International rating for Welsh capital

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National Geographic chose Cardiff as one of its 2011 10 ''out-of-the-ordinary destination for your summer vacation'', hand-picked by National Geographic Traveler editors. On my visit I faced up to Dr Who and the Daleks (BBC Wales does much of the filming for the series in and around the city) and a lot more in the bright and busy Welsh capital. My list includes Rodin’s Kiss, original indoor shopping, Harry Potter gadgets, a hero in the snow and one of the foremost performance centres in Europe. Picture : Cardiff City Centre, early 2011, by Gareth Huw Davies

National Geographic tips Cardiff

National Geographic reveals how this one time city of castle and coal, Wales’s capital, is emerging as a modern sports-entertainment destination. It picks out Cardiff Bay, 'once the world’s largest coal-exporting port, now a 500-acre freshwater lake with eight miles of waterfront.' Then it lists a host of outdoor activities for the summer of 2011, including rafting and kayaking at Cardiff International White Water, and windsurfing and powerboating on the bay. Between August 27-29, the Cardiff Harbour Festival features tall ships, free activities, and, new for 2011, the Breitling Wingwalkers aerobatic formation team. Cardiff Castle hosts the Grand Medieval Melee, August 13-14.

Sisters’ Fine Art.

The Davies sisters, Margaret and Gwendoline, were in a very rare category of collectors and public benefactors. In their day the richest spinsters in Britain, the grand-daughters of a Welsh coal magnate toured Europe a century ago with an eye for an art bargain, amassing one of Britain’s finest collections. The splendid National Museum (admission free), in Cardiff’s wide and spacious Cathays Park, displays the works they snapped up. There is Renoir’s enchanting and coquettish La Parisienne, a vision in blue of actress Henriette Henriot; umpteen of Monet’s water lily paintings and Venetian views; Cézanne’s Still Life with Teapot; and a version of the ever-passionate couple in Rodin’s kiss. But one work never fails to excite and move me. In his high octane study of bad weather, Rain at Auvers, Van Gogh etched raindrops like dagger strokes on the canvas. Days later the desparing genius shot himself.

Arcade dining, New York style

From San Francisco to Bluewater, malls follow a formula. They float you in warmly-lit comfort shopping, set to soothing muazak. But you could be anywhere. The High Street Arcade (one of four in the city centre) is the perfect indoor shopping antidote to bland impersonal malls. This Victorian enclave is full of real, one-of-a-kind and specialist shops. I loved the Chopin Board, ideal for the musical kitchen in the window of the harp shop Telynau Vining. And the New York Deli, where they serve the biggest-attitude salt beef sandwich, to authentic stateside dimensions (on light rye, with sweet horseradish and gherkin) this side of the Big Apple. Really serious shoppers should bulk up on the Philadephia Hoagie, designed to last all day.

Right next door is the new extension of St David’s shopping centre, which opened late 2009. It includes the largest John Lewis department store outside London. It showcases leading UK high street stores in its two level grand arcade, a modern adaptation of the Victorian arcades of the city.

Science play with a touch of Potter.

Warning: Techniquest will seriously stretch your brain. First thing I spotted suggested a Hogwarts classroom experiment, a beach ball hanging free in a blast of air. “Wicked,” said a nearby child. Or was that “wizard!” But no sorcery here. In the Bernoulli Blower, air moves faster over the top of the ball than the bottom, creating lift. In another Rowling-esque exhibit, in a Hagrid-size test tube, dainty little bubbles drifted serenely up. Pull a lever to set monster bubbles in hungry pursuit and gobble them up.
Techniquest is science and technology, disguised as play and entertainment. 160 hands-on “puzzles, challenges and scientific marvels” let you fire a rocket, race an electric car, strum a Celtic lament on a string-less harp. Play the “Gravitrom”, a zany mix of pinball machines. And touch the Plasma Sphere, a sort of miniature aurora borealis.

Departure for the South Pole

I stood at Britain’s most poignant point of departure. In 1910 Capt Scott’s expedition slipped from Cardiff Docks on the Terra Nova after a few days rest, and out of Britain, never to return. Most of them were to die in the awful Antarctic wastes, after narrowly losing the race to the South Pole. This sleek, new memorial by sculptor Jonathan Williams pointing into the bright new marina at Cardiff Bay, depicts Scott hauling south through a blizzard. White tiles evoke the desolation and grandeur of the Antarctic ice. Behind him the faces of his colleagues are trapped in the snow. This moving sculpture sits between the lock through which the Terra Nova emerged on its fateful journey, and the Norwegian Church, a reminder that author Roald Dahl was a native of Cardiff.

City centre haven.

City centre hotels, convenient for all the attractions, are a mad crush as non-residents pour in for a drink. So imagine the squeeze in the bars of central Cardiff with a big rugby match in the Millennium Stadium just a drop kick away. Not so in one city centre hotel. The Royal, a boutique hotel in a restored 1870s building, keeps its peace behind a discreet residents-only entrance. Inside is the original oak-panelled dining room Capt Scott used to plan his trip to the Pole. In the rooms they pamper you with over-sized goose down pillows, squashy duvets, cherry wood tables, Italian leather chairs, and bathrooms in natural limestone. Through my triple glazed window I could see the Bristol Channel. Outside the bendy bus connects straight to Cardiff Bay, for the outstanding Millennium Centre. They stage opera and musicals behind an awesome cliff of bronze and Welsh slate.

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