For most of my life, I've travelled in relentless pursuit of the new. I didn't understand travellers who returned to the same destination or stayed Near when they could go Far, opting for dull domestic travel to places like Cornwall when international dazzlers such as Colombia beckoned. I've road-tripped around New Zealand three times but never bothered with Wales. Newness was my drug; I was hooked on the adrenaline hit of culture shock.
But 2020 bent us all into a different shape of traveller, so my big Covid- compliant trip was to Cardigan Bay, in Wales. Even the name Cardigan - an anglicisation of the county Ceredigion - sounded suffocatingly twee, soporifically familiar and stubbornly unexotic to my ears, and although I'd never been to Wales, I was worried it wouldn't be new enough for me.
Within minutes of arriving at our cabin at Penbryn Beach, however, I was in the sea, drenched in newness. The seawater felt different from the saltwater I swim in most mornings in Margate, my adopted hometown on the Kentish coast. This water, the Irish Sea, was softer and silken, less astringently saline than the workaday English Channel I'm used to bathing in. The sand underfoot was fine and shimmered pewter, nothing like the gritty, heavy-duty yellow sands of a daytripper destination like Margate.
Floating in the sea at Penbryn on my first night in Wales, I soaked up this newness gratefully because, after months of lockdown at home, I really, really needed the new.
I dipped my head underwater and emerged to find a whole new world. The cliffs flanking the shoreline were stark, dramatic granite, not flinty, white Kentish chalk. The sign naming the beach bore thrillingly unfamiliar Welsh words, announcing the newness of my location. I dunked under the water over and over again, to wash the journey off, watching interesting strangers gather on the sand at dusk, throwing sticks for dogs and building fires.
My mum and dad stood among them, two of my favourite and most familiar faces - yet faces I hadn't seen for months during lockdown, because they live in Belfast. We'd met here in Cardigan Bay for a week of family camping that would be familiar and comfortable and cosy, but also different, transformative and thrilling all at the same time. Floating in the sea at Penbryn on my first night in Wales, I soaked up this newness gratefully because, after months of lockdown at home, I really, really needed the new.
It felt strange, in a sweet way, to be the one planning a camping holiday for my parents, having grown up on family trips to the Share Discovery Village on Lough Erne in County Fermanagh, and Keycamp holidays in Brittany. I did things in a more 2020 manner, scouring Instagram for inspiration and settling on a week at Fforest, dividing our nights between the three different Fforest locations: farm, coast and town. Fforest's founders, Sian Tucker and James Lynch, had successful careers in textiles/ illustration and design/ architecture respectively. But after living in Shoreditch for 25 years, they took their four young sons to New Zealand for a new way of life.
Eventually, it dawned on Sian and James that much of what they had travelled across the world to find for their family, they already had right on their doorstep - or, to be precise, on Sian's childhood doorstep in west Wales. So they moved back to Britain, bringing with them the fresh eyes and eclectic experiences of worldly travellers. Sian and James soon set about making the old new, and the new old, taking over a historic farmstead and lovingly transforming it into the sort of eco-camp that characterises rural New Zealand. They opened Fforest Farm to guests in 2007, a cluster of yurts, cabins, domes and lodges combining an internationally informed design aesthetic with the sort of homegrown Welsh heritage of which Kiwis can only dream.
Our first two nights are spent at Fforest's coastal site overlooking Penbryn Beach, where we walk the cliffs between its namesake village and the seaside town of Llangrannog and eat fish and chips from The Beach Hut as a sea mist descends upon us. On the way back, we scramble down to the secluded Traeth Bach - locals call it the Secret Beach - at the halfway mark, and I swim in sea and mist. As I'm briskly towelling myself dry, dad points out a pod of dolphins turning somersaults in the sea. There are only six other people on the beach and everyone claps their hands with glee. I know it's facile to make comparisons, but I've been whale-spotting in Kaikoura in New Zealand twice without seeing a single whale. And the 300km Pembrokeshire Coast Path - a 15-day jaunt if you do the entire trail - is now looking just as enticing as the 70km Queen Charlotte Track in the Marlborough Sounds did when I hiked those more exotic headlands a few years back. Wales is making me feel a whole lot better about not being able to fly across the world for the next few months.
