Tuesday 21 May 2019

Italy? No, this gobsmackingly gorgeous village is in North Wales

After taking the boat to Holyhead, Tom Sweeney is enchanted by the fairytale village of Portmeirion

Portmeirion village
Portmeirion village
Stena Adventurer
Portmeirion Hotel
Zip line in Snowdonia
Portmeirion
Menai Bridge
Patrick McGoohan, who starred in The Prisoner

Tom Sweeney

I've changed my mind about where I'm going to live when I win the EuroMillions.

Portofino, south-east of Genoa on the Italian Riviera, had long been a front-runner, but Portmeirion, south-east of Porthmadog on the Dwyryd estuary, has just pipped it at the post.

It's a gobsmackingly gorgeous tourist village in the north Wales parish of Penrhyndeudraeth, where supporters of the local church league rugby team are famed for their chant: "Give us a P, give us an E, give us an N - ah, here, give us a break."

Older readers will remember Portmeirion as the setting for the 1960s cult TV series The Prisoner, starring Irish actor Patrick McGoohan. He was born in New York in 1928, but his parents returned to their native Mullaghmore, Co Leitrim, when he was a baby.

The Prisoner, which ran for 17 episodes, tells the story of a disaffected agent, who tries to quit the Secret Service but is knocked out with sleeping gas and wakes up in a picturesque, but sinister, police state called The Village.

Known only as Number Six - which delighted John Player & Sons who, at the time, produced the top-selling cigarette of the same name - McGoohan's character is frequently chased around by a huge white weather balloon and subjected to mind-control experiments.

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Portmeirion

It's very strange, but strangest of all, he spends every waking moment trying to escape. When I stayed in Portmeirion last week, escape was the last thing on my mind - I nearly had to be dragged screaming from the place to catch the Stena Adventurer back to Dublin.

If this is someone's idea of a prison, I'll happily return tomorrow to begin a life sentence.

Portmeirion, which was built between 1925 and 1976, was designed by visionary architect Clough Williams-Ellis, who was a bit eccentric - he owned nine identical tweed jackets and plus-fours, so he wouldn't have to waste valuable time every morning wondering what to wear.

He had much more important things to be doing, like creating a fairy-tale village that just happens to be easily accessible by boat and car from Dublin.

Until his dying day in 1978 (he was 94), Williams-Ellis always denied he had copied Portofino, saying instead that his many visits there had inspired him. We can only take him at his word, but the resemblance is remarkable.

Perched on a wooded promontory in Tremadog Bay, and with a microclimate that sees subtropical plants and palm trees thrive, it really could be Italy - until you hear that lovely Welsh lilt from the busy tour guides.

Portmeirion gets nearly 250,000 visitors every year, but when the last day-trippers leave at 7.30pm, overnight guests have the place to themselves.

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Patrick McGoohan, who starred in The Prisoner

And what a place it is, with its collection of weird and wonderful buildings, many of which have provided accommodation for big names, including Noel Coward, who wrote Blithe Spirit here in 1941, Ingrid Bergman, George Harrison and a man who needs no introduction, King Zog of Albania.

Unsurprisingly, the village hosts two or three weddings a week as couples take advantage of the unique surroundings for enviable photos.

Williams-Ellis' ashes were stored away for 20 years after his death, but on New Year's Eve 1998, they were decanted into a rocket that was sent skywards during a fireworks display over Portmeirion, as per his wishes.

There's no record of what height or speed the rocket reached, but it couldn't have been anywhere near as high or as fast as I went during a side trip to Penrhyn Quarry, near Bangor, for a go on Velocity 2, the world's scariest and Europe's longest zip line.

The cable is 1,555 metres long. You start from 150 metres up the side of a mountain and are soon hurtling head-first at 160kph over a lake.

Don't be concerned that you aren't provided with a life jacket - if the unthinkable happens, it's a parachute you'll need.

The experience sounds expensive at £65 (€75) for a minute-and-a-half on weekdays - at weekends, it costs up to £99 (€115) - but the adrenaline rush is worth every cent. Apparently, you can see the Isle of Man from up there, but that's not easy when your life is flashing before your eyes (zipworld.co.uk).

Only slightly less exciting - and another side trip from Portmeirion - is a high-speed rigid inflatable boat (RIB) safari along the Menai Strait that separates Anglesey from the Welsh mainland.

Brothers Charles and Christian Harris are the instantly likeable and knowledgeable skippers on these waterborne adventures (ribride.co.uk) that bounce along at up to 80kph.

If you're lucky, hedge witch, wild plant healer, forager and cook Jules Cooper will be on board with a basket full of vegetarian goodies for a picnic on the beach or an island (hedgewitch.wales).

Factfile: How to do it

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Stena Adventurer

Tom's visit was organised by Stena Line, Visit Wales and north Wales-based Adventure Tours UK, which specialises in outdoor activities for private and corporate groups (adventuretoursuk.com).

ITV Wales' six-part series, The Village, goes behind the scenes over the course of a year in Portmeirion. For more information, see itv.com/walesprogrammes

Get there

Stena Line has four daily sailings from Dublin to Holyhead, at 2.15am, 8.10am, 2.50pm and 8.40pm. Departures from Holyhead are at 2.30am, 8.55pm, 2pm and 8.30pm. Crossings vary from 3hrs 15mins to 3hrs 40mins.

Upgrade to travel in the Stena Plus lounge from €18 per person (a bargain), including complimentary drinks, snacks, newspapers and magazines, exclusive menu, waiter service and free Wi-Fi. See the Low Fares Finder at stenaline.ie

Where to stay

It's only a 70-minute drive from Holyhead to Portmeirion, where guests can stay in the four-star, 14-room hotel with a restaurant and its own low-tide beach; the four-star Castell Deud- raeth, with 11 rooms and suites and a restaurant; a serviced village room (there are 32); or one of 13 self-catering village cottages.

Sample summer short break offer (valid June 4 to July 23): three nights' accommodation, bottle of Prosecco in your room on arrival, three-course dinner in the hotel or Castell, full Welsh breakfast each morning, free entry to the village and allocated parking, from £142pps (€165) per night. See portmeirion.wales

For more info, see visitwales.com.

NB: This feature originally appeared in The Herald.

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