I used to come to Llandudno for childhood holidays in the Seventies. Think Formica tables, push-penny games on the pier and guesthouse landladies in floral pinnies. I recently returned with my own children, joining the staycation stampede from the North West after our original holiday plans were filed under 2021. As we strolled along the windswept two-mile sweep of Victorian promenade, the genteel gathering place for visitors to the grand old dame of North Wales resorts, it struck me: Llandudno is back in vogue.
The collapse of air bridges has led to the North Wales coast enjoying a post-lockdown bonanza. We have found Landudno’s pebbly North Beach busy with rockpool paddlers, despite some rather menacing clouds over the Great Orme, and the cafés along Mostyn Street bustling with al-fresco diners seeking Cymru-sur-mer vibes. Both the traditional old seafront hotels and Instagram-savvy boutique upstarts are booked out; shops selling buckets and spades, new independent retailers and local-flavour delis are all doing a brisk trade.
It’s a far cry from the ghost-town images of lockdown when Llandudno’s Kashmiri goats became unwitting media stars by taking to the deserted streets in search of food. A local hospice subsequently raised £50,000 selling goat-branded merchandise. However, after the Welsh Government allowed hotels to re-open from mid-July and reinstated indoor dining from August 3, the humans have returned.
“People are hungry for good food they don’t have to prepare and clean up afterwards,” said Michael Waddy, Executive Chef at the Empire Hotel and Osbourne House, who I found preparing Peking duck tacos for dinner in tie-dye chef whites and a face mask. Like many working in hospitality, Michael is having to roll with the punches, reducing the number of covers across both restaurants, installing booths and switching to a more labour-intensive table service. As a result, Osbourne House currently only serves food from 4-8.30pm.
“I’m sick of banana bread and probably the only person still drinking Corona lager at the end of service,” laughed South Texas-born Michael. “Value and service are the way forward.”
A stroll along Llandudno Pier (llandudnopier.com), built during the town’s fashionable heyday to extend gracefully into the Irish Sea, revealed plenty of social-distancing signage but less compliance among the stalls selling Welsh-flag face masks. But I had a moment of sepia-tinged nostalgia when we found the push-penny slots still chiming out in the Deck Arcade at the end of the pier. I even started to win over my two eye-rolling teens to traditional seaside charms after the submarine game, blasting giant water pistols in an arcade already practically afloat on hand sanitiser.
Across town, the MOSTYN contemporary art gallery (mostyn.org) only reopened last Thursday (August 13) after being closed for five months. Here, temperature checks upon arrival, a one-way system and a ten-person limit on visitors in each gallery at any time are the new normal. The Pop-art styling of the Austrian artist Kiki Kogelnik, one of two exhibitions now running until November, provided a colourful counterpoint to the post-lockdown gloom currently hanging over arts venues.
“Life has changed but artists continue to take the temperature of the society around them,” gallery director, Alfredo Cramerotti, told me. “We’re seeing subtle changes in work to reflect our lockdown experience while, as curators, we’re reassessing the way we behave in public spaces.”
Llandudno may manage to fuse the traditional with the contemporary but, overall, it does timeless grandeur best. The afternoon tea at St George’s Hotel may look a bit different these days, with visor-sporting waiters and contact details for track and trace, but the scones are still gently warmed and the bara brith, a Welsh fruit loaf, deliciously moist.
It’s quietly reassuring to sip an Early Grey and watch multi-generational families strolling along the prom beyond the huge sea-facing windows. “Llandudno has an eternal appeal,” the sales and marketing director, Nathan Cousins, told me. “It has always been a popular resort for those old-fashioned but comforting ideas of stretching your legs and taking the sea air.”
Some of the smaller seafront hotels are still closed, as well as some traditional attractions, such as the funicular Great Orme Tramway. But the 100-odd cafés and restaurants in town signed up to the Government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme are busy, especially Dylan’s (dylansrestaurant.co.uk) which is booking out three weeks in advance from Monday to Wednesday.
At The Quay Hotel and Spa, where we tucked into a lunch of fish and chips with views of Cowny Castle shrouded in rain-swirling mist, the scheme has proved so popular that the timed dining slots in the Ebb and Flow restaurant are unavailable to non-residents after 5.30pm for now.
Walking down to the harbour afterwards, I enjoyed a moment of reverie: aged five years old, sporting powder-blue shorts and hoping to beat my dad at pitch and putt. It’s a far cry from the family holiday I had planned this summer. But Llandudno’s simple charm and move-with-the-times ethos, offers a soothing seaside-break balm for troubled times. And there’s not a Formica table in sight.