Bala Lake is the largest natural body of water in Wales, with magnificent views of southern Snowdonia’s high peaks. Once part of a standard gauge mainline, linking industrial north east Wales with seaside resorts on the Cambrian Coast, the Bala Lake Railway was re-laid as a narrow-gauge line in the early 1970s to take advantage of the spectacular stretch between the village of Llanuwchllyn and the town of Bala. The 4.-mile route runs through pastoral farmland and along the southern shore of beautiful Bala Lake.
Llangower, at the mid-way station on the railway, has a lovely sheltered cove on the lake. The stony beach is ideal for a paddle.
From the top of Aran Benllyn, which rises from Llanuwchllyn, you can see the Lleyn Peninsula, the Snowdon and Cambrian ranges, as well as looking back towards the border with England. A less strenuous alternative to climbing Aran is the gentle walk along the lakeshore from Bala station to the town; there is a great view up the length of the lake. You can also hire bikes in Bala and cycle the five miles between Llanuwchllyn and Bala (from £14, www.rhrcycles.magix.net/public).
Bala Leisure Centre has a swimming pool with water slide (£4.50 for adults, www.bit.do/Bala). The Gorwelion Centre, on the outskirts of Bala, is a group of rural farm buildings, with views of the hills and fields with a café. The largest building houses an indoor play barn, where kids who have a children’s meal at the café can play for free, www.gorwelion.co.uk.
The Get Wet Adventure Company has a High Ropes course for adventurous over tens (£22) and also offers gorge walking and paintball (www.get-wet.co.uk). Bala Watersports rents out kayaks and canoes on Bala Lake (from £12/hour, www.balawatersports.com) and the National White Water Centre offers rafting taster sessions (from £35, www.canoewales.com).
There is a story that Bala Lake (or Llyn Tegid, as it’s known in Welsh) is home to a huge monster, which was trapped there when the sea levels receded. Some witnesses claim to have seen the monster from the lake while they were fishing; others have seen it from the shore. Because the lake is so deep, it is virtually impossible to trace the sea monster, even using a specialist submarine from Japan that was once used to survey the depths.
Over a thousand feet up, with wonderful panoramic views, Caerau Uchaf in Sarnau near Bala is the highest private garden open to the public. Local entrepreneurs and garden experts Toby and Stephanie Hickish (who also run Gorwelion indoor play center) are in charge. Kids will love the adventure playground, tucked into the woods, the new soft play barn, willow maze, and sweeping paths that lead through a garden with bold, colourful planting. www.summersgardens.co.uk
Canolfan Y Plase on Plase Street in Bala is a heritage centre, housing collections of art, sculpture and photography by famous and local artists; it is well worth a quick browse. The award winning Pren on the High Street sells locally hand-crafted items made from wood www.facebook.com/pren.bala.
On the Rails
The station café serves hot and cold drinks and a selection of light snacks, plus local Aran premium ice creams, made just over a mile away on the slopes of the Aran mountains.
Off the Rails
The Eagles Inn at Llanuwchllyn serves high quality food in a convivial atmosphere. Main courses, which include local slow-roasted Welsh lamb shank with rosemary gravy or homemade goat cheese soufflé, are around £10, www.yr-eagles.co.uk
Bala Backpackers’ Hostel offers dorm beds and twin rooms in 19th-century buildings in Bala, with an eco-café opposite. Dorm beds from £21. www.bala-backpackers.co.uk
The White Lion Royal Hotel is an old coaching inn in the middle of Bala that also serves food. Doubles from £69, B&B. www.bit.do/WhiteLion
The award-winning Bryniau Golau B&B, about ¾ mile from Bala station, is a refurbished Victorian house overlooking Bala Lake. Doubles from £110, B&B. www.bryniau-golau.co.uk
Pen y Garth Lodges, sleeping 2,3 or 4 people, are about 1½ miles from Bala station. Three nights in a wooden cabin from £249. www.bit.do/penygarth
Take the train one-way from Llanuwchllyn to Bala and come back on one of these two walking routes: 1. Simply follow the B4403 country road back along the southern side of Lake Bala, where you can make detours into the scenic local hills and villages. 2. Explore the market town of Bala and return along the northern side of the lake. Pavement and off-road paths follow the A494 or take a longer route further inland, away from it all. On the way, pop in to the lakeside Mary Jones’ World (£4, www.bydmaryjonesworld.org.uk), which tells the story of a young woman who walked 30 miles, desperate to get her first bible.
Railways and canals of the Dee Valley: You can visit two railways in a day using the T3 TrawsCymru bus (www.trawscymru.info), which connects Bala with stations on the standard gauge Llangollen Railway. You can also take horse-drawn barges on the canal from Llangollen or longer motorboat trips over the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, spanning the Dee valley, built by Thomas Telford in 1805, and now a World Heritage Site (from £7, www.horsedrawnboats.co.uk).
T3 TrawsCymru bus from Wrexham to Barmouth stops in Bala (3/4 mile from railway) and in Llanuwchllyn, very close to the railway station.