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The problem with Donegal is its location, while there are plenty of tourist visitors who manage to reach Ireland's most Northerly County every year, there just aren't enough who bother to travel that far. But what these people are missing is the finest county in Ireland. Before I deliver my little guide to Donegal, I should probably admit to at least a small amount of bias stemming from the fact that I was born there. Just so you know? Some of you may not know where Donegal is (heaven forbid that you?ve never heard of it!). It is situated in the North West of the country and borders Derry and evil Tyrone to the East and little Leitrim to the South. It's only a couple of degrees cooler than Dublin in the summer and so isn't that cold! It also offers some beautiful Atlantic beaches, fishing villages, vibrant inland towns and wonderful rural and coastal drives. First thing you'll need to get to Donegal is a car. The public transport infrastructure is awful (trains, what trains?) but the roads aren't that bad, well, not extremely bad. The signposts can be a little confusing with Ireland?s lovely mix of European future and British past linked through the fact that signposts can be in kilometres or in miles. The roads can meander, twist and turn so bring a decent map with you too, lest you want to go and get yourself lost. Getting lost is sometimes a hell of a lot of fun in Donegal, as it happens. Also bring clothes for all weathers, 'cos you never know what you are going to get up there, the weather today is not necessarily any indication what it will be like tomorrow or even in five minutes time. Inishowen is possible the most scenic part of Ireland and the tiny village of Malin, twice winner of the national Tidy Town award, provides a scenic base to explore the North of the county. The Malin Hotel is a small, friendly family hotel and perfect to stay in, certainly now under new management,. From Malin town you
can travel to Ireland's most Northerly point, Malin head, visit the cliffs and ?Hell's Hole? and the beautiful unspoilt Five Fingers beach at Lagg. The waterfall and glorious sandy beach near Clonmany are both gorgeous, though watch out for the midges at the waterfall in summer! Kinnagoe Bay provides a large slice of history with its Spanish Armada shipwreck, while the ancients aren?t too far away at Carndonagh Cross. Further afield there is night-life aplenty in Buncrana, especially McRory's Bar. In fact there are countless pubs and restaurants throughout the county that offer great service and entertainment. Shopping is catered for at Ballybofey and Letterkenny, but who want's to go shopping anyway? History is abound all over the county too. There is the Castle and O'Doherty's Keep in Buncrana, the ancient Grianan Aileach fort overlooking Lough Swilly and with views over six Northern Counties on a good day. Glenveagh Castle and its National Park provide those with an interest in both ?colonial? history and natural history with plenty to see and frankly, there are countless other places to visit that I?ve never been to! Golfing fanatics have some fine course to choose from, including those at Ballyliffin and Buncrana and there are ample hill-walking tracks as well as stables for horse riding. If you need to exercise your drinking wrists you can always head to a sports bar to watch the latest live action on TV. The capital, Donegal Town has quaint castle ruins and plenty of pubs to be going to. It provides a useful base to explore the more popular areas in the South of the county, of which my knowledge is somewhat lacking. Go anywhere round the county and you?ll find you can catch some folk music being played live in the pubs while the drinks flow. This may have turned somewhat into a clichéd view of Ireland, but it does hold water in Donegal. For driving the roads may not be super-smooth,
but they are im proving and the routes you can take on them are often beautiful. Try driving at least some of the Inishowen 100 drive. This offers spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean and you can see for miles across to Northern Ireland and even Scotland if you?re lucky. So many tourists come all the way to Ireland but don't travel that small distance to reach Donegal. So come on! Show a bit of imagination and you will be truly rewarded. In Donegal you can relax and soak in the scenery, enjoy sporting activities like canoeing and horse-riding, have your wild nights out in the pub or go for strolls along the beach. It has something for everyone and that something is pretty damn special.
