two-stage rise-and-fall ride on board original wooden trams, which have no windows and are wonderfully bracing, to say the least, when there’s a gale blowing. And there was.
Once at the top, there’s a summit complex and hands-on visitor centre which reveals a fascinating insight into the 4,000-year-old Bronze Age copper mines and their cavern nearby, which you can also explore and clamber around. Throw in a nature reserve with wild Kashmir goats, pitch ‘n’ putt golf, a play area, walking paths and some stunning views as far as the Lake District and you have hours of adventure for yourself, the kids and the grandkids.
Another way up when it’s not too windy is via the longest cable car in Britain, in reality an Alpine-style two-seater ‘bucket’ gondola which runs from a flower-filled hollow on the flank of the Great Orme called Happy Valley, which also gives access to the Llandudno Ski Slope. As well as the Perma-Snow matting surface for skiing and boarding, there’s a winding toboggan run and a lodge-style bar/restaurant where you can happily lean on the balcony to watch the athletic goings-on.
Happy Valley also helps to keep the ankle-biters happy with an Alice in Wonderland Trail of sculptures, echoing more Lewis Carroll related landmarks on the seafront and reminding us that the girl who inspired him, Alice Liddell, spent her summer holidays in Llandudno and stayed at the St George’s.
She no doubt had a great time, and although there might not be as many Victorian attractions like Punch and Judy shows (although there still is one!), there are more than enough other things for today’s youngsters, including Bodafon Farm Park with rare breed animals, birds of prey, an adventure area and mini-tractors; and not far down the Conwy Valley there’s even Tree Top Adventure in Betws y Coed, with rope courses for all ages from a Junior Tree Trail for four to eight year olds to the Powerfan Plummit for the brave and/or seriously daft over 16s.
Back in the heart of town, there’s retail therapy to be had in the covered Victoria Shopping Centre on main artery Mostyn Street, with all the usual shops you’d expect, plus a wealth of more local shops and cafes.
Then set among the sweep of hotels and seafront properties bordering the beach is the Venue Cymru, an arts and entertainment complex – with a up-scale restaurant – which has a year-round programme of live shows including top-name gigs, comedy, opera, ballet and West End musicals.
After taking all that in, it’s back to the St George’s to unwind with a pre-dinner drink in the lounge and prepare for a treat in the AA-rosette Terrace Restaurant, looking out over the beach and relishing the sunset.
Treats were indeed on the way, starting with chicken liver parfait, apricot and dill chutney and toasted brioche for Mrs G; and Welsh cheese and chive pate with fruit chutney and toasted brioche for me. The excellent starters paved the way for two traditional mains from an extensive, changed-daily menu: Mrs G had a pan-fried rib eye steak with brandy and cracked black peppercorn cream, tomato, mushroom and home-made chips with caramelised onion; while I had roast leg of lamb with roast potatoes, glazed vegetables and a rosemary, redcurrant and red wine jus.
Time-tested choices like that leave a kitchen nowhere to hide – and there was no need, as both were spot-on, served hot and well presented on the plate, delivered by attentive and always smiling front-of-house staff. Wine choice was a straightforward and very reasonable Pinot Grigio rose, polished off just in time before a dessert of mango delice with berries and chocolate textures for my wife; and almond and croissant baked pudding with vanilla pod ice cream and toffee sauce for me.
And then I wonder why I chose to use the lift instead of the stairs.
The following morning, a traditional all-guns-firing Welsh breakfast in the Wedgwood Suite set us up for the day ahead, with a promenade on the prom as the sun broke through before we headed back on the A55, reminding us just how accessible Llandudno is and how we mustn’t leave it so long before we go there again.