Sunday 11 December 2016

North Donegal: Journey's end for a pint and pizza and peace

Short breaks in Ireland

Published 10/10/2016 | 02:30

Lough Eske Castle hotel - beautiful spa and dog friendly
Lough Eske Castle hotel - beautiful spa and dog friendly
What more could a dog want? A beach to walk on, a room with patio, and just yards from a cellar bar - Rathmullan House from Lough Swilly
Flight of the Earls sculpture at Rathmullan
Campbell Spray at Malin Head

Campbell Spray had never been to Donegal. Here, he concludes the second part of his travel series.

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It ended as it began; with a pint and a pizza.

There might be 260 kilometres between Rathmullan on the banks of Lough Swilly in Donegal to Dublin's suburb of Phibsborough but they had one thing in common, a most hospitable place to munch brilliant pizza while quaffing craft beers.

It was fitting that it should be so, because it was in The Back Page in Dublin 7 that Donegal man Oisin Mc Ginley inspired our odyssey to his county, and where I had my first pint of Kinnegar beer, and now we were in the cellar bar of the renowned Rathmullan House, which, as well as serving the aforementioned Italian-inspired delicacies, acts as the Tap Room of the Kinnegar brewery, a kilometre or so away.

Campbell Spray at Malin Head
Campbell Spray at Malin Head

Of course our visit to North Donegal wasn't all food and beer, tasty as that was. We took in some of the most outstanding scenery we could imagine as well as being struck again - as detailed in my earlier article on South Donegal - by the friendliness of the locals. And that started before we began, Oisin's mother Annie Mc Ginley, then of Glencolmcille Post Office, heard we were coming to her county for the first time and sent us some brilliant illustrated tourist maps that not only wetted our appetites but became our bibles during our travels along the Wild Atlantic Way.

The most direct way to go from South Donegal, where we had spent the first few days, to the North is, of course, the N125/N13 from Donegal Town to Letterkenny; but for first-time visitors like us that would have been almost a crime. By not taking the N56, which winds around the coast, we would have missed some of the most spectacular sights both seaward and inland. We had only just got over being knocked out by Gweebara Bay before being rather entranced by Daniel O'Donnell's home town of Dungloe.

More: Donegal: How the northwest won a first-time visitor's heart

We didn't take in the singer's visitor centre, that treat still awaits us, as we wanted to make haste to Dunfanaghy and a lovely outdoor lunch in this beautiful town of galleries, cafes and craft shops, to match its beach and caves. Passing through Gweedore on the way we had stunning views of the Glenveagh National Park, the Derrveagh Mountains and Mount Errigal. Our first day ended with passing the Lough Salt Mountain and exploring the rather crumbling Georgian town of Ramelton. Then we made a quick visit to Letterkenny before heading up Lough Swilly to Rathmullan House, where we were spending two days in a beautiful dog-friendly room. Complete with its own patio where Sam could lie out, it was just yards from the Tap Room.

Rathmullan House is luxurious but still small enough to be amazingly friendly. I don't think I have ever been so fond of a hotel, its facilities or location. It was love at first sight and no wonder it is so popular with wedding parties who get the whole hotel to themselves. We also fell for the village - not just because it has a brewery! You can walk across the lawns of the hotel down to the beautiful two-mile beach and into the village itself where the McAteer family presides with wit, good company and brilliant local knowledge in The White Harte, which overlooks the pier, beach and putting green.

That night we dined in the Cook & Gardener Restaurant at Rathmullan House, which I found superb, yet as we found elsewhere while Donegal might be brilliant for fish and meat, its vegetarian options are limited.

What more could a dog want? A beach to walk on, a room with patio, and just yards from a cellar bar - Rathmullan House from Lough Swilly
What more could a dog want? A beach to walk on, a room with patio, and just yards from a cellar bar - Rathmullan House from Lough Swilly

My thirst for knowledge was more than sated the next day when Deirdra Friel (donegallheritagetrails.com) took me on a wonderful walking tour of Rathmullan. This is such a worthwhile thing to do, only costs €5 per person and gives you a real insight into the village which has been at the very centre of Irish history, whether it was the Flight of the Earls in 1607 or the visit of the British Grand Fleet in 1914. The walk gave me a real taste for the village - even when hearing the legend of Half-Hanged McNaughton - and when we returned to Dublin both of us started looking up house prices, business opportunities and planning our next visit.

In the afternoon we drove along Lough Swilly to Fanad Head and the imposing lighthouse which first shone its light on St Patrick's Day 1817. It was a superb scenic drive on both sides of the peninsula and had us constantly stopping to get out of the car to take photos and inhale the wonderful air.

After a night in the Tap Room where pizza and beers truly satisfied all our needs, we headed the next day to do a tour of the Inishowen Peninsula, which was surprising in its beauty, size and obvious pride of its inhabitants.

From Rathmullan pier, a ferry crosses to Buncrana, where you begin a magical meandering trip to Malin Head, taking in places like Fort Dunree, the stunning beach of Pollan Bay, the Doagh Famine Village and the beautiful White Strand Bay. At the head itself, the country's most northernly point and known locally as Banba's Crown, there is a cafe on wheels which serves a mean coffee.

We will make more time for Inishowen in future; there is so much to see, especially when you go down the other side past Glengad Head, Culdaff, Greencastle, Moyville and Quigley's Point to shoot along Lough Foyle, by-passing the City of Derry, as we headed back through Letterkenny on the direct route to Donegal Town and a night in the impressive Lough Eske Castle. Again it was a superb dog-friendly room for Sam on the ground floor, half way between the main hotel and the sumptuous spa for which the hotel is famous. If dinner was a bit mixed, as the restaurant was going through some rethinking, breakfast was great, including an omelette personally cooked before you. The staff were absolutely first rate and couldn't do enough for us.

There is such a sense of history in all of Donegal. It is, of course, stunningly beautiful but at only less than a morning's drive from the capital it enables you to truly get away and totally relax. We shall return many, many times.

Flight of the Earls sculpture at Rathmullan
Flight of the Earls sculpture at Rathmullan

Getting there

Embrace the Wild Atlantic Way of Life. Campbell Spray explored St. John's Point, Donegal Town, Killybegs, Rathmullan, and Lough Eske in Donegal. For more information and lots of inspirational ideas on what to see and where to go visit wildatlanticway.com

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