A Circuit of Donegal: 12 great reasons to visit The Forgotten County
Driving holidays in Ireland
Pól Ó Conghaile maps out a driving tour of Wild Atlantic Way wow moments in Ireland's northwest.
Donegal is arguably the most off-radar county on the Wild Atlantic Way.
Its drawcards range from Star Wars locations to snap-fresh seafood, from Blue Flag beaches to Blue Book boltholes, yet just 8pc of domestic holidays are spent here, according to Fáilte Ireland figures.
With no cities, no rail or motorway access and weather that swings from biblical to brilliant with the impulsiveness of a toddler, it’s not always an easy holiday choice.
But that’s all the more reason to visit.
Donegal is a dream landscape, and a scarcity of visitors (particularly off-season) has left parts of it spectacularly unspoiled. I spent a recent visit mapping out a three-day drving loop. It’s by no means definitive, but it is a thrilling taster.
1. Donegal Airport
Did you know Carrickfinn is one of the world’s 10 most scenic landings? That’s according to a global poll by private jet booking service, PrivateFly.
Dublin and Glasgow are Donegal Airport’s only destinations — but that makes it even more nostalgic. The terminal is tiny, the staff super-friendly, the queues short and the location just a short drive from Gweedore.
Flying from Dublin will save a four-hour drive, and Enterprise (enterprise.ie) — the airport’s only car hire desk — is warmly efficient. You’ll be good to go in minutes.
Details: Aer Lingus Regional (aerlingus.com) flies twice daily from Dublin to Donegal from €29.99. See also donegalairport.ie.
Distance: 50 minutes (flight) from Dublin Airport.
2. Arranmore Island
Donegal’s islands are a galaxy unto themselves, with highlights ranging from the King of Tory (Patsy Dan Rogers) to rock-climbing on Gola. Arranmore is easily reached by a 15-minute ferry crossing, depositing you right on the fringes of Western Europe.
Drive the island, potter about the harbour or go for a hike — when the weather co-operates, the thrashing ocean, brackish corrie lakes and boggy, wind-whipped hills are beautifully desolate. Oh, and before (or after) your trip, grab a quick seafood fix at The Lobster Pot (lobsterpot.ie).
Details: Car & driver fares from around €30 with arranmoreferry.com or arranmorefastferry.com from Burtonport.
Distance: 13km (allow 20 minutes) from Donegal Airport.
3. Horn Head
The drive from Burtonport past Bloody Foreland and the sweeping strand at Magheroarty is a stunner, but Horn Head is in a league of its own. Its 7km loop is the Wild Atlantic Way in a nutshell — from breathtaking cliffs to bobbing lobster pots and beaches like Trá Mór (which can only be reached by foot). Look out for Tory Island offshore, and the golden sands of Dunfanaghy peeled back at low tide to the southeast. On my last visit, the sky looked like it was made of sheep, but the impact remained.
PS: Horn Head can be walked or cycled as a loop from Dunfanaghy. See govisitdonegal.com or wildatlanticway.com for more to see and do in Donegal.
Distance: 56km (allow 1 hour, 15 minutes) from Burtonport.
4. Do Dunfanaghy
Bundoran gets the lion’s share of Donegal’s surfing press, but there’s just something about Dunfanaghy.
On a lesson with Narosa Life (from €35/€25), beaches like Marble Hill or the back bay at Falcarragh are your oyster. Instructors are clued-in and easygoing, thick wetsuits take the edge off the Atlantic, and kids as young as five or six get a kick out of riding ‘magic carpets’ in the froth (a tip: bring snacks or hot chocolate — peeling wetsuits off in chilly wind is the worst).
If you don’t fancy surfing, take a ride on the beach with Dunfanaghy Stables (€32/€27 for an hour), located just across the road behind Arnold’s Hotel. After your exertions, you’ll have earned an overnight and a bite at this cosy, family-run three-star on the strand (two nights’ B&B on special from €99pp this autumn).
Details: narosalife.com; dunfanaghystables.com; arnoldshotel.com.
5. Fanad Peninsula
The Fanad and Rosguill peninsulas are the smaller siblings of Inishowen, but both are full of the stonking views (pictured main) Donegal seems to produce on tap. Highlights are Portsalon’s epic sandy beach, overlooking Ballymastocker Bay, and the Blue Book’s Rathmullan House. The Tap Room here does a mean wood-fired pizza — make a point of washing yours down with a local Kinnegar farmhouse beer.
