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More than golf at gateway to Wales

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Monmouthshire earned four days of world wide fame last year (2010) when the Ryder Cup came to the Celtic Manor resort. GHD checked back and found plenty to do besides golf in this beautiful if often overlooked corner of SE Wales. New attractions include polo and a 21st Century bird reserve, to balance some of Britain’s best Roman remains and one of Britain’s very first tourist traps. Photo: road to the Polo Field, Celtic Manor, by the writer.

Mighty Manor

Modesty is the last word to use when describing the Celtic Manor, perched
high and mighty above the M4 at the gateway to Wales. None of the
thousands who pass it daily can deny the ambition and self-confidence it
exudes. Already well-established as one of Wales’s big “resort” hotels, its golf
courses became famous when the hotel hosted the Ryder Cup in 2010. Drive up to the entrance, where it turns its back to the traffic, and it is surprisingly tranquil. There’s a casual, unfussy comfort,
rather than luxury, inside. I was impressed with the affable and obliging staff.
The big feature is the.vast atrium, with real trees and a proud Welsh dragon.
People go for the abundant golf – I took a total beginners’ lesson – the spas
and swimming pools. It’s also a useful base for exploring an overlooked corner
of Wales.

Move over rugby

Here’s a cultural stereotype smashed to smithereens. Wales – land of song,
poets, rugby and...polo. Last year Celtic Manor tore up the nation’s
traditional sporting script by hosting that great golf contest, the Ryder Cup.
This summer it stages the sport of kings, princes and aristocrats, usually
played not too far from Windsor Castle. Some of the UK’s best players and
horses will compete in a day of professional matches on a brand-new polo
ground, created where the top golfers practised last year. And, as at Ascot,
it’s an excuse for spectators to dress uber-smart. Polo at the Manor
(Saturday 2nd July) could well become an annual event, as the game
continues to grow in popularity and shed its elitist image.

Done Roman

Celtic Manor is a powerful presence, but the Romans managed something even
bigger a few miles west, at Caerleon. Set aside half a day to visit this well-
preserved wonder, the formidable remains of the Roman legionary fortress of
Isca, the base of the Second Augustan Legion. One of only three legionary
fortresses in Roman Britain, it was in use for 200 years. The big features are
the most complete amphitheatre in Britain, the fortress baths, the only
remains of a Roman legionary barracks on view anywhere in Europe. and the
fortress wall. The National Roman Legion Museum lies inside what remains of
the fortress. Close by is the thriving RSPB’s Newport Wetlands bird reserve,
created from scratch in 2000 as a “lifeboat” for birds displaced when the
Cardiff Bay Barrage was built in the 1990s.

Road to the abbey

Some of the very earliest tourists targeted the romantic ruins of Tintern
Abbey, abandoned in 1536 on one of the
most serene spots in the Wye Valley, a few miles north of the hotel. Jane
Austen even wrote a engraving of the 12th century Cistercian abbey into
Fanny Price's sitting room in her Mansfield Park. Turner painted it.
Wordsworth was inspired to write 'Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern
Abbey', while Tennyson was moved to pen 'Tears, Idle Tears'. The west
window of the adjoining, remarkably intact late C13th abbey church is a
masterpiece of Gothic architecture. Look for the extensive remains of cloister
and associated monastic buildings. www.cadw.wales.gov.uk

Take a spin

The hotel kindly gave me a bicycle to tour the enormous grounds, with a map
to explore the surrounding countryside. But there was plenty to see without
leaving the gates. The cameras covering the Ryder Cup dwelt long and
lovingly on gorgeous vistas – wooded hills stretching away, serene valleys and
the Bristol Channel beyond. I pedaled around for a carefree 90 minutes,
following the little tracks weaving between the courses, as two buzzards
circled overhead. This year (2011) the hotel has added “Treetop Adventure”,
to golf, clay pigeon shooting, fishing and tennis. It features high and low ropes
courses, bridges, walkways, and other “challenging obstacles”. “Adventure
Golf” consists of two miniature golf courses, with small scale replicas of bits of
famous courses – St Andrews, Pebble Beach, Augusta, The Belfry and Valhalla.

Double top

There are two Crowns in Monmouthshire, run by the same chef, James
Sommerin. The first is the main restaurant in the Celtic Manor, one of those
secluded and coolly elegant places top hotels do well. We passed on the six
course tasting menu, but they served us the wines we would have had
anyway in trios of small glasses with each course of the a la carte. The chef
used Welsh ingredients wherever possible and devised some enticing
combinations, such as pressed duck liver, chestnut wafer and sweet and sour
quince, and nettle soup, goats cheese and morel mushrooms as starters.
Mains included duck, liquorice and onion confit; and John Dory, braised bacon,
parsley root, cider and tarragon. Sommerin’s second coronet is the Crown at
Whitebrook, a gastronomic retreat on a wooded hillside in a valley near the
Wye. This “romantic auberge” is one of the few places in Wales with a
Michelin star.

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