How I fell in love with self catering

Accommodation

Posted by Tamara Hinson on 15th November 2021

Fall in love with self catering

Tamara Hinson indulges her weakness for cosy cottages with a visit to Carmarthenshire’s cutest cottage 

As someone admitted fuelled by wanderlust, I couldn’t wait for the world to start opening up. At the same time, when flights ground to a halt in 2020, I vowed to spend the time exploring closer to home. I spent a week hiking up and down the Cumbrian coastline, and a weekend holed up in a rented gatehouse on the edge of a beautiful private estate in Derbyshire. 

My new-found love of not just staycations but self-catering properties – the cosier the better – was here to stay, and a craving for another fix kicked in again in late summer. Travel had become possible again, and after a flurry of back-to-back international work trips (all requiring various swabs, tests and a rainforest’s worth of paperwork), I found myself craving the comfort of a self-catering cottage once more. 

Cariad Cottage

To be honest, it was a bit of a pin-in-the-map job – headlines screamed about crowds flocking to hotspots like Cumbria and the Cotswolds, so my criteria was simple: lots of space, no crowds and a cosy base to retreat to at the end of the day. Cariad Cottage in Cwmdu, on the edge of the Brecon Beacons – a beautiful area of Wales which has somehow avoided the selfie stick-wielding hoards, or perhaps simply has enough space for them not to be an issue – ticked all the boxes.

The Black Mountain hills

A fortnight later, I was twisting my way through Carmarthenshire’s hills, pondering the revelation that nothing takes the edge of a four-hour drive like a spectacular finishing line, and that’s exactly what we found at Cariad Cottage, wedged into the side of a steep valley. In the distance, the jagged peaks of the Black Mountains poked through the mist, towering over the valley floor, with its patchwork of wildflower meadows, sheep-dotted fields and tiny villages. 

Highlights of the beautiful, one-bedroom barn conversion included the gorgeous open-plan kitchen room and lounge area, and the bedroom, where we could doze off beneath a tangle of wooden beams. And of course, all the homely touches added by the owners – something hotel rooms will never have. That evening, we take our mugs of tea out to the garden and watch the swifts dive-bomb through the dusk, listening out for the hoot of owls and the tap of the woodpecker who’s taken up residence in one of the garden’s trees. 

We take our mugs of tea to the garden

Garden terrace

Dragging ourselves away from such a cosy retreat was no mean feat, but this beautiful part of Wales makes a brilliant base for exploring this wonderfully wild chunk of Wales. On the first day, we head over to the National Botanic Garden of Wales, which – dare I say it – makes Kew Gardens look somewhat plain. 

The enormous hothouse is admittedly spectacular, but our favourite finds were discovered on forays through the sprawling grounds: the neat row of greenhouses where green-fingered gurus in lab coats look at ways to preserve Wales’ rarest plants, and the bordered gardens outside, each representing a different Welsh landscape, and each filled with plants from that region, whether it’s the fragrant, wildflowers from Cwm Idwal in Snowdonia, or rare grasses from the nearby Waun Las nature reserve. 

Wales attractions

And during a visit to the garden’s British Bird of Prey Centre, I develop a soft spot for Alan, an enormous eagle who demonstrates his prowess by swooping low over spectators’ heads during a spectacular flying display. 

The pub in the Berkshire village I grew up in is so small that friends would often express disbelief that it wasn’t actually someone’s front room. But that evening we discover that the Cwmdu Inn, a short walk from our cottage, made it look positively palatial. My favourite bit? The framed photograph of Prince Charles stopping by and being presented with a basket woven by a local. Actually, scrap that – the certificate in the upstairs toilet confirming that this Welsh WC is twinned with one in Tasmania is the pièce de résistance. 

The tiny shop next door is just as wonderful. I squeeze my way to the counter and a woman writes down my purchase (two postcards) in a ledger. When I ask where I can buy stamps, she tells me I’ll have to go to the post office – before pointing at a gentleman standing behind a desk wedged into the far corner of the room.

Cute comfy chair

I find myself craving this slower, calmer pace of life – one where we retreat to our cottage after a day of exploring the area’s best bits, one of which is the National Showcaves Centre for Wales. Given my husband’s obsession with caves, it was always highly unlikely I’d leave Wales without at least one foray underground, so I arrive at the attraction with a sense of resigned acceptance. Little did I know that the National Showcaves Centre’s name is somewhat deceptive. It’s not just about caves (more of which later) but about wildlife. 

In the farmyard area, where visitors can wander amongst the animals, I bond with a stumpy-legged goat (sorry, Alan the eagle) who butts my hand when I dare to stop stroking him. There are llamas, sheep and one of the biggest shire horses I’ve come across. There are even dinosaurs, albeit huge animatronic ones which roar and buck and screech. 

National Showcaves Centre for Wales

The realisation that there are three caves is met by joy by my husband and a silent internal groan from me. But South Wales surprises me once more. The first cave, Dan-yr-Ogof, is a narrow subterranean gorge carved out by a river. There are several waterfalls, and one of the most spectacular spots is a huge cavern where a domed roof was sculpted thousands of years ago, when the caves were full of water and thunderous whirlpools scooped out the rock. 

The Cathedral Cave has one of the most stunning collections of straw stalactites (thin, short stalactites) I’ve ever seen, and the Bone Cave (otherwise known as Ogof-yr-Esgyrn) is filled with fascinating exhibits relating to the discoveries made here. 42 skeletons dating back to the Bronze Age have been found, and other discoveries include silver rings, pottery fragments and bronze jewellery. 

Turndown services seem overrated

Serene bedroom detail

The next morning, with no bills to settle or mad dashes to the restaurant to wolf down a pre-departure breakfast (hotel buffets will forever look rather plain after the early morning feasts we prepared with supplies from the local shop), we are able to achieve the impossible – a timely departure which allows us to squeeze in a visit to the Big Pit National Coal Museum before we make for home. We gawp at sky-scraping, perfectly preserved, triffid-like mining machinery and pore over black and white photos of miners and pit ponies.

For me, Cariad Cottage sums up exactly why I fell in love with self-catering. It offers the best of both worlds – a wonderful retreat where the sterility of a hotel has been replaced by a tangible homeliness which makes it impossible not to relax. In summary? Turndown services and chocolates on pillows suddenly seem somewhat overrated.

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Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information at the time of writing, please ensure you check carefully before making any decisions based on the contents within this article.