The Harbourmaster in Aberaeron

Pebble beaches, Georgian architecture, stunning sunsets, beautiful landscape and rich collection of wildflowers are not the only attractions that might draw you to the pretty west Wales seaside town of Aberaeron. It is also a foodie haven for those that love fish, seafood, good wines and excellent service. The Harbourmaster Hotel at the mouth of the River Aeron has staked its place at the top of the destination leader board since Glyn and Menna Heulyn opened it in 2002, and after accolades in all the major food guides and magazines, they carry onwards and upwards to maintain it.

If you travel to west Wales you will be astonished at what a particularly unspoiled, genteel and rural county Ceredigion is, trapped in a time warp whose slow pace of life and appreciation of good things may well ensnare you. In Aberaeron, the apogee of Regency conformity and industrious endeavour, the confluence of Welsh identity and Georgian social determinism combine to create a town like no other in the British Isles. No less than 250 of its houses are listed Grade II.

Although there was a settlement there from the middle of the 12th century, the town we see today was configured and built in the early to middle 19th Century, by the Reverend Alban Gwynne, the heir of the Mynachty Estate. The ground floor of The Harbourmaster hotel, which was the erstwhile home of the original harbourmaster Lewis Davies of Pennant, was originally The Red Lion tavern. Davies would climb to the very top of the stairs to look through the porthole round window to survey the bay outside. Aberaeron was once an important regional shipbuilding and fishing port but today the tourism catch is far more important, and you will do well to book ahead for anything you want to do here. Between May and October the town is positively buzzing, bearing in mind it is relatively near the University towns of Lampeter and Aberystwyth, it features its own seafood festival, horse and dog show, carnival and sailing regatta.

There are seven harbourside rooms at The Harbourmaster, and on top of its adjoining bar room {which used to be a grain store} there are four more. There is also an adjoining small cottage for families who prefer self-catering. From the moment you enter you will note bright colours, photographs of old town characters, lots of wooden panelling and floors, mariner’s lamps, paintings of ships and leather sofas. The style is casual, relaxed and clean, showcasing a symphony of blues that lift the soul, whatever the weather outside. From indigo to turquoise, duck egg, sky and Wedgewood, this is the home of seaside chromatic expression, further detailed by royal blue stripy napkins, blue-green upholstered leather dining room chairs, Bristol blue Ty Nant water bottles, navy blue menus and purple-blue carpets.

Bedrooms are small but perfectly formed and bathrooms gleam. There are Molton Brown perfumed toiletries, Frette sheets, excellent feather pillows, firm mattresses, Melin Tregwynt graphic throws and cushions and  very thoughtful tea and coffee making facilities, bottled water, biscuit and reading offers. Comfort and care are the order of the day.

Unlike most of Wales, the Welsh language is spoken with pride, in fact all of the staff are Welsh speakers. Their efficiency and friendliness cannot be overstated: finding and keeping conscientious staff in such a rural area does not seem to pose difficulties in this establishment. So much so that they are opening another restaurant in Aberystwyth called Baravin {bara is Welsh for bread and vin is wine}.

The style of cooking is quite different between the bar dining room and the more formal dining room, but the philosophy that underpins the work is much the same. There is a proud display of all the local Welsh suppliers on the blackboard, and simple, well executed dishes come out of the kitchen that you can see being created from your bar stool through a window overlooking the service pass. The Menus {in both Welsh and English} showcases the best Cardigan Bay crab, served as a prawn and crab cocktail, as crab spring rolls with tamarind ketchup, as a crab and herb risotto or with mussels and chilli oil. There are salmon, seabass, hake, scallop, oyster, haddock and fishcake dishes served with seasonal vegetables or mashed potatoes or French fries or McDonald’s fries – all very simply decorated with fresh salads and lemon wedges.

For carnivores Welsh lamb, beef and pork also feature as well as Ceredigion cheesemakers like Hafod {run by the very talented Sam Holden}. If you order your meal from the bar, you can also choose from the Pizza menu, and they are very well made, even by Italian standards.

The service is unbelievably fast, even on very busy weekend nights, despite every table being full and standing the only option.  The reason for all this success is very, very good sourcing and authentic recipes that do not deviate from mainstream tradition. No foams, no gels, no drizzles, no molecular gymnastics. The Welsh clientele wants good, honest, comfort food and here it is done brilliantly.

Make sure you walk around the town, enjoy its shops, its squares, its neat, Regency streetscape and its polite, cheery residents for whom living in such a picture postcard destination, where surely at least half of the houses must be holiday homes, must prove to be more than just a small headache at times. Their tolerance is saintly.

In and around the area there are wonderful sandy beaches at Mwnt, Llangrannog and Penbryn. Make sure you visit Llanerchaeron, which is a National Trust property featured just a few months ago in The Foodie Bugle. There is a wonderful gallery of Welsh quilts on the High Street of Lampeter, belonging to quilt expert Jen Jones, and the towns of Cardigan and Aberystwyth are also worth a detour. The vernacular architecture is fascinating, do make sure you take your Pevsner guide with you at all times.

In the evenings take a look at the delicious cocktail selection in the bar: the watermelon, elderflower, vanilla vodka and lemon juice was a revelation. There is a good selection of New World and European wines, all served in a small or medium glass if you prefer. The 870 mile coastal Welsh path which has just been opened is breathtaking. Do make sure you walk at least a small part of it: the flora, fauna, seashore, pebbles, rocks and scenery will leave you absolutely fascinated and, in addition, will help work up your appetite.

One point to remember here is that sleeping above a very successful restaurant and pub means that an early night tucked up asleep is unlikely, but joining in the reverie is part of the fun. Lights twinkle inside the little pastel coloured houses round the harbour, seagulls screech overhead, the boats bob up and down the water in rhythmic synchronisation as the tide goes out and all around you the sound of Gaelic, music, clinking glasses and joyful laughter resonates as the sun sets over Wales for another day, on its way past Ireland just across the water.

In the morning you open your white, wooden shutters and outside the harbour is shimmering: the tide has swept back in, Aberaeron awakes, delivery trucks are negotiating the tight paths into the Pen Cei promenade and slowly, oblivious to the beauty all around them, local shoppers, mothers and children are bustling on their way.

Downstairs, one side of the dining room is arranged as a buffet table, with fresh blackberry muffins, five types of cereals, freshly baked croissants, fresh fruit and plain yoghurts, granola, fruit juices, jams and honeys. You can order a full Welsh breakfast with local eggs, bacon, sausages and laverbread, or “Breakfast in a Bun” with everything you fancy served in a bun. There is also smoked salmon on the menu, as well as crisp sourdough toasts, hot cafetiere coffees and any type of tea you wish for.

On one hand I am reluctant to publish this review: the loveliness and remoteness of this part of Wales is such that to reveal all those who have yet to discover it seems a shame. Yet we are The Foodie Bugle for a reason and many other reviewers have come before me. Amongst all of Wales’ wonders, Ceredigion and The Harbourmaster are little jewels in a jewel bedecked crown. Croesawu ac ynmwynhau!

Further Information

The Harbourmaster Hotel :

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