The road twists as it climbs, cutting through what seemed like endless, rolling oceans of green hills and valleys. In places, trees arch over the road, the dark, green tunnel broken by the occasional shaft of golden light.
Every bend in the road feels like an advert for a car company that’s trying to evoke the spirit of adventure, and with good reason. Over the next few days I’ll be driving on many of these roads searching for adrenaline fuelled excitement hidden in this country.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that the country in question was New Zealand, but it’s somewhere a lot closer to home. I’m heading to meet up with snowboarder Jamie Nicholls and freestyle mountain biker Sam Pilgrim to discover what Wales has to offer that will spike the heart rate of an Olympian and a former FMB world Champion.
We meet at the National Whitewater Centre in Bala. It’s one of the UK’s leading facilities for the most adventurous of water sports. We don wetsuits and, accompanied by guides Sam and George, take the short ride to what seems like an empty field, but what turns out to be the entrance to a gorge.
A gentle looking river suddenly turns into a battle between roaring water and gnarled rocks. This isn’t your average slip-n-slide. Led by our guides, Sam, Jamie, and I start making our way down the rushing water. It feels like an adventure of Indiana Jones proportions, only we’ve swapped fedoras for neoprene booties.
For the next couple of hours, we slide down natural stone chutes, bomb into dive-pools, and only occasionally fall unceremoniously. The finale of the canyon is a zipline off a cascading waterfall. Our collective smiles couldn’t be wider, as the calm, sun drenched lake below contrasts the riotous, watery drop. One-by-one we fire down the line into the water below, charged with the kind of energy only an adventure like this can give you.
"It feels like an adventure of Indiana Jones proportions, only we’ve swapped fedoras for neoprene booties"
That evening we head north to Caer Rhun Hall. This former accountancy school, built in the style of a Victorian mansion, is now a hotel set in the Conwy countryside. Just a few minutes drive from Surf Snowdonia, it makes an amazing option should you want a significant upgrade from the glamping pods on offer at the inland surfing facility.
The next morning we’re back on the road, driving to Llyn Padarn. In the shadow of Snowdon, and with the late summer sun winning the battle with the clouds, the three of us joined Sian Sykes from Psyched Paddleboarding.
It’s my first time SUPing but, thankfully, Sian’s calming influence is matched by the stillness of the water. Even so, it’s not long before I take an unplanned dip in the lake which, even in a wetsuit, is cold enough to take my breath away.
With the grace of a bulldog in a ball pit, I clamber back onto the SUP board, find my way to my feet where, suddenly, I stop. The sheer beauty of where I am hits me square in the face. On a normal Thursday morning, I’d be filling in spreadsheets, or navigating angry emails from the boss, but I was deep in the heart of Wales, sunk in the green hills, sitting on a peaceful lake with the sun on my back. Oh, to call this the office.
"Changed into red boiler suits, looking like a strange Slipknot tribute band, the boys head to the top station"
Filled with what I’m sure some people would call ‘zen’, we’re back on the road and heading towards a working slate quarry. It may sound an unusual destination, but it’s the home to one of three Zip World locations in Wales.
Sending riders hooning down zip lines at up to 100mph, Zip World has won global acclaim since opening in 2013. Changed into red boiler suits, looking like a strange Slipknot tribute band, the boys head to the top station. Despite the fact that both Jamie and Sam have hurtled down many a ferocious mountain descent, the nerves were obvious, if endearing.
Flying horizontally, headfirst down the zipline is as close to sky-diving as you’ll get while still being (kind of) connected with terra firma. The purple mountains of slate below suddenly turn into a brilliant turquoise lake - the kind of colour that’s normally reserved for postcards from the Caribbean. It gives the ride an even more surreal edge.
Suddenly, what sounds like a laser gun being fired echoes through the valley as the break at the end of the line slows the riders down. As the sound dies down, the hollers and whoops from the riders became audible. “That’s epic!” beams Nicholls. “Such a fun experience”.
Adrenaline peaked, we head for the serenity of The Caerwylan Hotel in the coastal town of Criccieth. It’s the epitome of the classic British seaside village, packed with charm, yet devoid of the soulless clatter of arcade machines and neon lights. That evening we make our way to the Castle Inn; a local pub that has the aesthetics of an old-world boozer, but with the progressive menu of the most modern inner-city restaurant. It feels like the perfect allegory for Criccieth itself.
On our final day in Wales, we are greeted by blue skies and warm sunshine, filling the bay in Criccieth in golden morning light. We all agreed that we’d like to stay longer, but we have a prior engagement with an Orca.
Crossing through the middle of Snowdonia National Park, we’re headed back to the National Whitewater Centre to go Orca rafting. The centre offers a dam-release river, which increases the water level (not to mention ferocity) ten-fold, making it one of the best rafting locations anywhere in the country. Add to this the class three, touching on class four, rapids that it boasts and you’ve got a recipe for a massive shot of natural adrenaline.
Sam, our guide from the canyoning two days earlier joins us again, and we head to the top of the river. Afloat in our Orca, the start of the river feels very much like the calm before the storm. “We’re coming up to our first rapid” Sam announces. “It’s called The Graveyard.” Great.
Trepidation soon turns to joy as we blast down the rapids, the raft regularly dropping beneath us, white water charging angrily at us. It’s the most glorious, breathless chaos. Drop after drop, bump after bump, soaking after soaking, it’s a wild ride that seems to last for just a few seconds (although my GoPro suggests it’s nearer ten minutes).
As we reach the bank at the end of the rapids, I feel drained but euphoric. I want to go again. And again. Unfortunately, my time at the National White Water Centre, and my time in Wales is at an end.
We say our goodbyes, but not before everyone agreed that this adventure has to be done again. It feels like we’ve discovered this secret home of exhilaration that, in reality, is just a four hour drive from London (from Manchester and Birmingham it’s even swifter to get to). Seemingly a million miles away from the office blocks and endless coffeeshops of the city while you're there, in Wales adventure really is so much closer than you think.