Slap bang in the middle of Snowdonia this is the heart of the national park. Rugged mountains on three sides and sandy beaches along the shore. Slate from Blaenau was the cutting edge of lightweight, roofing technology - grey gold. For years it came down by packhorse to the quays on the Afon Dwyryd and was rowed out on the tide past Portmeirion to waiting ships.
Victorian ingenuity marks the mountain with what look like enormous ski jumps which pairs of tramways operated with the weight of a downhill wagon hauling an empty one back up. These connected to the Ffestiniog Railway which opened in 1836 as a gravity train with horses pulling the empty wagons back to Blaenau. The final mile of the railway runs along The Cob, an embankment built by William Madocks to hold back the sea. A natural by-product of this was a deep water port at the northern end, hence Madocks's Port became Porthmadog, where boats and yachts now bob at their moorings.
In the 1860s the railway was modernised to steam and nowadays the area is a popular place to relax or have fun: the walking is superb with everything from upland hikes and long views to evening strolls on the beach as the sun sinks behind a castle into the sea.
Llan Ffestiniog was the original and ancient settlement, rooted deep in Welsh history, whilst Blaenau, which means uplands, is the modern town built during the booming slate industry. Half way down the Vale is Plas Tan y Bwlch - stately home of the Oakeley family, owners of the largest quarry, but now the study centre for the national park. It provides a diverse range of courses from bird watching to harvesting (and frying!) wild mushrooms.
Bull Street, Blaenau Ffestiniog LL41 4HN, Wales, UK