We move on to Cardigan town, which, in its shipbuilding prime in the early 1800s, bustled with ropemakers, gasworks, foundries, lime-kilns, timber- yards, sawmills, brickworks, smithies, warehouses, tanneries and malthouses - and had the same number of pubs (a reliable barometer of a port's industrial heft) as Bristol did then. Here, Sian and James have remodelled an old granary warehouse into stylish, faintly Scandinavian-style loft-apartments that overlook the Pizzatipi, Fforest's open-air pizza restaurant beside the River Tei. Mum and I spend a morning trawling the charity shops of Cardigan, which should be high on the list of all vintage lovers. I find a 1960s Welsh- wool cape, 1970s bamboo ornaments as gifts for friends, a stack of old Sibelius records and a slinky 1980s bomber jacket. These charity shops teach me more about Cardigan's social history than any museum could.
Aside from the perennially popular Pizzatipi, which we love so much we go to twice (I'm tearing up my travel rulebook on this trip, remember?), Cardigan's current culinary hit is El Salsa, a Mexican street-food joint in a warehouse parking lot. Here I taste slow-cooked pork tacos that transport me straight back to Tucson and almost make me cry. I was in Arizona in early March 2020, on my way to Austin to cover SXSW, before everything cancelled and changed and crumbled and I had to jump on the final direct flight home. My tacos taste bittersweet for a second, then they just taste fucking delicious.
This week, my dad drives me around like a spoiled teenager, and so we visit cute beaches and towns nearby such as Poppit Sands, Newport and Nevern, but I check that it would be possible to do this trip without a car, travelling by train and taxi. Fforest Farm, our final stay, is just a 45-minute walk from Cardigan town, through a dramatic, fern-strewn gorge that feels like Borneo or Costa Rica, certainly not Wales. Although what did I expect of Wales? What did I not expect of Wales? And why? Admittedly we're blessed with eerily beautiful weather, balmy autumnal sunshine, but this week, west Wales is feeling like a buffet of the best bits of my exotic adventures around the world - adventures that demanded a lot more time, cash and carbon than this one.
This is a long way from the Keycamp holidays of my childhood, but I still get to feel pleasingly feral, falling asleep to the sight of stars, waking up to the dawn streaming through the window panels of the dome and making our coffee outdoors in the bush kitchen.
Fforest Farm is the original site, the Fforest mothership, with a cosy firelit pub where it always feels like December, even in June, and a new "infinity deck" overlooking fields and wetlands, reminiscent of swanky safari lodges that gaze across the Maasai Mara. There's also an on-site shop selling glamping essentials such as Black Bomber cheddar, fresh sourdough, oat milk and organic dark-chocolate mints. I could survive here for a long time. I'm sleeping in a dome tent, which feels palatial, a driftwood chandelier suspended above a bed crafted from reclaimed wood, strewn in handwoven Welsh woollens. As a camper in my soul, this is romance to me, and I'd honeymoon here in a heartbeat. This is a long way from the Keycamp holidays of my childhood, but I still get to feel pleasingly feral, falling asleep to the sight of stars, waking up to the dawn streaming through the window panels of the dome and making our coffee outdoors in the bush kitchen.
Sunday is our final night and we gather with other guests for the weekly Fforest supper, a feast of fresh razor clams with leeks, roast chicken and rosemary potatoes, and gooey brownies. I thank Sian for having us and mention that I think a lot of the best hotels, restaurants and businesses are run by returning locals, ex-wanderers who combine peerless local knowledge and respect for the community with an outsider's perspective and experience. "It's the same with guests, though," she says quietly. "It's the guests that have been around the world that appreciate Fforest the most." Sian's words linger with me, after we say goodnight, as I climb up the hill to Dome One. Perhaps she's right. Perhaps all my international travels haven't ruined homegrown trips for me after all. Perhaps, well, perhaps they've been preparing me for this.
Open throughout the year, self-catering lodges and domes from £100 a night, minimum two-night stay.