When I was 17, I went on an educational tour through France, England, Wales and Ireland. We landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, spent a few days taking in the Parisian sights, boarded a train that took us to London via the “chunnel,” wandered the streets of what became my favorite city and then boarded a charter bus and headed northwest toward the Isle of Anglesey. From here, we would leave for Ireland by ferry. Though the driving distance was not as lengthy as it can be between states in the U.S., it was still a long enough journey that we needed to stay somewhere for the night.
Our charter bus navigated thin, winding streets and eventually slowed to a stop outside of the Hand Hotel, our spooky, antiquated accommodations. After checking in, I spent time observing the cemetery that sat right up against the side of the building from my parents’ room window, exploring the confusingly-oriented staircases and figuring out how to lock my room’s door without breaking the rusty doorknob. I was instantly charmed by the hotel and its quirks.
Many of my fellow travelers and I embarked on a walk around the town, Llangollen. It was clear to us that we were seeing a preserved piece of history in the small town of about 3,000 people. Rather than disrupting the local way of life, however, we simply observed the little shops along the streets and danced to the music emanating out of the bars.
The backside of the hotel offered a nice view of the River Dee, which sliced through Llangollen with serenity rather than bubbling rapids. My friends and I walked to the edge of the river and threw stones in the water, rippling the mirror-like surface. We took some photos to commemorate our single evening in the Welsh countryside and began back toward the road that would lead us through town to the hotel’s entrance.
Along the way, we were once again entranced by the sounds of live music echoing down the street. It led us to a small restaurant and bar where we found many of the adult chaperones in our tour group already sitting and sipping wine. The band playing the music was Jack Found, and the group was using a curious array of instruments—a box drum that doubled as the percussionist’s seat and a brassy trombone, to name a few. The music was lively and fun, and soon, the locals and tourists in the bar were all dancing along together. The moment was perfect. I felt like I was experiencing all of the best parts of being human: energetic music, carefree dancing and physical togetherness.
The following year, after the pandemic had convinced me there would never be opportunities for travel again, I reminisced on that night in Llangollen. The sights I saw on that trip were amazing—I’ll never forget Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Versailles and the Trinity College Library. But Llangollen was special in a different way. I adored the picturesque Welsh landscape and felt so welcome in the little town, even as a tourist. If I have more chances to travel in the future, I’ll be thinking of Llangollen every time I pass through a “hidden gem” like it.