The highlands eh! Breathtaking scenery, fresh air, friendly natives, great pubs, mountains, lakes, mountain-lakes even. Yes, the highlands is a wonderful place indeed. Oh, sorry, yes you're right of course, this opinion is about Donegal not Scotland, but did you know that the highlands of Ireland have everything that the Scottish Highlands have - all of it and then some! Ireland in general is great. I like Dublin, I've been there a few times, but never for very long. I love County Cork and County Clare. County Kerry has the most beautiful scenery anywhere in the world. I get a chill up my spine standing gazing at the wonder of the Giants Causeway in County Antrim. And the bars and clubs of Belfast take some beating (like Glasgow, but with a more lyrical accent!). All of those places are pit-stops though, places to spend a couple of days before moving on. Donegal I return to time and time again, I never tire of it. I love Ireland, all of it, but when I retire I want to spend my last years in County Donegal. When my time comes I would like to die there. I go there to chill out y'see. I go to stroll hand in hand with my husband along mile after mile of beautiful, spotlessly clean and almost deserted beaches. To take a few hours out alone and climb the magnificent, conical-shaped Mount Errigal and drink in the beauty of the views from the summit, to bask in the solitude, to fill my lungs with the freshest air. To sit by the shore at Fanad Head and hear the sea sing to me as the gentle breeze carries my troubles away. To take a run round the Alantic Drive, where the locals stop to give a cheery wave and a welcoming smile. To enjoy a pint or two and a bit of 'craic' in some of the friendliest pubs in the world. I love Donegal, when I go there I can forget it all and live only for the moment. Letterkenny is the largest town in Donegal, although it isn't actually the county town - a title which goes to Donegal Town. I usua
lly like to stay in Letterkenny simply because it is conveniently located in the centre of the county. It is claimed that Letterkenny is the fastest growing town in Europe, and I have no reason to think that is not the case. I remember the first time I visited as a fresh-faced 18 year old (not *that* long ago!!). We stayed in a B&B on the road into town and asked the landlady the quickest route to where it was all happening (although at that time there wasn't actually too much happening at all). She told us with great pride "go to the end of the road and take a left at the roundabout - we have a roundabout in Letterkenny now!!". She was delighted to be able to say they had a roundabout, and repeated the word several times in her following sentences! So there we were, four young hip-things glammed up to the nines and ready for a night on the town. We had a wee look in a trendy looking bar and seen that it was indeed full of people our age. We opened the door, walked in, and... silence. The whole place went quiet and everyone turned to look at us. Jeez, we were mortified!! It seemed that what was trendy in Glasgow was rather alien to Letterkenny - the more appropriate attire being the traditional arran sweater and wellies! We braved it out and went up to the bar for a drink as people slowly started talking again. Standing waiting on our drinks I heard one local girl remark of my friend "jaysus, would you look at that one - she thinks she's Madonna!" Needless to say for the rest of our stay we reverted to jeans etc. Things have changed in Letterkenny now though, it has caught up with the rest of us. The town is bustling with students and the youngsters from Derry City come though in busloads at the weekends for nights out. The rest of the county hasn't changed though, so a stay in Letterkenny gives the best of both worlds. Discos, shops and all the amenities you'd expect in a modern town sit on your doorstep - but
rural and unspoilt Donegal is only five minutes away. In her opinion about County Antrim, Gaelic Goddess said she loved "the near and far of it" - and I think that phrase precisely sums up why I like to bed-down in Letterkenny. If you don't have the misfortune of being an incurable townie like I am, the county is your oyster. There are loads of cottages for rent throughout Donegal and there are also countless B&B's, in every conceivable location. A quick search of the web should turn up exactly what you are looking for, but failing that a good starting point is http://www.totalireland.com/ Of course the real beauty of Donegal isn't to be found in any town or village, the real beauty lies in the landscape... so you really do need to get out there and discover it. If you are lucky (and I usually am when I go, even though I mostly go off-season) the weather will be clear. To be honest I think that Donegal is one of those places that blistering hot sunshine would somewhat spoil. The rugged beauty of the landscape is best complimented by a slight chill in the air, a fresh breeze and the wonderful solitude of it all. Mile after mile of beautiful clean beach always looks so much better when there is no-one there but you, don't you think? If, like I do, you love strolling along an almost deserted beach you really are spoilt for choice in Donegal. I've actually hit a bit of a dilemma now because I was going to recommend a beach or two, but where to start! OK, I'll bite the bullet and settle on one that I particularly like. The beach at Marble Hill, on a quiet day, is everything I think a beach should be. Arghh, just round the corner at Dunfanaghy is Killahoey beach - another beautiful blue-flag beach. And... around Sheephaven Bay (where Marble Hill sits), there are another couple of fine beaches. There you go then, one very small area of northern Donegal and I can't even decide on my favourite beach there -
