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Donegal: Why not push the boat out?

MY trip to Donegal last weekend was like a video montage from one of those Discover Ireland promos. A young couple in windbreakers and good sturdy boots laughingly embrace on a white sandy beach. That's us, by the way. The image is enhanced by my companion's shock of red hair and freckles, while an unattended white horse gallops past in the breaking surf.

Cut to the couple in a small boat battling the elements on the high seas, with stunning green mountains rising in the background. Back on dry land, the couple share a joke with some local lads over a few pints of Guinness.

Ordinarily, I would be the first person to scoff at a Discover Ireland ad, joking you'd be more likely to be tailgated for having a 'D' reg than to be having the craic down the pub. Except that it all really happened! Rathmullan, Co Donegal, was the scene of this idyllic Irish holiday.

Rathmullan is a small town on Lough Swilly, a 40km-long sea inlet on the north tip of Donegal.

Once a naval base, due to its strategic location, Lough Swilly has a deep-water channel which allows the water to be sailed at all times, regardless of tides. When Boston-born graphic designer Rick Le Vert moved to Rathmullan, 10 years ago, he was surprised that Lough Swilly -- with its long naval history -- was not used more by the locals and he felt that many were disconnected from their environment.

Le Vert moved to Rathmullan in pursuit of a Donegal woman (this seems to a running theme in the area, many of the men I met were from elsewhere but, as they explained with a twinkle in their eye, if you want to keep your Donegal woman then you have to live near her mother!) and found he fell in love with the place as well. Despite having never sailed, Rick set about creating the Rathmullan Sailing and Watersports School, a not-for-profit, community-owned-and-run initiative for encouraging locals and visitors to enjoy the lough fully.

The watersports school offers a variety of sailing and kayaking courses for adults and children of all abilities, from morning taster sessions and week-long sailing courses to day-trips and midnight paddles for more experienced kayakers. I did an afternoon sailing taster session with one of the school's excellent instructors, Andrew. We had a whale of a time (apologies!) in one of the school's three-man sail boats, though turning, or "tacking" in sailing parlance, proved slightly too challenging for a certain rua-haired companion. He stuck to shouting an array of sailing phrases such as "ready about" and "lee ho", usually at inappropriate moments, while I made a valiant effort to harness the awesome power of the wind to propel us at exhilarating speeds across Lough Swilly.

The lough is the perfect place to learn to sail, as it is relatively sheltered with few commercial boats or other obstacles to contend with, though of course in 20km of open water I did still manage to collide with a small boy, I mean buoy.

Other brilliant activities on offer in Lough Swilly include surfing and stand-up paddle boarding. We chose a morning taster session of stand-up paddle boarding with Adventure One's Iain Gilmore (a Jersey man who fell for a Donegal woman and now lives less than a mile from his mother-in-law.) Stand-up paddle boarding is like asking someone to walk on an inflatable ball while playing the violin. Basically, a beginner's paddle board is like a very long solid surf board which you stand on and, using a long-handled paddle, do as good an impression of Pocahontas as you can muster.

Under Iain's excellent guidance, we were soon paddling around admiring the stunning view and chatting idly in the sunshine, our conversations occasionally punctuated by one of us falling off the boards. Stand-up paddle boarding is becoming a very popular endurance sport, and because of the element of balance required, it is excellent for building core strength.

After all the high-octane activities of the day it was a joy to return to our room at the stunning Rathmullan House. An elegant period house, originally built in 1820 as a summer house for Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Knox, it has been lived in by only three families in total. The Wheeler family, who've owned it for 50 years, converted it into a luxury hotel and are constantly updating its interiors and facilities, making it a delightful base for lovers of Donegal and watersports alike. Once I had a soak in my elegant claw-foot bathtub, and then a holistic massage from the lovely therapist at the well-being centre, I was ready to gorge myself in the hotel's award-winning restaurant, The Weeping Elm. After a very civilised drink and amuse bouche by the fire in the drawing room, we were led to the dining-room where culinary delights unfolded.

We were dazzled by dishes made with produce from the house's own walled garden, as well as locally caught fish and Donegal silver salmon, which is farmed on the lough by Marine Harvest, a highly regarded centre for aquaculture. Marine Harvest is also deeply committed to promoting the community of Rathmullan through generous sponsorship of community initiatives. Rathmullan House is just a five-minute walk from the pier and sailing school. It is set in private gardens with views of the beach and Lough Swilly and is a luxurious base from which to explore.

This weekend the Lough Swilly festival, Seafest, takes place for the second year. Seafest is a true testament to the passion and commitment of the people of Rathmullan. Thanks to Rick and the sailing school, and Iain at Adventure One, all water sports are available to try out free of charge during Seafest. There are family activities and delicious food on offer, along with music, entertainment and craft beers, including Rick's own brew, Scraggy Bay. This is a unique festival created by a community passionate about their home and who want to share that passion.

Incidentally, I wasn't conjuring up the Discover Ireland connection merely for the sake of a pithy intro to this article; in fact the beach I was standing on was none other the award-winning Ballymastocker beach. A beach so stunning that no Discover Ireland ad worth its salt would be without a shot of it. I will admit, however, that the white horse may have been an embellishment.

Sunday Indo Living