Bike rides along the beach, fairy-tale castle ruins and lunch with the Grufallo – it can all be packed into a short break, says Kirsty Masterman.
Gruffalo trails, fairy gardens, giant bouncing pillows, castles, dragons and glistening coins… You’d be forgiven for thinking we were on the set of a children’s adventure TV show. But no – me, my husband Tom and our 4-year-old daughter Jessica have travelled to the Welsh Valleys for a budget break.
Pontyclun is a vibrant village in south Wales, 13 miles north-west of Cardiff. With impressive castles, outstanding coastlines and beaches galore within a short drive, it provides the perfect base for our family getaway.
Eager to squeeze everything into a few days, we set off early on a bike ride. Our first port of call is Porthcawl, a small town set upon one of the largest sand dune ranges in Europe. We pick up our bikes and bike buggy from Porthcawl Bike Hire (porthcawlbikehire.co.uk; bikes £15, tow buggy £6), before heading off on what I assume will be a gentle cruise along the stunning Welsh coast, taking in the glorious sandy beaches.
How wrong I am! “Faster mummy, faster!” screams our little thrill-seeker, until we stop – exhausted – for a spot of rock-pooling and a picnic lunch, hoping to regain some strength for our next adventure – sand-dune sledging!
Just 15 minutes’ inland, the quiet Welsh village of Merthyr Mawr is home to Europe’s biggest sand dune, aptly named ‘The Big Dipper’. At 200ft high, it sits in what is often referred to as ‘The South Wales Sahara’.
The walk to the top is certainly a challenge, particularly on a hot day, so taking plenty of water is advisable. But any effort involved seems worthwhile when we reach the summit, with spectacular views as far as the eye can see. I take a moment to enjoy my surroundings, before tackling the more daunting prospect of boarding my sledge for a thrilling descent!
The following day, we decide to take it easy with a trip to Caerphilly Castle (adults £8.50, under-5s free). One of Europe’s biggest and best medieval fortresses, this is everything a small child thinks of when you mention the word “castle” to them; rather than a pile of old ruins, it’s a majestic, sprawling, magical place where adventure awaits around every corner.
Our final destination and, for us, the best value, is Mountain View Ranch (mountainviewranch.co.uk; midweek £4, weekend £6, under 2s free). Set amongst 100 acres, with attractions including a giant jumping pillow, fairy forest and a Grufallo Trail, it easily provides enough entertainment for an enchanting day out. Running wild in the great outdoors is what kids love to do the most – especially if there’s a chance of a bumping into the Gruffalo, or one or two of his friends!
Where can you stay?
We make our base Lanelay Hall, a former Victorian mansion situated at the base of a green-sloped mountain locally known as The Smaelwg. This grand and somewhat understated hotel conceals a contemporary and luxurious interior, with 17 individually-styled rooms. On our first evening, we order monkfish and ‘grown-up fish fingers’ in Lanelay’s spacious yet intimate dining room. Breakfast also turns out to be a great experience in itself, and a particular highlight for Jessica – the fresh croissants certainly get her out of bed in the mornings! Family rooms from £119 per night, with breakfast.
Where can you eat?
This family-run bistro along Pontyclun’s vibrant high street is certainly a popular choice. Despite how busy it gets – even on a weekday evening – the service and quality is in no way compromised. The children’s menu is exceptionally varied. Main dishes start from a reasonable £10.95.
This AA Award-winning brasserie and cocktail lounge is one of south Wales’ best-loved independent restaurants, serving up a wide variety of dishes. The early dinner menu is ideal for families, and the atmosphere of the place makes it feel like a ‘posh meal out’ for a very reasonable price. Early bird deals are available Tuesday-Thursday, 5-7pm and Friday, 5-6.30pm.
Where can you shop?
The Potting Shed in County Timbers is jam-packed with garden gifts, vintage homeware and traditional toys. If it had been a little closer to Christmas (and if we had more room in the car!), we would easily have been able to purchase all of our gifts there and then.
How to get there
For more information on the region, visit The Valleys Tourism Partnership (www.thevalleys.co.uk).