The Republic of Ireland’s fourth largest county, an isolated offshoot in the far north west of the country – even more northerly than Northern Ireland – is an area of outstanding natural beauty obtruding into the wild Atlantic, and so often overlooked by its very setting far-flung from the rest of the Emerald Isle. But it is in this very seclusion that Donegal delights: soaring sea cliffs – Europe’s highest are reputedly at Slieve Leag on the west coast – a coarse and craggy coastline weathered and saw-toothed enough to effect the natural sea inlets or loughs that snake inland; a low mountainous interior scattered with serene glens and sparsely populated communities; and a lush topography to top it all off.
Donegal © http://www.ireland.com
This is Donegal. And in celebration of St Patrick’s Day, my sister-in-law, now based in London but a Buncrana native – Donegal’s second largest town, on the banks of Lough Swilly – divulges her Top Five favourite spots in one of Ireland’s most disregarded regions:
1 Mamore Gap
On the way to Malin Head, the most northerly point in Ireland, you pass through Mamore Gap, a very remote part of the country but at the same time so natural a setting on the renowned Wild Atlantic Way. The scenery is just so ruggedly stunning as you reach the top of the Gap and head over into the northern part of the Inishowen Peninsula towards Malin Head. In fact, part of the Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, was filmed in and around the area complete with a space-age construction set up on the cliffs near Banba’s Crown, a promontory perfectly placed for viewing the Northern Lights.
This lovely little seaside town across the Lough Swilly from Buncrana, and accessible from there by a small ferry service in the summer months, has a beautiful hotel, Rathmullan House, in the most spectacular of settings looking out over the lough. It’s close to the northern starting point of the Wild Atlantic Way – a 1,553 mile tourist route instigated in 2014 that traces the western coast of Ireland – and is the perfect base for exploring the trail’s key points of interest in County Donegal. I have a particular soft spot for this place too as it’s also where my brother got married!
3 Fanad Peninsula
Driving along the coast road north of Rathmullan towards the mouth of Lough Swilly, you’ll come to Portsalon Beach, once voted the second most beautiful beach in the world by The Observer. It’s an absolutely stunning spot for relaxing, enjoying the breathtaking views and taking a bracing stroll to blow the cobwebs away. Travelling further north again towards Fanad Head is some of the world’s most naturally untouched, tranquil and untamed stretches of coastline. The lighthouse here, built in the early 19th century, stands sentry over the windswept North Atlantic with striking views all around. As quoted by Great Lighthouses of Ireland, ‘Standing between idyllic Lough Swilly and sandy Mulroy Bay, Fanad Head Lighthouse has been voted one of the most beautiful lighthouses in the world.’ You can even stay at the lighthouse these days in a selection of self-catering accommodation.
My lovely sister-in-law and nephews at Fanad Lighthouse
For lovers of golf, this little village on the Inishowen Peninsula, set among the rolling hills and alongside the raw natural beauty of the Atlantic, is acclaimed for being one of Ireland’s premier clubs. The Ballyliffin Golf Resort boasts two links courses – 36 holes in all – bordering the ocean and the outstanding countryside around. It’s known for testing the most capable of golfers with a challenging game, not least because of its tough terrain and tackling the wild Atlantic elements! But at least post-game you can put your feet up in the clubhouse with a pint or two of Ireland’s finest and enjoy the panoramic sunset over Pollan Bay.
Ballyliffin golf course © http://www.ballyliffingolfclub.com
On the west coast of Donegal, we once stumbled upon the tiny hamlet of Kincasslagh – just about 40 inhabitants at the last count – which has its share of international recognition thanks to Irish folk favourite Daniel O’Donnell who hails from the area. The village is also home to Iggy’s Bar, a traditional pub which really is like stepping back in time. The food is just delicious, and they serve up a to-die-for seafood platter with every mouth-watering morsel tasting as though it’s just been fished fresh out of the sea! This washed down with a creamy pint of Guinness in such age-old surroundings and squalls of revitalizing sea air really is Ireland at its best!