Ireland’s most rugged and ravishing county has been a much-loved retreat for artists, bohemians, outdoorsy types and holidaying families for decades, but it’s only now that the rest of the world is waking up to the charms of traversing Donegal by car. Dramatic, secluded beaches, craggy coastlines, soaring peaks, shimmering lakes, verdant valleys and time-warp harbours – all dotted with atmospheric country pubs and quaint seafood restaurants – recently propelled this north-west county to the top of National Geographic Traveller’s Cool List. “It’s a warm-hearted place, but wilderness always feels just a stone’s throw away,” says National Geographic Traveller editor Pat Riddell. “And it is wilderness – world-class wilderness.”
It’s definitely the coolest place on the planet right now if you’re a Star Wars fan. The region’s Inishowen peninsula was spectacularly showcased in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, with Malin Head being used to represent bits of Luke Skywalker’s isolated retreat, planet Ahch-To. This only added to the buzz around this long-overlooked corner of Ireland, further embellishing its hip credentials and making it the stuff of road-trip dreams. If you’re taking your car to Ireland by ferry to explore the attractions of Donegal, make sure you hop out at the following must-do spots.
Sink a pint at McGrory’s
Unassuming but atmospheric, 1920s family-run McGrory’s hotel in Culdaff has long been a local favourite, thanks to its open fires, a dazzling range of Irish craft beers and traditional music sessions. So much so that Daisy Ridley and the Star Wars crew had a night out there around filming, leading to a steady stream of Star Wars-struck visitors. Making the most of the welcoming atmosphere and seafood-heavy menu is now even more of a must.
Swap four wheels for two
While Donegal rewards road-trippers with sublime coastal scenery, isolated castles, private estates and ancient forests, it’s also a great spot to jump on a bike and blast some of that Atlantic sea breeze into your lungs. The peninsula at Horn Head, forming part of Sheephaven Bay, is perhaps the most scenic of all the Donegal peninsulas, where the cliffs rise to 180 metres (600ft) on the ocean side and provide breeding grounds for seabirds such as the European shag and razorbill. The Hornhead loop can be walked or driven, but biking is the best way to drink it all in, speeding past quartzite cliffs, mud flats, dunes and the salty New Lake area, complete with exceptional views of the Atlantic Ocean.
Scale Mount Errigal
The stark, striking quartzite mass of 751-metre Mount Errigal looms as you head east on the N56 from Gweedore. This is the tallest peak in County Donegal, and along with Mweelrea, is considered one of the most satisfying climbs in the county. Alternatively, drive to the coast and take a bracing walk at the highest sea cliffs in Europe – Slieve League. They stretch 600 metres (2,000ft) above the Atlantic Ocean at the highest point, with impressive views of the rugged coastline and Donegal Bay.
Lose yourself in Letterkenny
With a population of nearly 20,000, Letterkenny is Donegal’s most populous town, a confident and vibrant former market town famous for gothic-style St Eunan’s Cathedral – and its Hindu temple too. Donegal County Museum, housed in a 19th-century workhouse building, is a great place to get clued up on the county’s former industrial history, and, just south-west of town, the Newmills Corn and Flax Mills have a huge working waterwheel powered by the River Swilly.
Picnic at Glenevin waterfall
Glenevin waterfall is found at the top of a short hike of just over a mile through the woods in Clonmany, with nicely landscaped picnic areas, footbridges and stepping stones adding to the magic of this beautiful spot. Stock up on sandwiches, quiches and sweet treats at Claire The Bakers in Carndonagh beforehand.
Explore Malin Head on the Inishowen peninsula
Malin Head, Ireland’s most northerly point, offers spectacular views, and the northernmost tip, Banba’s Crown, is one of the most photographed spots in the county. Sip a flat white from the Caffe Banba coffee truck (which also has a standalone cafe in Carndonagh) and see if you can spot scenery that made an appearance in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Take a trip to Tory Island
Tory Island, just 8.5 miles off the mainland, is an island steeped in history and folklore, where Irish is spoken and the locals elect a king, who acts as the community spokesperson. Seventy-four-year-old musician Patsy Dan Rodgers has been king for two decades now, ruling over this island of 150 inhabitants, a single road, one church, one grocery store, one lighthouse, one hostel and a social club.
Surf the Atlantic
The Wild Atlantic Way is studded by tiny surf towns and beaches that have become legendary among the European surf community. Bundoran is widely considered one of the best surfing spots in Europe, and is fantastic for all kinds of water sports; and horseshoe-shaped Magheraroarty Strand and sand dune-backed Ballyhiernan Bay are both suitable for windsurfing and surfing. Beginners can get to grips with the sport at Inishowen, which has some of the most consistent waves in Ireland, due to its exposure to rolling swells. Its long stretches of golden sandy beaches make for safe surfing conditions and a pleasant environment for newbies.
Cook your catch
Catch and cook your own dinner on a fishing trip with An Duanai Mara Boat Charters, based in the fishing town of Killybegs. On these deep-sea angling trips (combined with sightseeing trips around Donegal Bay), you’ll have the chance to reel in a cod, ling or turbot, watch the skipper fillet it, and then feast on it at nearby Kitty Kelly’s restaurant.
Hike Glenveagh national park
Glenveagh national park is one of six in Ireland, encompassing some 16,000 hectares in the heart of the Derryveagh mountains. These lands were managed as a private deer forest before becoming a national park in 1975, and this is now bona fide wilderness, home to a lot of indigenous wildlife and rare plant species.
Explore Ireland from the comfort of your own car with Irish Ferries. Services run between Holyhead and Dublin; and Pembroke and Rosslare, with up to eight sailings per day – taking either two hours (the Dublin Swift) or 3 hours 15 (cruise ferry crossing). Prices start from £79 per car and driver each way. For more information see www.irishferries.com
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