Secret Ireland: Donegal Bay
The secret beach
Driving west along Donegal's Slieve League peninsula, passing through Killybegs with its fleet of tough trawlers, it feels like the next stop should be a whaling outpost rather than a peachy patch of sand.
A couple of kilometres later, however, a tiny little bohareen cuts off to the left, dipping down at an acute angle, and -- whack -- a beautiful beach unfolds.
This is Fintra.
It's no secret to locals, but flies firmly below the national radar, and I find it deserted save for a woman walking her dog. Hills strewn with gorse, brambles and broad-leaf grasses frame the demerara-sugar sands, and there's a very shallow slope into the water.
Fintra is a Blue Flag beach, with lifeguards on duty during July and August from noon to 6pm.
Walking towards the end of the strand, I find a little cottage under a wooded hill.
I can see exactly why Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick keep their Irish holiday home nearby.
Details: See discoverireland.ie/ Donegal.
The pit stop
Café Beag, Ballyshannon
Inis Saimer, a little island in the Erne Estuary, is where settlers are first said to have landed in Ireland, way back around 2,700BC. But it's not the only curiosity punching above its weight in Ballyshannon.
Café Beag, on The Mall, is a small café and cake shop with a big heart. Stepping inside, I find no more than six or seven tables in a room decorated with family photos, a St Brigid's Cross and lots of chipper little platitudes -- 'Coffee, Chocolate, Men: The richer the better'; 'Nobody notices what I do until I don't do it', and the like.
So far, so twee. But then I start leafing through the menus. It's Fiver Friday, and a latte is available with a Bakewell tart and cream for €5.
Ham salad on brown, homemade soda bread also gives me change from a fiver.
Café Beag is big on home baking and freshly ground coffee, and you can pre-order birthday or wedding cakes and desserts to take home.
Unlike those early settlers, however, I don't have time to stick around.
I grab my sambo and Bakewell, and hit the road again.
Details: The Mall, Ballyshannon, Co Donegal. Tel: 071 985 8832.
The summer skill
It's easy to get lost in the dunes of Tullan Strand. This 2km-long stretch of wispy sands is best known for its surfing, but look closely at the grassy hummocks bordering its run between Bundoran and the Erne Estuary -- you're bound to see the odd rider, too.
I hook up with the nearby Donegal Equestrian Centre to give beach trekking a go. Saddling up a couple of horses, it takes just a few minutes to cross the road, mount up and start plodding through the trenches.
Soon, soft scoops of sand are being thrown up by horses' hooves.
The trails are maze-like, cut through the marram grass in a network you could visit dozens of times without re-tracing the same path.
The pace is gently hypnotic, rising to super views over the coastline and waves peeling in towards a strand that is all but deserted.
Because the trenches hug the horses tightly, and the sand is soft underfoot, the trek is easy for a beginner like me. But more advanced riders can take to the wide open spaces on the strand, where the horses' instincts to canter and gallop kick in, and the whole experience ups a gear.
Details: From €30/€25 per hour. Tel: 071 984 1977; donegalequestriancentre.com.
The picnic spot
Rougey Walk, Bundoran
Hundreds of spectators lined the cliffs above Tullan Strand to watch the European Surfing Championships last year, but how many of them noticed the fairy bridge? Or the wishing chair, for that matter?
Both overlook the beach at the beginning of the Rougey Walk, a short, 20-minute cliff path connecting Tullan with Bundoran town.
The fairy bridge is a sea arch; the wishing chair a stone seat where locals say you can wish for anything -- as long as it's not love or money.
It'll have to be world peace, then. That, and good weather for a picnic overlooking the sea.
From the fairy bridge, continue towards Bundoran via the golf links and Aughrus Head, rounding the bend past Rougey Rock and its diving boards -- another brilliant summer swimming spot.
Details: Tel: 071 984 1350; see discoverbundoran.com.
The overnight suggestion
The Creevy Experience
In 1988, a terrible tragedy struck Donegal Bay. "Three people went out in a boat and the sea took their lives," as Margaret Storey explains simply.
The Creevy community's response to the tragedy, and hard times faced by the local fishing industry, however, has been remarkable.
First, they mapped out a 10-mile coastal walk, marked by yellow posts spotted between Ballyshannon and Rossnowlagh.
Then they acquired a charter boat, An Duanai Mara, which visitors can hire for anything from deep-sea fishing trips to a few hours catching mackerel.
Next, the Creevy Co-op -- which Margaret manages -- developed several derelict cottages into eco-friendly, self-catering accommodation.
Built by locals, the stone cottages bear the names of bygone characters such as Big Jimmy and Mary Kate, enlivening a four-star, pine-strewn fit-out with inspired little touches such as fresh scones on arrival, a basket of turf, a Fair Trade welcome pack and an outhouse that's purpose built for anglers to process their catch.
My favourite is Kitty's cottage.
In summer, when the evenings are bright, you'll find local kids leaping off nearby Creevy pier, whooping away as they splash into the sea by a memorial stone remembering the fishermen who lost their lives all those years ago.
Details: From €699 per week in July/August. Tel: 071 985 2896; creevyexperience.com.
The summer cycle
You can't beat a good local guide. They come brimming with local knowledge and beat Google every time. And they don't come much better than Keith Corcoran.
Keith grew up near Donegal town, where he has been gathering stories since an early age, visiting older people in the area and collecting their tales in his notebook.
"I haven't got around to a book yet, but I will someday," he says.
In the meantime, literature's loss is the two-wheeled tourist's gain, as the stories form a central part of Keith's guided cycles in the area.
Take Lough Eske, circuited by an easy 20km loop from Donegal. On their own, the lake views, stop-offs such as Ardnamona Woods, and the Bluestack Mountains backdrop would make anyone's afternoon, but Keith's anecdotes add a whole new dimension.
The Famine pot near Solis Lough Eske Castle not only served up soup in the 1840s, he tells me, but found a later use for brewing poitin. Lough Eske itself froze so thickly during the construction of the Great Northern Railway, horses were able to drag timber across its surface.
Highwaymen and Brian Friel in search of inspiration are just some of the other stories.
Watch out, too, for O'Donnell's Island, which contains the ruins of a medieval keep.
"That's the O'Donnell's of Donegal Castle, not the O'Donnell's of Daniel," he deadpans.
Details: €90 for up to six cyclists. Tel: 087 921 3200; see journeyin wonder.com.
The outdoor dip
St John's Point
On a map, St John's Point is like a miniature Italy dropped into Donegal Bay. Driving along it, the pint-sized peninsula gets thinner, the houses get scarcer, until I come to a curve of beach just before a cattle grid.
The colours look cut from the Caribbean. It's mouthwatering.
It's one of those days when the sun is shining but the wind would slice you in two.
You can swim here, but I've gotten another tip from Feargus Callagy of Freedive Ireland -- carry on over the cattle grid, following the zig-zagging bohareen all the way to St John's Point lighthouse.
Parking just above the harbour light, I walk in a southwesterly direction to a little slipway in a sheltered cove, surrounded by wildflowers and clear water.
It's blooming freezing, but nothing a good wetsuit won't handle, and there are amazing views of Sligo and Ben Bulben.