A day in the life: South Donegal
Story of the day
"If it's raining at all, it'll be raining on Slieve League," a local man tells me. Perhaps this is one reason why South Donegal doesn't attract the tourist traffic volumes of Clare and Kerry -- despite boasting a landscape that arguably tops both. At its worst, the sogginess makes everything seem covered in Vaseline. At its best, it's a revelation.
Activity of the day
Since Richie Fitzpatrick set up a surf school in his mother's shop 15 years ago, the sport has come to redefine Bundoran. Surfing is one of the few seaside businesses trading well in the recession, and four schools, two shops and regular festivals have extended the season here and freshened up the town's tacky arcades, chippers and nightclubs.
I hook up with Patrick O'Donnell of Turf 'n' Surf (071 984 1091; turfnsurf.ie; €35/ €25) for a lesson on Tullan Strand. Surfing has a sexy image that's undermined the minute I squeeze into my wetsuit, but it's bloody invigorating. This is my fourth or fifth tryout, and Patrick gets me riding several baby waves into shore.
"The idea is to give two hours of fun," he laughs. "So you can go away having stood up on the board, rather than training for the Olympics..."
View of the day
Derek Vial (086 050 0026; tourdonegal.com) is a trained archaeologist offering tours of South Donegal, and I join him for a circuit of the Slieve League peninsula. The route is like the Ring of Kerry minus the tour buses.
We drive from lovely Donegal town ("since it was bypassed, a lot of us actually drive through it") through Mary Coughlan country, Killybegs and out past Fintra Beach.
There are countless quirks. In Muckross, we pass the blue- and-white cottage belonging to Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick. At St Kieran's Well, I grab one of the upturned mugs in front of the saint's kitschy effigy and scoop a sup of holy water.
Then it's into the Gaeltacht and up to the Slieve League cliffs themselves. Plunging into the Atlantic below, I can't understand why they lack the profile of the Cliffs of Moher. They're just awesome.
Discovery of the day
There's a man overboard in Killybegs, and it's up to me to find him.
At least, that's the scenario in the simulator at Killybegs Maritime & Heritage Centre (074 974 1944; www.visitkilly begs.com; €5/ €4).
Located alongside old looms and musty photos in the former Donegal Carpets factory, its three screens do a surprisingly realistic impression of a wheelhouse -- so much so that I actually feel a little queasy. Needless to say, the man overboard is not located in the allocated five minutes. Just as well my job is to describe these adventures, rather than actually carry them out.
Dish of the day
The four-course set menu at Cuisine Art in Harvey's Point (074 972 2208; harveyspoint. com), the award-winning four-star on Lough Eske, costs €59. The price includes coffee and an amuse bouche, but with a seven-course Michelin-starred tasting menu now available in Dublin for €50, is it justified?
Dinner starts well, with a mackerel dish boasting a fresh, vinegary bite that has me feeling about 10pc healthier. My main course is a fillet of black sole from Killybegs, served with brown shrimp, cucumber, orange and passion fruit dressing.
To my palate, the whole doesn't quite rise above the parts, and it is served off-the-bone, rather than on -- which is what I ordered.
I leave smiling, however, thanks to the excellent restaurant manager, Damien McClay. He knows his dishes (the mackerel was his suggestion), and takes full responsibility for the minor mix-up with the sole.
He is engaged without hovering, precise without being pedantic, and a good example of the kind of customer service we lost sight of in this country. People really do make a place.
Remains of the day
From Ard Na Breatha guesthouse to Solis Lough Eske Castle, this corner of Donegal doesn't lack for quality accommodation. Harvey's Point itself (B&B from €89pps) has a great story. After falling for the area 26 years ago, Swiss visitor Jody Gysling bought a cottage from two brothers named Harvey.
He added to it year by year and today, the family-run hotel has 76 bedrooms and is capable of handling one-on-one fly-fishing trips and mega-weddings simultaneously.
I love the idea of a hotel radiating out from the original cottage hearth. And though the build-as-you-go approach doesn't always work (connecting corridors are a bit long and chilly), its charm wins out.
Staff are personable, breakfast first-class, and it's all tied together with large and luxurious country house-styled bedrooms.
Harvey's Point is a hotel run as a vocation rather than an investment. For more details, see discoverireland.ie/ northwest.