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Ireland on a Shoestring: €99 night away in Donegal

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Glenveagh National Park

Glenveagh National Park

Shell beach

Shell beach

Whins B&B

Whins B&B

Lobster Pot Burtonport

Lobster Pot Burtonport

Glebe House & Gallery

Glebe House & Gallery

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Glenveagh National Park

1 Catching waves in Dunfanaghy

The perfect surfing beach doesn't exist, but if it did, you'd probably find it near Dunfanaghy.

Remote, under-the-radar and subjected to all of Donegal's delicious weather vagaries, its diverse beaches and strands throw up waves you'd be hard pressed to find in Australia.

Of course, the water is cold. But when I hook up with Lee Wood of Narosa, the local surf school, fears of ice-cream headaches soon fade away.

For starters, he issues me a wetsuit with gloves, boots and a peaked cap.

Then there's the fact that, despite the swell sending perfect waves into its sandy shore, Marble Hill beach is completely empty.

Plonking boards on the sand, we run through the basics -- how to paddle, pop-up, balance in a standing position.

Of course, what works on land quickly turns to mush in the water, but it's super fun.

Lee calls out the tips -- look where you mean to go, lean back to slow down -- and gradually I work up some consistency, catching the smaller white water in towards shore.

"You have to be almost Jedi-like to ride the waves when they start to power down," he says, in a rather flattering description of a grown man flailing about in three feet of water.

But the force is with me. And thanks to this super-enthusiastic surf coach, it's with Dunfanaghy, too.

Details: First lesson from €25pp (quote 'Irish Independent'). Tel: 086 883 1090; narosalife.com.

2 Time stands still at Glebe House & Gallery

Derek Hill was an English painter who first came to Donegal in the 1950s, and was so taken with the landscape, people and particularly Tory Island, he went on to make it his home.

Hill died in 2000, but visiting Glebe House, it's as if he shuffled away only yesterday.

Inside the old rectory near Churchill, immaculately maintained by curator Adrian Kelly, I find his own works alongside an eclectic collection including Jack B Yeats, Mary Swansea and Renoir.

In the kitchen, paintings by the Tory Islanders that Hill inspired hang by the Aga -- a stunning ocean scene by James Dixon, a dubious mermaid with what looks like a builder's bum.

The quality is fascinatingly variable. Beside them, on a cupboard, sits a ceramic by Picasso.

The places oozes atmosphere.

Greta Garbo once visited. There's a guestbook signed by Anjelica Huston, a pair of snakeskin slippers left under the bed, a bathroom cabinet still stocked with Hill's lotions and potions.

And that's not even starting on the gallery and woodland gardens.

Details: Re-opens May 26; €3/€1. Tel: 074 913 7071; heritageireland.ie.

3 Lunch at the Lobster Pot, Burtonport

You can't miss the Lobster Pot in Burtonport. Just look for the building with a giant lobster affixed to its wall. It's big, red and gloriously fake, like a B-movie prop designed by Macnas.

Inside, I find chirpy service and a surprisingly well-stocked menu.

The 'popcorn shrimp' -- hand-battered prawn tails with fresh salad and homemade chips (€11.95) -- looks tempting.

It's a whopper of a portion, served with a bowl of hand-cut chips and a ramekin of fresh tartar sauce. The batter is light; the harbour so close, the seafood could have hopped on to the fork.

The pub is warmed by a cosy stove, and decorated with dozens of signed sports jerseys -- football, hurling, Manchester United, even a scarf from USA '94.

Donegal has never exactly been famed for its food, but chipper little gems like this could start to change that.

Details: Tel: 074 954 2012; lobster pot.ie; donegalgoodfoodtaverns. com.

4 The Great Outdoors: Glenveagh National Park

Is Glenveagh the wildest place in Ireland? Driving from Letterkenny, it certainly seems so.

With every passing mile, the landscape grows more desolate, the roads more bumpy. At the heart of it, in the National Park, lies a valley that would turn heads in New Zealand.

A Victorian castle overlooks Lough Veagh, whipped up and choppy with the wind.

The Derryveagh Mountains look like fraying furniture, granite lumps sticking through the fabric.

Keep your eyes peeled and you could spot deer, one of the park's reintroduced golden eagles or the ghost of Black Francie, a legendary highwayman who made the place his home.

