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DESTINATION: WALES

A Hearth of Her Own

A cottage on the coast is a cozy base for a week of wandering and unwinding

June 13, 1999|NANCY J. BAIRD | Nancy J. Baird is a freelance writer in Camano Island, Wash

FISHGUARD, Wales — The Friday afternoon train from Swansea was only two cars, and it was jammed with casually dressed travelers headed for Fishguard and the ferry to Ireland. The people who couldn't find seats were standing on the platform between cars or sprawled on their soft luggage inside the doors.

The young man on the seat beside me was dozing, his backpack on the floor, his head against the window. His meal last night obviously had been generously laced with garlic. The view beyond him out the window looked like something on a picture postcard of rural Wales in September: light rain misting rolling green hills that were dotted with sheep, while a border collie ran inside a fence along the tracks, racing the train.

I'd left London's Paddington Station at 8 that morning, changing trains in Swansea. My destination was the harbor town of Fishguard and a cottage I'd rented nearby for a week of exploring.

The rain had stopped by the time we pulled into Fishguard, but heavy gray clouds hung low over the harbor. The train tracks ended right next to the waiting ferry, and almost all my fellow passengers scurried directly through the station to the dock with the aplomb of regular commuters. The huge, sleek white ship was also loading cars, the line inching forward and trailing for several blocks up the road toward the Upper Town of Fishguard.

I ducked into the tourist information center inside the station to obtain maps and other material, and to ask about finding a taxi. I had rented a car for a week, but since the cottage rental was Saturday to Saturday, I didn't want to pick up the car until the morning. (I find it easier to use train travel to get as near to my destination as possible and arrange for a rental car from there.) I'd booked a room for the night in the Upper Town, a bit of a hike up a steep hill.

The friendly attendant in the information center was helpful about taxi services, and I was interested in the information she was giving a couple trying to decide which part of the Coast Path they might enjoy most. I paid for an armful of reading material, called one of the taxis and was promptly on my way.

Although the destination of boats and trains is designated as Fishguard, or Abergwaun in Welsh, the actual port is Goodwick. Fishguard proper consists of the Upper Town and, over the hill, Lower Town, which has its own bucolic harbor of small boats. (Lower Town was the location of the 1971 film "Under Milk Wood," starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, based on the Dylan Thomas play; Burton and Thomas were Welsh.)

Upper Town was a quaint, well-scrubbed, bustling village of two-story pastel stucco or rock buildings interspersed with well-tended town garden spots; the people looked energetic and industrious. The scene added to my relief at reaching my destination. On the train to Swansea, I had passed many dreary and depressing towns, much like those I had always expected in the Wales of my mind. I had begun to wonder if I'd made a mistake coming to this country. But this area, while not appearing prosperous, looked similar to many tidy and proud little villages I have seen in Western Europe.

My taxi dropped me at the front door of the tiny inn, Three Main Street, which is primarily a restaurant. Upstairs were three guest rooms, each with a private bath. Mine had a queen bed, dazzlingly white and crisply starched cotton sheets, a fluffy duvet and a view out the front.

Three Main Street's dining room is small but well regarded, and I happily tucked into what I thought would be a light vegetarian supper: brioche with red peppers, mushrooms and artichokes. However, it came with three side dishes--snow peas and roasted potatoes, scalloped fennel and carrot-celeriac puree--that were too delicious not to finish. I could hardly turn down the dessert of creme bru^lee, either. I went up to my room dazzled.

The next morning the sun was making various appearances, and I was able to get out and familiarize myself with the layout of the town. The bookstore right down the street from the hotel was rich with booklets and maps of Wales, and I bought an Ordnance Survey map of the area. With its detail of every footpath and lane, it turned out to be the most valuable guide I had for exploring the countryside.

The proprietor of the bookstore was so eager to help, and spoke with the most wonderfully melodious English accent, that I returned several times during the week just to hear him talk.

Scenic outlooks at various places in the Upper Town provided me with beautiful views down to the Gwaun Valley on the south and the Goodwick and Lower Town harbors to the north, before the car agency picked me up.

Tourism is the main industry in this part of Wales, Pembrokeshire. It's a beautiful, unspoiled region of tiny villages and farms, venerable ruins and numerous sites of ancient habitation going back 4,000 to 5,000 years.

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