‘Ah, Wales…’ declares Mr Smith with a misty-eyed reverence usually reserved for glorious declarations of past sporting victories, ‘…land of my fathers.’ (Two great-grandfathers, tops, if Mrs Smith’s memory serves her correctly).
As we drive through winding valleys and along beautiful coastal roads, our relief at leaving the Big Smoke and the M5 behind us makes the reasonably long drive feel rather cathartic. As we came over the brow of what was to be the last in a long procession of particularly steep hills and blind corners, we at last came upon Aberaeron. This fishing village is painted to perfection, its buildings forming a pitched crescendo of pastels and primaries. The Harbourmaster Hotel is a jaunty midnight blue; we decide the overall effect is a little like a seaside version of Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. It draws a swift, ‘Oooh, isn’t it pretty?’ from Mr Smith, before he remembers that he is in Wales, where a bloke should probably keep this kind of comment to himself.
The Harbourmaster Hotel shines in the midday sun that has somehow managed to penetrate the angry cloud heading in from the Irish Sea. Within, we find a bar with dark wood panelling and white walls, furnished with intimate tables and luscious-looking leather couches. Photographs of local characters, lifted perhaps from the pages of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, set the tone. After a warm greeting from the owner Glyn (friendly, easy charm is the usual Welsh way), we are led to our room, up an extraordinary winding purple and mauve staircase, light streaming in from lighthouse-evoking windows.
An enormous wrought-iron bed sits in the centre of our good-sized room. The couch, a soft leather number with bright hand-woven woollen covers on the back rests, is typical of the hotel’s style: considered, comfortable and quirky. Best thing, though, is the beautiful view across the harbour. After checking out the en suite bathroom, which achieves the requisite understated chic (Molton Brown, fluffy white towels), we take a stroll along the little beach and admire the views – on a clear day you can see all the way to Snowdonia. It is here that Mr Smith displays his amazing knowledge of coastal defences (no, really, it was very interesting) and the difference between flotsam and jetsam. We appear to be the only people enjoying the bracing conditions, which leads to more than one romantic clinch, half in an effort to defend ourselves from the seasonal chill!
After popping into the Cadwgan Inn, Aberaeron’s oldest pub, for a quick pint, we decide we’ve experienced quite enough activity for the day, and retire to our room. We watch the sun set from our sofa, indulging in tea and truly delicious local butter biscuits that prove so moreish that we find ourselves blithely ringing reception for more. Mr Smith blames this gluttony squarely on the sea air. A brief siesta later, we came down to dinner in the restaurant next to the bar (a quick mention when booking is advisable, since the clientele is both local and loyal).
Aperitifs drained, we are led into an intimate dining room. Here, very appropriately, seafood dominates. Some fine mussels for starters, followed by excellent skate and delicious Welsh lamb shanks. Initially surprised by some truly London prices, we are impressed by the wine list. We take dessert and digestif in the convivial comfort of the bar by an open fire, which perfectly counteracts the blustery conditions raging outside, complete with boats frenetically jiving up and down in the harbour.
Pleasantly satiated with food and a not insubstantial quantity of the cellars’ cheekiest numbers, Mr and Mrs Smith retire with a DVD from the hotel’s film library. A battle between Dune and Bridget Jones’ Diary hard-fought, we settle down in the company of Hugh and Colin. The evening culminates in a short hop to our wonderfully cosy bed, and an extremely revitalising slumber.
On waking, we draw the curtains and drink in the perfectly framed powder-blue sky and coastal vista. We’d been so comfortable that we've slept through breakfast (shame, if it was anything as good as our dinner the night before), and only made it down at midday to check out after a quick coffee and chat with Glyn and Menna, paragons of warmth and amiability.
Until recently, Wales had little to offer in terms of the urbanite-pleasing getaway. The Harbourmaster Hotel is a true pioneer. Along with contemporaries such as Llety Bodfor in Aberdyfi, it heralds, hopefully, a convincing Welsh renaissance, which, in the resounding words of the newly patriotic Mr Smith, truly will be Bread of Heaven.