By Abbey Stirling
According to my audacious climbing instructor the scenery in Snowdonia, Wales, was spectacular. But I couldn’t look down.
The snow-capped peaks and misty basin of Cwm Idwal’s hanging valley might have been caked in pink icing and sprinkled with chocolate hail for all I cared. I just wanted my two feet firmly planted on its verdant ground.
Three hundred feet up and with three hundred feet to go, I began to wonder why I – a height-fearing, laptop-worshipping urbanite – had left the luxury of my four-star hotel to come to a rock climber’s playground nicknamed Devil’s Kitchen (so called because of an ominous swirling plume seen to circle above Llyn Idwal Lake).
The area, in north Wales’ Snowdonia district, is steeped in sinister history surrounding dead princes and ogres who killed kings to make cloaks out of their beards. Fascinating stuff, but knowledge of such legend did little to relieve my all-engulfing terror.
A novice climber, the sport for me – until that moment – had meant less dicing with death under Mother Nature’s thumb, and more sauntering about sweaty London climbing centres and Bristol bouldering walls, gazing at topless men in harnesses.
But on that rock I was exposed only to the harsh elements of winter, led by a hardened bloke with an obvious death wish.
As a freak gust of wind threatened to wipe me off the face of the earth, I reflected on my last moment of unadulterated happiness: indulging, that morning, in a full-body aromatherapy massage at the Quay Hotel and Spa in nearby Deganwy, a coastal retreat set in the Welsh waterside overlooking the UNESCO World Heritage site of Conwy castle.
I remembered comfort, warmth and dry – all of which were now spread as thinly as my confidence. I needed to make a decision: I could clamber about these crags all day getting cold and cranky, or I could focus my energy on getting back to the hotel bar. It was an absolute no-brainer.
Fright…fight or flight
So with that single-mindedness I fought, fell, scrambled, slipped, cursed and cried my way across frozen waterfalls and jagged slabs, with more determination than the fiercest athlete, until I reached that final feat.
There’s no doubt the area is one of enchanting beauty, and from the safety of that secure plateau I finally perched and appreciated the magnificently moody landscape before me: dark, brooding cliffs – dramatically sculptured by the Ice Age – dusted with snow and towering over the brown, barren hills framing the menacing black lake far below.
According to the Radio Times, Cwm Idwal is ranked the seventh greatest natural wonder in Britain. If, like me, you’re a Londoner whose utmost daily challenge is fighting for a seat on the Tube, then climbing Snowdonia’s peaks may seem extreme. But beholding such ecological beauty made all of the bruises on my body worthwhile.
Our return to the Quay Hotel couldn’t have come sooner. The 20-minute drive, via Betws-y-coed and a charming hillside pub with an open fire, saw us arrive in Deganwy.Back on safe ground
First impressions of the hotel can be somewhat deceiving. Set in a modern development of pastel town houses with pristine lawns, it felt more like a Desperate Housewives set (sans sun and swamped by a giant car park) than the deluxe beach resort we’d been expecting.
But any disappointment by the modest exterior was soon quashed by the warm hospitality that greeted us inside.
We were welcomed on first arrival (the day prior) by a cheeky porter named John. En route to the hotel room carrying our bags from reception, he gave us a fascinating account of his former life as wrestler ‘Dave Duran’, and then proceeded to entertain us with YouTube clips from his ‘80s heydays.
What a positive effect friendly hospitality can have on your stay; at the Quay it came in abundance.
Our room came equipped with all of the modern comforts you’d expect from a hotel of this calibre: flat screen TV, wireless, large crinkle-free beds covered in cushions, bathrobes, light dimmers, vigorous shower pressure and – most importantly for two nomadic ladies – a hairdryer.
There was also a captivating view across the quay of the castle and Conwy’s fishing village (where you can visit Britain’s smallest house, just a 30 minute walk away).
The room’s décor was not so much dated (the hotel only opened two years ago), just not to my taste. There was a lime green seascape on the wall that looked like one of those generic prints you buy at Ikea, and a trouser press that I can’t imagine anyone under 70 would use.
But it was charmingly unpretentious and understated, and provided us with a clean and comfortable place for quiet repose after a day being beaten by the elements.
Room with a Vue
Unsurprisingly the upstairs restaurant – appropriately name Vue – boasted the best views in the house. Seated by the window with direct sight of the castle, my friend and I indulged in a three-course, culinary marathon – our appetites appropriately whet from the day’s events.
It would be fair to say that the service was pretty scatty on the night we visited Vue, which is surprising really as it wasn’t especially busy. We were asked three times by three different waiters within the space of three minutes if we’d like drinks. But I guess it’s better than being ignored.
Although our sides of vegetables were disappointingly soggy, the pan fried Anglesey scallops were plump and delightfully succulent, complemented perfectly by crushed peas and cauliflower puree.
Owing to its locality, seafood is something of a specialty in these parts, as the halibut main course with leeks, Conwy mussels, bacon and potato chowder testified; the fish was as white, fleshy and flaky as it should be.
Thankfully the atmosphere was more relaxed than its staff. With cream – slightly sterile – walls, neat tablecloths, square hanging lights, marine paintings and an interesting sail centrepiece, the dining room better suited the morning set-up when well-rested guests emerged for the hearty breakfast buffet the hotel provided.
A chocolate theme was prevalent in the spa; a nod perhaps to it being an area of indulgences. The waiting room featured your prerequisite candles and water features, the scent of burning oils and the hum of birdsong.
My friend treated herself to a bottle of the Espa house massage oil that had been used in our soothing aromatherapy massages: a rejuvenating essence of clove buds, rosemary, peppermint, eucalyptus, Indian bay and lavender – ideal for muscular tension and aching joints after a hard day climbing rocks.
Downstairs I was transported to a slightly more energetic scene at the gym, pool, sauna, steam room and hydro pool which suitably revitalized me before the long journey home.
Farewell fair Wales
The Quay Hotel and Spa provides the perfect base from which to explore the Snowdonia region’s unspoiled landscape, from its rugged Welsh cliffs to the quiet sandy beaches.
This is a unique area of eerie beauty with immense mountain ranges, fascinating rock formations, untouched coastline, medieval castles and warm Welsh hospitality.
The journey for me was not just one of physical endurance, but of personal triumph. On climbing one of Snowdonia’s peaks I faced my greatest fear, and as I left the tranquillity of Wales I took with me not only a great respect for nature, but a profound respect for myself.
The Quay Hotel has a number of spa treatments and offers. Please see their website for prices: www.quayhotel.com
The Quay Hotel and Spa
North Wales LL31 9DJ
Telephone: +44 (0) 1492 564 100
Fax: +44 (0) 1492 564 115
Email: [email protected]
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