Sometimes Donegal seems more like a country than a county amongst many. Situated in the remote northwest of the island, and further isolated by wild landscape, country roads and a coastline that cut and curves, the word “escape” doesn’t even begin to do it justice.
And as all travellers know, there are rewards to venturing off the beaten track. Take Glenveagh National Park, where the Derryveagh Mountains frame a valley that wouldn’t look out of place in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. So wild is the landscape here, golden eagles have successfully been reintroduced to the skies overlooking Lough Veagh. The elusiveness of the place is even echoed in a signature in the park castle’s guest book, too – that of Greta Garbo.
Or venture out to the stunning Slieve League peninsula, where two other movie stars – Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick – keep a holiday cottage far away from the madding New York City crowds.
Stretching from Donegal towards the Gaeltacht village of Glencolmcille, you’ll rarely have much traffic to contend with. And the road literally runs out at the show-stopping Slieve League cliffs. Dropping 600 metres into Donegal Bay, they’re amongst the tallest in western Europe… and an unforgettable hike.
Wanna catch a wave? Bundoran was recently named one of the World’s 20 Best Surfing Towns by National Geographic. The resort was recommended for “the salty surf traveller who doesn’t mind surfing in cold water or rain”, in a tactful nod to the wild weather of Donegal. National Geographic went on to praise the warmth of its locals as much as the quality of its waves. You’ll find more of both at Rossnowlagh, Dunfanaghy and the Fanad Peninsula.
Of course, surfing is only the start of the outdoor options. Salmon fishing, diving in Donegal Bay, rock-climbing on offshore islands, or hiking along the inclement sea cliffs of the Atlantic shore: you won’t want for fresh air in the northwest.
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An island fit for a king
Donegal is Ireland’s second-largest county (after Cork), so perhaps all of this diversity is not so surprising. Take the Inishowen Peninsula. This isolated idyll took the glory from our more northerly neighbours recently by welcoming the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) to its shores during a peak in the sun’s activity.
Then there’s hiking in the Bluestack Mountains, ancient forts, seaside taverns and several Irish-speaking Gaeltacht regions that await those who take to the roads in this far-flung county.
And it can get very far-flung: 14.5 kilometres off the northwest coast, Tory Island is a place where islanders still talk of “travelling to Ireland.” Shipwrecks, poitín (Irish moonshine) smuggling and violent storms have all been drawn into folklore here. And ancient customs are still in place – including the appointment of the island king, or Rí Thoraí.
Make the trip, and you can expect a royal welcome, too.