Seaside Secrets: The Northwest
Pól Ó Conghaile discovers the hidden gems of Donegal on his latest coastal adventure.
The seaside shop
I'm standing on the promenade in Bundoran, watching surfers ride the peak beyond treacherous slabs of black rock, when I spot it. Sandwiched between a derelict old hall and a generic news-agents, like the little house in Pixar's 'Up', is The Bargain King.
This little green shop, with its peeling paint and crummy sign, is a complete blast from the past.
Need a bucket and spade? What about a pair of Spider-Man pyjamas? A framed photo of Mother Theresa, backlit and complete with plug? A pen with your name on it? A toy Tonka truck? It's like the original pound shop.
The current owners have run it for 30 years, but The Bargain King goes back further than that -- the shopkeeper tells me she still has pensioners coming in with their grandchildren, treating them to gifts in a shop they came to as kids themselves.
Details: Tel: 071 984 1700; discoverbundoran.com.
The bucket and spade beach
Portsalon Beach, stashed away in Ballymastocker Bay on the Fanad Peninsula, was once voted the second most beautiful on earth by 'The Observer' (after Anse Victoria in the Seychelles).
Mention it beyond north Donegal, however, and I'm not sure many people know it exists.
Portsalon is under the radar due to its remoteness. But if you make the trip to the western shores of Lough Swilly, you'll be rewarded with a mile of golden sands, safe swimming, floury dunes and even a secret surfing spot under the humpy Knockalla Mountain.
Complementing the huge beach is a little cove around the corner at Portsalon Harbour, where I've alternately snorkelled, built sandcastles and dived off the pier at high tide.
It's overlooked by Sarah's bar and restaurant and can get quite busy (not to mention tatty) on holiday weekends, but time your visit right and there isn't a better beach and pier combo in the country.
Details: discoverireland.ie/ donegal.
The summer boat trip
"Are you going on the boat trip?" asks a Canadian gentleman in his car. I am, I tell him. "It's awesome!" he gushes, a smile on his face the size of Fintra beach.
The trip in question is a sightseeing tour departing from Teelin Pier, winding its way along the coast to the brooding Slieve League cliffs. Paddy Byrne is the skipper, and his ship is the Nuala Star.
"If you see any whales or dolphins let me know," he quips, puttering out into Donegal Bay.
It's a gentle trip, giving close-up views of swirling patterns and clefts in the coast, and Paddy pops out of the cabin every so often to point out a Martello Tower, say, or storm beach from which ancient wreckage was salvaged. The cliffs themselves, as of this year the starting point for the Irish leg of the International Appalachian Trail, are simply awesome.
I can't get over the colours. Plummeting 1,972 feet into the Atlantic, they range from grassy green to rusty red and deepest black. Paddy is happy to let you swim, too -- one brave New Zealander pulls on his wetsuit and dives into the water. I can't think of a nicer setting for a dip.
Details: From €20/€10pp. Tel: 087 628 4688; sliabhleagueboat trips.com.
The beach with a bite
You don't get too many people travelling to Donegal for its food, but that's all about to change.
Restaurants such as Rathmullan House and Harry's in Bridgend are putting north-western producers and ingredients on the map, and there's a new trail of Donegal Good Food Taverns, too.
Claire McGowan, who runs the Beach House in Buncrana, is one of the local heroes transforming the foodie scene.
Four years ago, Claire packed in a career in IT to open a restaurant on the seafront, and the result is a cool and confident little Inishowen oasis.
I grab a spicily comforting bowl of tomato soup, stirring in a rocket and pesto garnish with a layer of foamed milk.
After that, it's the fish of the day -- a juicy and glistening fillet of John Dory atop a potato and black-pudding mash, with chive and tomato cream on the side.
The room is a stylish, contemporary space, with recessed lighting, a mezzanine level, slim white candles and lots of brass and wood overlooking Buncrana beach.
Another strip of sand worth building an appetite on is Lisfannon, a short 5km drive away.