how am I really supposed to pick one from the entire county!! Talking of Dunfanaghy, if you are a golfer there is an excellent links course there with gorgeous views across the aforementioned Sheephaven Bay. Other courses of note include the one at Portsalon which was voted the course with the second most beautiful views in the world! The course at Ballyliffin at the north of the Inishowen peninsula is also set among absolutely astounding views of the coastline. I'm not a golfer, but I have been known to do a wee bit of caddying when in Donegal - just for the walk that's in it! Mountains are another thing of beauty in Donegal. There are many great hills and mountains if you're into a wee climb, but none so wonderful as Mount Errigal. Errigal is the highest mountain in Donegal and is made even more impressive by the fact that it stands alone rather than buried anonymously within a range. Its conical shape makes it look just like you would imagine a mountain should look! Hidden away at the north eastern face is a gentle slope which allows even the unfittest of people to tackle a climb - although if you really want to test yourself do approach from the opposite side!. There is a photograph of the beautiful Errigal, taken by my good self, at: http://website.lineone.net/~irishpics/images/192_jpg.jpg If you are into hillwalking I can also fully recommend the aptly named Blue Stack Mountains, situated towards the south of the county - and also conveniently located close to Biddy's pub (one of the oldest in Ireland) for that post walk refreshment! One of the real wonders of Donegal is that it remains so sparsely populated. There is acre upon acre of deserted bogland which plays host to a variety of wildlife and plantlife. Take a walk through these areas and you will almost certainly see herds of red deer, hare's and if you are really lucky you might just spot a golden eagle soaring overhead. While driving thr
ough the county you will undoubtedly pass road signs that say "An Gaeltacht". These signify the boundaries of gaelic speaking areas, where the native language is in everyday use, relegating English to the secondary tongue. Don't let that put you off from stopping for a bite to eat or a wee drink in a local pub though. In my experience the local people in these areas are the friendliest in the whole country. Watch out for the road signs in these areas though - they are entirely written in gaelic! But don't worry too much about that because the anglicised versions of the town and village names are easy enough to work out since they were based phonetically on the gaelic versions. Pubs are wonderful in general in Donegal, particularly in the smaller villages. I won't start to make recommendations because there are far too many to mention (but do go to Biddy's that I mentioned above if you are passing!). On a recent visit to a pub in Rosnakil (the name of which escapes me) I had a little smile at a poster on the wall. "Grand Prize Draw - First Prize A Pig", and added in brackets as an apparent afterthought "and a sheep". Don't go into the pubs if you don't like talking to people though - the locals could talk the hind legs off a donkey! All that remains really is recommendations of areas to visit. There are a few lovely drives that you can take, but you will need a fair bit of time to see the entire county. The first drive I would recommend is the one around the Fanad peninsula. Whichever way you choose to drive (I always think clockwise is best) you will pass through the village of Kerrykeel going and coming back. If you leave early enough, and time permitting, on the return head for Millford from Kerrykeel and once at Millford take a right at the fork in the road - following the signs for Dunfanaghy. That will take you up to Sheephaven Bay which I mentioned above. Another full day drive is
around the Inishowen Peninsula which offers a stunning coastal drive. At the top of the peninsula you will find the Doagh Island Visitor Centre (I have written a separate review of there). I'd also recommend that you call into Gallaghers Hotel in Moville for a coffee or a spot of lunch (say hi to Patricia for me will ya!!). The National Park at Glenveagh is also worthy of a full day, as is a drive round the area called The Rosses on the western coast (a large Gaeltacht area). Umm, anywhere really, just get out there and see it!! One place you might want to avoid, or visit, according to taste, is Bundoran. Bundoran is a sort of holiday town with many caravan parks and hotels and all that jazz. Like most holiday towns it tends to get a bit rowdy at night, and it isn't a particularly clean place either. The only reason I call into Bundoran is to visit the pub called 'Frank O'Neills' on the main road. We had first met the owner, Councillor Joe O'Niell on the steps of the GPO in Dublin a few years back, and he insisted that we call in for a bevvy whenever we were in the area. Joe has since sold the pub to a woman called Marlene, who comes from Fife. I have enjoyed a freebie lock-in until four in the morning courtesy of Marlene so I do intend to go back! But that pub is the only reason I ever go to Bundoran and I wouldn't recommend it otherwise. Enough is enough, I've written over 2000 words here and hardly scratched the surface of this wonderful part of the world. I said at the beginning that when my time comes I would like to die in Donegal. I really cannot think of any place that I would rather spend my last years, so I am definitely planning on retiring there one day. I can't give anymore of a recommendation than that, can I? If you haven't been to Donegal do try to go there sometime soon. Just be warned though, once you go you will want to return time and again!