The minute my feet landed with a soft thud on the muddy ground, a hefty cow turned to face me. She did not look pleased. Seconds later, she was joined by another beefy bovine, and the two stood shoulder to shoulder, glaring at me.
"I don't think the cows want us in their pasture," I said nervously to my husband, Ed. "They're forming a little gang."
We were only an hour into our first day on the new Wales Coast Path, which runs 870 miles around the compact country's coastline, and we'd already run into trouble. Not a great way to start a four-day, 60-mile hike. But the path's signs clearly directed us here, and a hastily scrawled note on the gate indicated it was locked only because too many walkers had forgotten to close it behind them. We definitely were supposed to go this way. We just had to figure out how to get around these cows.
"Let's try going down that way," said Ed, gesturing to the left. We hastened away from the cows and down a steep slope. At the bottom of the hill we spotted another gate marked with the official Coast Path sign. Once again, we were on our way.
Wales juts out from the southwestern side of the United Kingdom island into the Celtic and Irish seas. Since 1971, millions of people have hiked its Offa's Dyke Path, a 177-mile ribbon winding along Wales' border with England, and the 186-mile Pembrokeshire Coast Path National Trail, which hugs the coast of Wales' westernmost peninsula. In 2003, the Isle of Anglesey Coastal Path opened to much acclaim. Finally, in 2007, the government decided to link all of its coastal hiking paths, merging existing routes and forging others to create the Wales Coast Path. It opened to the public in May. Because it hooks into Offa's Dyke at both ends, you can now walk Wales' entire 1,030-mile perimeter.
The route is divided into eight geographical areas, all breathtakingly beautiful, featuring rocky cliff tops, slate beaches, heathered uplands and hidden waterfalls.
Ed and I decided to tackle the Ceredigion (Care-uh-DIG-ee-uhn) section on the country's middle-western border, shuttling our bags ahead each day to a new inn.
Beautiful, but daunting
The Ceredigion section starts in downtown Cardigan near the Teifi River and ends 60 miles north in a soft pocket of sand dunes at Yneslas. This stretch of coastline is known for its resident population of about 200 bottlenose dolphins that can often be seen frolicking along the shore, along with numerous porpoises and gray seals. It's also an outstanding birding region. But while we were prepared to see the area's impressive wildlife, we weren't at all prepared for the amazing beauty of the Welsh coastline.
We saw steep cliffs that plunge into the sea, secluded, sandy coves and colorful harbor towns. The cliffs can be covered in tough, gnarled gorse in one spot, then smothered in a field of purple foxglove in the next. Sometimes they're topped with grass so close-cropped and velvety you feel like you're walking on a putting green.
As Ed and I began our journey, the path unwound before us like a thin ribbon, rolling up and down the cliffs for miles. A beautiful site, yes, but a bit daunting, too.
Would we really be able to keep hiking up and down these quad-busting, lung-searing hills all day for four days? For inspiration we looked to the Welsh, who clearly had mastered the terrain.
Puffing up our first hill one morning, we ran into an elderly man dressed in a fancy button-down shirt and tie, casually walking his dog. "How can he wear something like that?" said Ed, who already had sweat threatening to soak through his T-shirt. We also noticed a lot of folks gawking at the trekking poles we were using, despite the fact that this kind of steep, rugged terrain is exactly when they're most useful.
"You're the only ones I've ever seen with sticks," said a chubby woman curiously, as she expertly navigated a narrow, rocky descent with her three King Charles Cavalier Spaniels. "Are they actually helpful?"
As we entered a fishing village, an elderly woman chuckled as we passed, calling out, "Those sticks make you both look so serious!"
"We are totally lame," said Ed when we were out of earshot, and we hastily clicked our way through town and up the next hill.
Every day as we marched north, the coastline's beauty stunned us into silence. And the people we met along the way informed and amused us. There was the Scotsman walking his daughter-in-law's dog, George. He told us that the puzzling shrieking noise we'd heard earlier was a missile. A missile had been fired? Right along the path here in Wales? Apparently there was a Royal Air Force installation nearby (he used to work there), and they were doing some target practice that morning.