Details: Early-bird menus cost €18-€22. Tel: 074 936 1050; thebeachhouse.ie.
The coastal trail
Malin Head is familiar to anyone who has listened to an Irish weather forecast.
But how many of us have actually visited this most northerly nook of the Irish coastline?
The first time I got there, earlier this year, a pod of killer whales had been spotted off the headland.
Malin is just the start of the scenic hit parade that is Donegal's Inishowen Peninsula; the Grianan of Aileach, a stone fort marked on Ptolemy's Map of Ireland, the geese and swans of Inch Island and the crow-pecked castle ruin in the fishing village of Greencastle are some of the others.
Approaching the Foyle Bridge, the R238 meets the A2, Derry looms on the horizon and your circuit of Ireland's coastline is complete.
I've put a couple of thousand kilometres on the clock, kicked a billion grains of sand off my shoes and compiled a list as long as my arm of places to go back to.
What a coastline. What a country. Now, if only we could roof it ...
The ocean experience
First up is a blast of steam. Hanging my clothes on a hook, I step into a replica Victorian steam box, angle my head through a hole and close the door. A pull on the wooden handle and I'm enveloped in a belch of hot cloudiness.
Next up is a half-tonne tub filled with seawater and seaweed. The seaweed feels slimy, but I've been advised to rub it around my body and get strangely used to it.
Afterwards, I unleash the original rain shower -- a delft-headed beast dumping gallons of cold seawater on my head.
Phew. It's invigorating to say the least.
First opened in Enniscrone in 1912, Kilcullen's Seaweed Baths are still run by the same family, and Edward Kilcullen still harvests seaweed by hand from the Sligo shoreline. There are no fluffy robes. You show up, pay and stay for as long as you like.
Seaweed is naturally rich in vitamins and minerals, though the appeal of its silky oils is as much about nostalgia and relaxation as an old-school cure-all. The baths couldn't be closer to the coast, either -- I can see across Killala Bay to the spot where General Humbert landed in 1798.
Details: From €25pp. Tel: 096 36238; kilcullenseaweed baths.com.
The seaside town with a sizzle
Sligo is a seaside town to its core. 'Sligeach' literally translates as 'shelly place' -- bucketloads of seashells were removed from the town as its foundations were laid, it seems, and oyster, periwinkle and other shells continue to be unearthed by archaeologists this day.
It's surrounded by beaches such as Mullaghmore, Strandhill and Rosses Point, but Sligo has plenty of sizzle in its own right, too.
Conrad Gallagher's restaurant has just moved from the Model Gallery to Rockwood Parade, the Sligo Races are gearing up for August 16, and you can dip into the Yeats connection on a free walking tour departing from the tourist office daily (except Sundays) at 11am.
Yeats is buried beneath Ben Bulben, which you can see from the upper floors of another exciting new venture -- Source Sligo, a restaurant, wine bar and cookery school on John Street. Judging by the clams and cockles on the menu here, shellfish are as much a part of Sligo as ever.
Details: sligotourism.ie; conrads kitchen.com; sourcesligo.ie.
The overnight suggestion
Perched at the tip of St John's Point, Castle Murray House looks like a B&B on steroids, but appearances can be deceptive. It has just been voted one of 'Travel + Leisure' magazine's Top 50 Most Romantic Hotels, alongside the Shangri-La in Paris and GoldenEye in Jamaica.
Step through the front door and the charms begin to reveal themselves. Castle Murray began life as a farmhouse, and you can still see the original front steps leading to a cosy bar.
A conservatory overlooks Donegal Bay and the ruins of McSwyne's Castle. In the reception, an oil painting by Kenneth King depicts a lonely trawler battling steely blue waves out to sea.
A lobster tank hints at a serious restaurant, too. Dinner costs €45pp for three courses with tea, coffee and petit fours, and south Donegal's most famous vacationers, Sarah Jessica Parker and husband Matthew Broderick, are no strangers to the table. Another international endorsement.
Details: B&B from €40pp to 55pp. Tel: 074 973 7022; castle murray.com.