Details: rathmullanhouse.com; kinnegarbrewing.ie; slowfood-co.com.
Distance: 57km (allow a good hour and 20 minutes via Portsalon, with detours).
Star Wars recently touched down for a location shoot on Inishowen, giving some idea as to its rugged beauty. A day or two could easily be spent circuiting this peninsula alone — but however you manage it, don’t miss Malin Head and the Mamore Gap.
A cycling tour with Cycle Inishowen or rock-climbing adventure with Wild Atlantic Way Climbing will step up the adrenaline. At the right time of year, you may even see the Northern Lights.
Details: cycleinishowen.com; mountaintraining.ie; visitinishowen.com.
Distance: The Inishowen 100 is a 100-mile (160km) loop of the peninsula, but shorter drives also bring rewards.
7. Hit Harry’s
Harry’s Bar & Restaurant may not look like a foodie crossroads, but it most definitely is. Donal and Kevin Doherty’s roadside hub in Bridgend is low on food miles, high on quality (be sure to order at least one fish dish, though the belly of pork is hard to resist) and plates up what, pound for pound, is probably the best food in the county. For a detour, try Harry’s Shack at Portstewart, or the outlet soon to open in Derry City... every county could use a Harry’s.
Details: 074 936-8544; @HarrysDonal.
Distance: 48km (allow 50 minutes, without stops) from Malin Head.
8. Gorgeous Glenveagh
First, a warning. Do not underestimate the midges — these pesky park residents can lay the best plans to waste... picnics in particular. Other than that, Glenveagh is a slice of National Park paradise, with a slick visitor centre, dramatic valley and Victorian castle reminding me of Hogwarts whenever I visit. You can walk or cycle the 4km to the castle, or take a bus (€3/€2 return). Watch out for Golden Eagles, don’t skip the wonderful gardens, and round off your visit with midge-free munchies at the castle café. Even in inclement weather, there’s something otherworldly about the place.
Distance: 52km from Bridgend (allow around 45 minutes).
9. Solis Lough Eske
Solis Lough Eske Castle is Donegal’s only five-star hotel and, along with near-neighbour Harvey’s Point, one of the county’s twin towers of luxury.
The sandstone castle cuts a dramatic shape against the woodland and lake setting, with garden suites, a spa and leisure centre adding modern opulence. The old building offers the best atmospherics (wallow in the high-ceilinged Gallery Bar, with its enviable craft spirit selection), and breakfast in Cedar’s genuinely exceeds expectations.
Ooh-moments range from a dedicated pancake maker to takeaway hot chocolates, and friendly staff action things quickly. Variable Wi-Fi was being addressed on our visit, but it’s a space you’ll feel like coming back to again and again.
Details: A midweek special has two nights’ B&B with one dinner and afternoon tea from €499 for two (solishotels.com).
Distance: 64km (allow an hour and 10 mins) from Glenveagh National Park.
10. Slieve League
From Donegal, the final section of our driving circuit veers on to the Slieve League Peninsula — crazily under-rated in comparison to the tourism honeypots of West Cork and Kerry. The soaring cliffs (and dizzying One Man’s Pass) are justifiably famous, but don’t miss the more off-beat attractions, including a dip beneath the lighthouse at St John’s Point, seafood at the Village Tavern in Mountcharles, and the Gaeltacht around Glencolmcille.
Details: villagetavern.ie; see also greatlighthouses.com.
Distance: 55km or just over one hour from Donegal town to the cliffs.
11. Malin Beg
Is this Donegal’s most breathtaking beach? Granted, a county with 13 Blue Flag beaches will throw up its fair share of competition, but it’s hard to top Silver Strand. Cut from the cliffs at the edge of the earth, set way beyond the reach of phone signals and overlooked by happily munching sheep, those who make the journey in the off-season are often rewarded with the place to themselves.
Distance: 20km (allow 40 mins) from Slieve League to Silver Strand/Malin Beg.
12. Nancy’s of Ardara
Ardara is famous for its tweed and knitwear, but visitors shouldn’t miss the modern crafts at the Donegal Designer Makers’ shop, and the warren of old rooms making up Nancy’s bar. Sit in the back for the best light and gobble a juicy prawn cocktail before moseying around the memory-lane interiors (check out the teapot collection in the sitting room). You’ll leave smiling.
Details: nancysardara.com; donegaldesignermakers.com.
Distance: 41km (allow 1 hour) back to Donegal Airport in Carrickfinn.