Porthmelgan: hiking the Pembrokeshire Coast Path to a thrilling smugglers’ cove near St Davids

Porthmelgan beach as seen from the Pembrokeshire Coast Path © Kerry Walker

On a sunny day in St Davids, you might think it’s impossible to dodge the crowds. Yet the coastal honeypot is but a pebble-throw away from some deliciously secluded beaches: not least this sandy haven. From the broad sweep of Whitesands Bay, the Pembrokeshire Coast Path (incidentally celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2020) teeters along clifftops, scything its way through hedgerows stitched with thrift, campion, sweet-scented gorse and heather.

After a highly scenic 20-minute ramble or so, you’ll reach this heart-stealer of a bay, where a stream trickles down to a half-moon of creamy golden sand backdropped by boulders and high cliffs. Come on a warm summer day and you might find yourself in the company of a few others (though it’s hardly busy); come in the shoulder season, however, or on an overcast day, and you might luck out and get the entire bay to yourself.

One of Wales’ most westerly beaches, this smugglers’ cove is the stuff of pirate fantasies, and indeed the treacherous rocks that lie offshore and strong currents have wrecked many a ship over the years.

Dreamy views from St Davids Head © Kerry Walker

What to do

At low tide, explore the caves and limpet-encrusted rockpools, and check out the strata in the cliffs: these are some of the country’s most ancient rocks, dating to the Precambrian era, with the oldest among them dating back 600 million years. It’s quite something to admire rock formations that have been around since dinosaurs walked the earth.

Put on your swimsuit, bathers or, in the colder months, wetsuit and go for a paddle or swim. Or simply pick a sheltered spot and gaze out across to Ramsey Island and the rocky islets of Bishop and Clerks.

As you might expect, the birdwatching here is excellent – keep an eye out for choughs, peregrine falcons, kestrels and gannets, and back on the coastal path look out for wheatears, stonechats, warblers, linnets and whitethroats. Porpoises and dolphins can occasionally be sighted, too.

Walking the Pembrokeshire Coast Path at St Davids Head © Kerry Walker

St Davids Head walk

Porthmelgan is just one of the highlights of the walk that leads along the Coast Path to the National Trust-tended promontory of St Davids Head. Beginning and ending in Whitesands, the circular 3.5-mile, two-hour ramble is one of the finest stretches of coastal walking in these parts. Besides the bay and big sea views, the short but spectacular hike provides a fascinating insight into the prehistoric past. Wander on from Porthmelgan and you’ll pass through an opening in an Iron Age wall, where you can easily pick out the traces of round huts.

Veering left of the main trail and making your way along the coast, you’ll come to the collapsed Neolithic burial chamber of Coetan Arthur, 4000 years old, whose huge capstone measures six metres long. More vestiges of the ancient past reveal themselves as you continue your walk northeast along the coast path, traversing an Iron Age landscape, and turn right at a sign, bear down and then uphill to skirt the slopes of the jagged and distinctive peak of Carn Llidi. Choose to climb this distinctive 181m-high crag, with nearby Neolithic burial chambers, to the trig point and you’ll be rewarded on clear days with tremendous views of the Pembrokeshire coast in one direction and, across the water, the Wicklow Mountains in Ireland.

The trail then loops back west and then south to the starting point at Whitesands.

St Davids is one of our special star destinations. Scroll to the bottom for our mini guide to access all our St Davids content in one place…

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the beach at Porthmelgan, it’s a 17 mile ride northeast to one of the best coffee stops in Pembrokeshire at The Gourmet Pig, Fishguard

Beach basics

Sand: 8 A mix of soft sand and pebbles. At its best and biggest at low tide.

Swimability: 8 By all means go for a dip but beware of currents.

Privacy: 7 It’s reasonably secluded and, at high tide, there are some nice enclaves among the caves and cliffs affording more privacy. Also, surprisingly few people (out of the droves that come to Whitesands Bay) ever pass by here.

Setting: 10 This is pure smugglers’ cove dream stuff. And the Pembrokeshire Coast Path walk to St Davids Head ramps up the appeal further still.

Facilities: 7 The lack of facilities is part of the allure. Bring your own picnic or stop at the cafe in Whitesands.

At a glance

How to get there: Whitesands Bay is just a couple of miles north of St Davids. Porthmelgan is only accessible by foot along the coastal path (allow 20 minutes from Whitesands one way, or two hours for the whole St Davids Head walk).

Parking: There’s parking for 60 cars at Whitesands (£5 for the day). Spaces can be limited in summer. An alternative is to take the Celtic Coaster shuttle bus from the Oriel y Parc Visitor Centre car park on the edge of St Davids.

Refreshments: There’s a little beach cafe and shop in Whitesands for ice cream and essentials (as well as toilets). Otherwise take your own picnic or go for lunch in St Davids.

Best time to visit: Spring or autumn are idyllic, and in winter you might well get the bay all to yourself. But even in summer it’s rarely crowded, with most people preferring to stop at Whitesands.

Map:

ST DAVIDS MINI GUIDE:

Explore: Caer Bwdy Bay, source of Pembrokeshire’s striking purple stone

Eat & Drink: Grub Kitchen, St Davids: where the grub is always good

Sleep: Penrhiw Hotel: escape to a chicly converted priory in St Davids