You know if there’s a southwesterly blowing when you’re standing at South Stack. The promontory at the west end of Anglesey, Britain’s fifth largest island, pokes into the Irish Sea as if to taunt onshore winds. Other landmasses – Scotland, Ireland, the Pembrokeshire peninsula – provide a buffer when the weather comes from different compass points; but there’s no protection when Atlantic winds whip in from the southwest. Below me, rocky cliffs are being pounded by the swell, with every impact sending sea-spray high into the air.
Above the splash zone, hundreds of seabirds are sitting tight on cliffside ledges, dutifully incubating eggs. Guillemots and razorbills – diffident flyers at the best of times – are struggling to negotiate the gusts to reach their nests, looping round to try again after each aborted attempt. Conditions are clearly ideal for neither birds nor the people who’ve come to admire them. “Windswept and interesting” is how the visitor centre staff described the day. They’d also pointed out where I might spot South Stack’s handful of puffins, but there’s no hope of using binoculars for a closer look. If I try in such blustery weather, I’ll end up with two black eyes.
Even on a day like this though, Anglesey’s coastline shines. Beyond the raw beauty of South Stack’s lighthouse, defying the sea on its wave-battered islet, the clifftop vegetation is ablaze with wildflowers. Pink thrift bounces in the breeze above pincushions of leaves, while grassy patches are enlivened with sky-blue squill and the purple puffballs of sheep’s bit. It’s too windy to appreciate the bright yellow gorse flowers’ coconut fragrance, but they certainly add to the magic of the scene. It’s no wonder that almost the whole of Anglesey’s coast is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I’m here to experience chunks of it on an active mini-break.
Wales isn’t short on natural beauty, but while the likes of the Gower and Snowdonia draw crowds, things are generally quieter on Anglesey. This means that even on summer weekends, parts of the Isle of Anglesey Coastal Path retain their solitude. At 125 miles long, it passes through dunes, heaths, sandy beaches, rolling farmland and South Stack’s cliffs, offering seaside walks aplenty – and a fair few other adventures besides.
The same south-westerly, though weaker, is still barrelling in next morning, which scuppers any plans to try coasteering. But though it’s too rough to scramble and leap across sea-washed rocky headlands, Anglesey Outdoors (angleseyoutdoors.com) offers an alternative.
“We call this our cliffhanger experience,” explains Steve, the instructor, as he rigs a Tyrolean rope bridge across a zawn (sea-filled fissure) on the cliffs near Porth Darfach, not far from South Stack. Equipped with safety harness and helmet, I’m attached to the rope and encouraged to step into the abyss, whereupon I slide to the rope’s centre point to hang above the surf before pulling myself hand-over-hand to reach the other side. It’s great fun. By my third go, I’ve got the hang of it. “If you make it more of a spring than a step, you can slide all the way across,” suggests Steve – so I take the leap of faith. It’s an exhilarating start to the day.
Afterwards, we abseil down a 30-metre cliff, then pause to soak up the scenery where we would have coasteered had conditions been calmer. With waves battering the cliffs and throwing up spray, it’s certainly dramatic. Steve points out spots from which we’d have jumped; with names like Washing Machine and Big Death, perhaps missing out was a lucky escape.
I spend the afternoon hiking the coast path: less adventurous perhaps, but extremely enjoyable. Keen to walk only the most scenic bits and travel between them by taxi or bus, I’ve booked my whole trip through Adventure Tours UK (adventuretoursuk.com), who’ve handled everything from hotel reservations to pickups and luggage transfers. From Porth Darfach, I cab it to Aberffraw to walk a section of path that weaves between coves and a pastoral hinterland peppered with isolated cottages.
On one empty beach, I scavenge the tideline for sponges, shells and a mermaid’s purse; then later, from the cliffs, I spy a lone grey seal. The route ends on a sandy strand backed by dunes swathed in grasses that wave in the breeze. This is Rhosneigr, a beach town with surfer vibes and the very lovely Sandy Mount House (sandymounthouse.co.uk), a restaurant with rooms in a clapboard building that looks like it’s borrowed from New England.
I follow an even lovelier route the next day at Newborough Warren. Woodlands where red squirrels dwell are criss-crossed by paths leading to a sandy beach with views across the water to Snowdonia. By sheer good fortune, I’ve arrived at low tide and can access Llanddwyn Island on foot; its lighthouse and abbey ruins are spectacular in the sunshine.
There’s no time to linger, however: I’ve an appointment to keep. A pre-booked taxi whisks me to Menai Bridge for a paddleboarding session on the strait that separates Anglesey from the mainland (psychedpaddleboarding.com). With the almost 200-year-old Menai Bridge as a backdrop, we paddle along the strait admiring oaks growing down to the waterline and noting how bladder wrack drapes over low-tide rocks like drips of candle wax. Slow-paced and relaxed, the experience very much pulls me into the present – especially so when I lose my balance and fall face-first in the brine.
I round off my Anglesey adventure with another stab at seeing puffins. In far calmer conditions than back at South Stack, I join a group boarding a high-speed RIB for a trip to aptly named Puffin Island, where seals and occasional dolphins add to the sense of a seaside safari. With the motorboat joining the paddleboards, ropes and my own two feet that I’ve used to explore, this island is certainly action-packed – no matter which way the wind blows.
How to do it
Avanti West Coast (avantiwestcoast.co.uk) runs direct trains to Anglesey from London, Crewe and elsewhere.
Adventure Tours UK (adventuretoursuk.com) can tailor-make Anglesey trips as active (or otherwise) as desired; or join a week-long Discovery North Wales small-group tour (with 3 nights in Anglesey) from £1,165pp.
More information at visitwales.com