The North Wales village of dreams
NORTH Wales was voted by travel guide Lonely Planet last month as the No.4 region to visit in the world during 2017. This ancient land of beautiful beaches and majestic mountains has a fascinating culture, with its own language dating back 4000 years.
The country has been praised for its host of new adventure attractions, such as Surf Snowdonia, which is an inland surfing lake described as "the most headline-stealing example of the region's reinvention".
But it was in search of a more mysterious and eccentric adventure that we had chosen a journey to the Welsh village of Portmeirion. A much-travelled Cairns journo, who collects passport stamps the way hoons pick up speeding tickets, had told me I must visit.
And so it was that my mum and I found ourselves driving down a tree-lined drive at dawn. Despite the gloriously bright October day, we travelled in semi-twilight under an oppressive dark canopy of trees. Mum, so far, was unimpressed.
"Where's the sea then? Is it going to be just a lot of trees and some houses? This will only take a couple of hours and then what will we do?" she said.
"Give it time," I urged.
"Just wait and see."
Car parked, we passed through the old toll gate and walked onwards for a few minutes to the Baroque-styled architecture of the Gate House. There was a perceivable sense of space and colour as we passed through and then, bam, it almost floored me: we were suddenly bathed in the light of an autumn morning with, below us, the Dyrwyd and Glaslyn estuaries stretching out on vast sand flats and views of Harlech, round to Borth-y-Gest and beyond.
I heard mum gasp in awe at the brilliance of such a divine view. She was quiet, reverential, as she surveyed the landscape.
"This is amazing. How beautiful," she whispered.
Portmeirion village, once dubbed by The Times of London as the "last folly of the Western world", was conceived by eccentric architect Clough Williams-Ellis. It was built between 1925 and 1976.
Designed in Italianate style, it was William-Ellis's iconoclastic vision of how planned development should enhance, rather than destroy, the natural environment.
The village has a wildly varied collection of candy-coloured buildings dotted about a steep hillside that winds down to the hotel at the water's edge.
Instantly, you are transported to sunny Mediterranean landscapes. It is a grand design, indeed.
The unique micro-climate there allows for the growth of swaying palm trees, callistemon (bottlebrush), and swathes of hydrangea and rhododendron in 24ha of gardens and forests.
The architecture at Portmeirion is a mass of anachronisms. Greek gods rub shoulders with the gilded figures of Burmese dancers and pagan deities with golden buddhas, while modest stucco bungalows sit alongside balustraded balconies and Corinthian columns. Recognised today as one of the UK's first conservationists, Williams-Ellis, who died in 1978, was a master of illusion and humour.
You will be confused, delighted and deceived by his use of trompe l'oeil - the false windows and shutters painted on many of the buildings.
Thousands of years of architectural design have been combined, with symmetry and continuity cast aside, in this highly entertaining and dreamy setting. For this reason, writers, artists and musicians have been drawn here. Noel Coward wrote his comedy Blithe Spirit at Portmeirion and it was where George Harrison celebrated his 50th birthday.
Other visitors have included Beatles manager Brian Epstein, Edward VIII, Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck, Paul McCartney and H.G. Wells.
UK rockers Primal Scream and New Order played Portmeirion's No.6 Festival in 2012 and TV shows Dr Who and Cold Feet were filmed here.
But it is the '60s Brit cult TV show The Prisoner that showcased Portmeirion's idiosyncrasies so brilliantly, addressing issues of identity, freedom, democracy, and education. The Prisoner is a Kafkaesque war of attrition between faceless authoritarian forces and its most strong-willed inmate, No. 6, who struggles ceaselessly to assert his individuality while plotting his escape.
All-day entry into Portmeirion is about $18 (cheaper online rate). Explore the peninsula, gardens and woodlands and take advantage of the free guided tour, historic film and complementary train ride. As with any good village, there are restaurants, cafes and licensed hotels in which to sit back and revel in the surroundings.
For those who would like to stay a little longer, there are 14 self-catering cottages, ranging in size from two-bedroom apartments to five-bedroom houses. Twelve are located within the village and two within the grounds just outside the village itself.
Portmeirion village deserves a special place in the hearts of those who cherish atmosphere and magic. Here, the natural world and man's cunning ability to shape it combine with colour and style in an oasis of peace and fun that sits comfortably among what must be some of the finest scenery in Britain.