You'll also sense a careful guiding hand. The castle gardens strike an ordered note among the 16,000 hectare wilderness. Rhododendron has been brought under control.

There's a creamy line of cakes in the tearooms, and you can join park rangers on guided walks.

The glen itself can be enjoyed with a few minutes of moseying, or a hike that stretches several miles (a free shuttle bus, departing at 10am on weekends, drops walkers off at the head of the glen).

The only annoyance is the midges, but as one of the display panels in the visitor centre puts it, national parks are for all sorts of creatures.

Details: Tel: 074 913 7090; glenveaghnationalpark.ie.

5 Splendid isolation on Arranmore Island

My Arranmore adventure begins before I leave the mainland. Stopping at the top of the slipway in Burtonport, I find Seamus Boyle's 60ft ferry waiting below, its thin ramp beckoning like a tongue.

Not only does he want me to drive on, it emerges, but I also have to do it in reverse.

One hair-raising manoeuvre later and we're chugging through the narrow channels between Rutland and Inis Coon.

It's a short, sweet crossing, docking at the island within 15 minutes.

Arranmore has been in the news recently, after a report on the survival of Donegal's islands found its population has dropped from 768 in 1988 to 487 today.

Circuiting the ring road, the only other soul I meet is a man walking his dog. He cuts a lonely figure against the azure Atlantic Ocean, the brackish corrie lakes and the boggy, wind-whipped hills.

But the desolation has a certain beauty, too.

There's a harbour strewn with netted fishing pots, a tiny post office and a hill -- Cnoc an lolair -- named for the white-tailed eagles that once nested upon it.

I soak it up, until Seamus' boat comes to take me back again.

Details: Return fares: €30 (car and driver)/€15 (foot passengers)/€10 (foot passengers bringing a copy of this article).

Tel: 087 317 1810; arranmorefastferry.com.



6 Overnight at The Whins B&B

'Whins' is a word for gorse in northwest Donegal, and you can see plenty of the stuff from Anne Marie Moore's B&B.

Sitting eating breakfast by the window, there are yellow spurts dotting Horn Head, Sheephaven Bay and the links golf course outside.

It's a friendly stay, with quirky touches. My room boasts a four-poster, with lace trims and an antique dressing table and wardrobe.

In the sitting room, a tea and coffee station is flanked by a small container of mini-muffins.

Here, another big window looks out on to the coast, with a tempting pair of binoculars on the table in front of it.

Breakfast is served in a sea of pine, with good filter coffee, a sideboard of muesli and fresh fruit, and toast in the all-important rack.

Before going to bed, you can tick your choice of eggs, cooked breakfasts, porridge and cold cuts too. Mine is a full Irish, to set me on my way.

In Dunfanaghy itself, I quell my surfer's appetite with a pint and a plate of beef stew at the cosy Oyster Bar, and I'd also recommend the muffins in the bright and breezy Starfish Café.

Details: From €35pp. Tel: 074 913 6481; thewhins.com.



7 Happy habitats at Ards Forest Park

A colossal swell rolls into Sheephaven Bay, making the ocean look almost painterly. Waves ghost past in crescents, rearing up, snarling and smashing into the shore.

It's a stunning sight, all the more unusual given that I've accessed it via a forest park. But then Ards isn't your usual forest park.

Fronting on to the coast near Creeslough, its 1,200 acres contain woodlands, salt marshes, rock-faces, lakes, a playground and hidden beaches.

I walk a coastal stretch with Lee Wood of Narosa surf school.

At Lucky Shell Beach, we wait for a wave to suck back into the froth, before legging it over the wet sands and scaling Bingorm Point for wide-open views of the back strand and Horn Head.

Details: €4 (in coins) for the barrier. See discoverireland.ie/donegal.

THE BUDGET

All prices are calculated per person, and include one night's accommodation, two meals (breakfast and lunch/dinner) and all activities.

We've also added €10 for incidentals. NB: Prices subject to change and availability.

money-saving tips

Narosa surf school is very proactive with packages, offering to do a surf lesson with B&B and a two-course dinner at Arnold's Hotel (arnoldshotel. com), for example, from €90pp.

You'll also find lots of spring special offers from Donegal on discoverireland.ie/specialoffers.

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