Later that day, we stopped for ice cream in the town of Tresaith. (The sign said it was made with double cream and fresh milk; how could we resist?) I ordered the Welsh favorite, rum raisin.
"Do you want a fudge finger or chocolate flake with that?" asked the smiling young woman behind the counter.
"I'll take both," I promptly replied, having no idea what either item was. The woman stuck two candy sticks into my cone at angles, giving my scoop of rum raisin a comical pair of antennae.
"Her grandfather was the first nationalist MP [Member of Parliament], you know," said her co-worker, "Gwynfor Evans." He grabbed a book about Evans from behind the counter, jabbing a finger at the serious-looking man pictured on the cover. For Americans, it wasn't quite like running into, say, Welsh actress Catherine Zeta-Jones. But we were still impressed.
My favorite encounter, though, was with Bob Gill, an Englishman on holiday. We passed him on the Coast Path while he was out watching for choughs -- rare black birds with curved, red beaks and red feet -- and I commented on the large number of slugs we'd seen on the trail.
"Funny you should mention that," he said. "It was actually just in the news that it's the best year ever in Wales for slugs and snails!" As he watched me jot down his comment, he added, "If you need my name, you can just say you met a little fat man in Wallog!" Wheezing with laughter, he skittered away down the path.
Rain, rain go away
It rains a lot in Wales. We didn't realize that before planning our trip, but once we arrived, everyone seemed to delight in informing us about this fact. We were blessed for the most part with bright blue skies. Then Ed said that he actually wanted a bit of stormy weather just to see how angry it would make the sea roil against the ragged coastline.
"Don't jinx us," I hissed. But it was too late.
We were nearing the end of our third day of walking, all under picture-perfect sunny skies. I'd even gotten a little sunburned, despite temperatures in the 50s. Then it began to cloud up.
As we studied the sky, a Welshman named David Taylor purposefully strode up to us. "I was attacked by buzzards," he said calmly. "About an hour and a half back. I only got swooped once, though. Last year on this path, the buzzards swooped at me for about an hour."
Buzzards? Swooping at your head? I felt a hollow in the pit of my stomach. Taylor, who once piloted boat trips along the coast and knew how to read the skies, also informed us we were about to get dumped on. Having dispatched these two warnings, he continued on his way.
Sure enough, not long after we passed him, fat droplets of rain began to fall. We tried to scurry along, but we'd just entered a sloping, poop-filled sheep pasture offering only a narrow, muddy rut as a footpath. Perhaps most disappointing, we couldn't see even a tiny patch of the stormy sea from here, as Ed had hoped. And then he spied the birds.
"It's the buzzards," he said ominously, pointing to an adjacent field filled with feathered black creatures.
"Those birds look small, like crows," I whispered, hoping they wouldn't notice us no matter what kind of birds they were.
"I think that's what that man meant," Ed said, a bit hopefully. "That crows attacked him."
"No, he didn't. He said buzzards swooped at him. Buzzards!"
The rain began falling harder, and we slipped and slid through the muddy, manure-laced hillside as quickly and quietly as we could. The birds, which we determined were definitely crows once we drew nearer, ignored us. And while we did eventually come upon the buzzards, hungrily circling overhead, they had no interest in toying with us, perhaps because of the rain.
We finished our multi-day walk enthralled with the Welsh coast, even though we never did get to see bottlenose dolphins or gray seals.
Ed did get his wish to gaze upon an angry sea after we embarked on an impromptu hike in the northern Llyn Peninsula, where we'd driven on our final day in Wales. With a cold rain pelting us, and 30 mile-per-hour winds threatening to press us into the side of the cliff, it certainly wasn't the most pleasant walk. But surviving it made us feel like hearty Welshmen. Even though we used our trekking poles.
Melanie Radzicki McManus writes about travel and fitness from her home in Sun Prairie, Wis.