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No longer the dreary coal-exporting port it was so often depicted as in the 20th century, Cardiff, the capital of Wales, is hot and happening -- one of the most attractive cities of Britain to visit. Cardiff (Caerdydd in Welsh) is a large seaport built on the tidal estuary of the Taff River.

Enriched by the Industrial Revolution, Cardiff declined after World War II with the closing of coal mines, railroads, and factories. The old industrial city is now a progressive, inviting modern port, as exemplified by the waterfront along Cardiff Bay. Here you'll find renewal at its best, with restaurants, hotels, and a hands-on exhibit, Techniquest.

Cardiff can be your launching pad for the treasures of South Wales, which has turned a bright, new face to the world and is no longer known for its depressing stories of slag heaps, dreary cottages, and denuded hillsides that were once proudly forested.

In fact, South Wales is imbued with some of the great beauty spots of Britain: Brecon Beacons National Park, 835 sq. km (519 sq. miles) of beauty and pleasure grounds with nature reserves; Gower Peninsula, an area of outstanding natural beauty stretching for 23km (14 miles) from the Mumbles to Worms Head in the West; and, finally, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, one of the smallest national parks of Britain (only 362 sq. km/225 sq. miles) but an area acclaimed for its coastal scenery.

On the western side of Cardiff, the city of Swansea on Swansea Bay of the Bristol Channel seems a natural starting place for a visit to southwest Wales. After a sojourn in the vicinity of the port city, the beautiful Gower Peninsula, Swansea's neighbor, draws you westward. You can explore where Dylan Thomas, the country's outstanding 20th-century poet, was born, and then move on to the west to Laugharne, where the poet lived, wrote, and is buried.

Swansea is on the western edge of West Glamorgan County. When the counties of Wales were realigned and consolidated in 1973, Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire, familiar names in Welsh history, became part of Dyfed County, an even older designation for the area they occupy. In this southwestern corner of the country, you'll be introduced to the land of St. David and Celtic crosses, of craggy coastlines, and the cromlechs marking the burial places of prehistoric humans.

In addition to Swansea, you'll find two more excellent bases outside Cardiff -- Tenby, one of the most famous coastal resorts of Wales, its charm and character dating from the Middle Ages, plus St. Davids, a tiny cathedral city, birthplace of the patron saint of Wales.

Two major attractions that you may want to seek out even on a rushed visit are Pembroke Castle, oldest castle in west Wales and seat of the earls of Pembroke; and Tintern Abbey, in the Wye Valley, founded in 1131, once one of the richest and most important monastic houses of Wales.

Pembrokeshire

This county boasts Britain's smallest national park, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. It's unique in that it extends over cliff and beaches, whereas most parks encompass mountains or hill country. The coastline takes in 290km (180 miles) of sheer rugged beauty, with towering cliffs and turbulent waters. Tenby is the chief resort for exploring the park, but Pembroke and St. Davids also make worthy stopovers.

North Wales: The Peaks of Snowdonia

North Wales is a rewarding target for those willing to seek it out. Distinctly different from England, it is linguistically and culturally different from most of Britain and is known for its beauty spots, a land of mountains and lakes interspersed with castles. The most powerful of the Welsh princes held sway here, and the residents remain staunchly nationalistic. British families flock to the coastal resorts on holidays, especially in July and August, whereas others prefer to seek out the footpaths of Snowdonia National Park.

Mountain peaks and steep wooded slopes, spectacular estuaries and rugged cliffs brooding over secluded coves, lakes, little rivers, and valleys with tiny towns looking as if they were carved out of granite -- all these join to make up Snowdonia National Park. The park, with slate mines, moors, heavy forests, mountain lakes, grain fields, pastures, swift-moving rivers, and sandy beaches, takes its name from Snowdon, at 1,085m (3,560 ft.) the highest peak in Wales and England. Most of the Snowdonia area is in the County of Gwynedd, once the ancient Welsh kingdom of that name. Its prince, Owen ap Gwynedd, never agreed to let himself be reduced to the status of baron under the English kings. Because his terrain was mountainous and wild, it helped him stave off an invasion by forces accustomed to fighting on flat land.

The rocky, majestic crags of Snowdonia National Park are rivaled by the mighty walls and soaring towers of Caernarfon Castle, the best example of castle building in medieval Wales. Caernarfon (formerly spelled Caernarvon) and its neighbors, Anglesey and the Lleyn Peninsula, reaching out from its northwest and west, are all part of the County of Gwynedd. Legends of holy islands and druidic mysteries flourished among the Celtic peoples who lived in this area in long-ago centuries.

Many of the native-born people of this region are of blood stock little changed over the centuries. Most are bilingual, with English as their second tongue, and signs are usually in both languages.

The County of Clwyd, in northeastern Wales, has miles of sandy beaches along its north coast; highland ranges, peat bogs, and deep valleys lush with greenery in the center; coal country to the southeast; and industry, agriculture, and sheep farming in the section nearest the estuary of the River Dee and the English border. What is now Clwyd (by order of Parliament, since 1973) used to be Denbighshire, and before that, Flintshire.