Sunday 15 December 2019

Surf's up in refreshing Dunfanaghy

Dunfanaghy, Co Donegal

SURF SPOT: Dunfanaghy may not be Bondi, but it has a unique and alternative vibe, reminiscent of a chilled out surf town in the sixties
SURF SPOT: Dunfanaghy may not be Bondi, but it has a unique and alternative vibe, reminiscent of a chilled out surf town in the sixties

Sophie White

Well, for a split second anyway, before the board skitters out from under me and knocks a nearby surf hottie off his board – I have hit this guy once already but he took it quite well. Exhausted but not defeated, I make my way out of the water, pop on my sunnies, prop the board up against The Shack and order a flat white.

I may as well look the part, I reason. So, I know what you're thinking, "surf hotties, sunnies, beach shacks and flat whites, she must be in Bondi or something". But no, I am on a week's holiday with a gang of friends in North West Donegal, staying in the seaside town of Dunfanaghy or, as we have most predictably renamed it, Dunfunaghy.

Don't worry, this is not another condescending travel piece in praise of the simple pleasures to be found in provincial Ireland and extolling the virtues of the irritatingly named "staycation". The gang and I came across Dunfanaghy in a review of off the beaten track surf spots in Ireland and decided to give it a go without really knowing anything about the town at all. On arrival it immediately became clear Dunfanaghy has a unique, alternative vibe, what I imagine a chilled out surf town in the sixties might have been like, yet there is quite a cosmopolitan edge to the place with eclectic shops and some seriously good places to eat.

As we made our way to Narosa, one of the town's two main surf shops on the main square, we passed a gang of barefoot girls with sun streaked hair, eating 99s and lounging by the waterfront. Fresh from the grind of the city with our pudgy, pasty bods, they seemed by comparison like surf sirens on the rocks. Kitted out with wetsuits and surfboards for the week, we headed back to our rented house just out of town to mentally prepare.

As a group, we are all pretty terrible at the surfing thing, though there are tiers of terrible within the gang, with me somewhere near the very bottom. We do persist in the surf holiday though as it is a great way to make the most of our stunning Atlantic coast and an excuse to eat millions of sausage sandwiches. Mental preparation took the form of a good few glasses of wine over a gorgeous home-cooked meal, made with provisions from Dunfanaghy's best gourmet food store, The Green Man, before hitting the pillows.

At the crack of noon the next day we were getting a surf lesson on the beautiful Marble Hill beach, a short drive east of Dunfanaghy and home of The Shack, a glorified shed selling sweets and ice creams and manned by a talented barista – hence the flat whites.

Like most lazy beach holidays, a routine of sorts emerged with some surfing punctuated by lots of coffees, pints, Magnums, glasses of crisp white wine, fish and chips, all accompanied by a pleasant sense that we had in some way earned this decadence with our few hours spent flailing in the ocean each morning.

On rainy days we bundled up and hiked in the nearby Ards Forest Park, where woods give way to sandy beaches and stunning mountain views, or took scenic drives through the Derryveagh Mountains. Naturally there was the obligatory game of pitch and putt and the unmissable Daniel O'Donnell visitor centre where one can view Daniel's wedding suit, among other artefacts of the singer (perhaps only worth the hour's drive for truly diehard fans).

These moderately taxing excursions were of course followed by a trip to the always packed but so worth it Muck n Muffins cafe (set in a 19th Century grain store on the Dunfanaghy waterfront) and a slice of their Snickers cake, which has since become a sort of shorthand in the gang for anything really, really good. "Okay, it was nice, but was it Muck n Muffins Snickers cake nice?"

The old fever hospital in the town was renovated and since the late sixties has been used as artists' studios and a gallery if you're in need of a bit of culture. Though, as a shameless shopaholic, I found myself constantly drawn back to a shop in the village called Revive, which sources fantastic vintage furniture and also does a bit of upcycling of old pieces with a slightly industrial aesthetic at incredibly reasonable prices. I kept breaking away from the core group to scour this treasure trove of retro goodies and came away each time with such essentials as a hand-painted, chinoiserie style teapot, a 1960s punchbowl set and very nearly an upcycled ladder turned shelving solution before the husband intervened.

On the last night of the trip the group gathered around a big old wooden door that served as a dining table in the garden behind Patsy Dan's Pub in Dunfanaghy town centre. Fairy lights hung in the trees overhead and tea lights flickered from jars on tables. In the corner of the garden a sort of ad hoc marquee made of tarpaulin and a few oilcloth clad trestle tables served as a pizza prep area and housed the enormous wood fire oven where all night long chefs toiled and wisps of chorizo scented smoke curled from the chimney up into the navy night sky.

There are plenty of great restaurants in Dunfanaghy and the surrounding area (The Cove and The Mill are also not to be missed) but we found ourselves night after night at The Red Oven, a sort of pop-up style garden party (though there are indoor tables if more than your appetite is being whetted) with the best pizzas and a great little wine list which seemed to embody all the brilliant things about Dunfanaghy. A completely unique atmosphere, genuinely laid-back and at a complete remove from the quotidian, but still a vibrant place so in touch that they'll probably have a paleo pizza on the menu by next summer.

Dunfanaghy is most refreshingly a place that does not try to imitate anywhere else and why should it? With stunning scenery and savvy locals who know they've got a good thing going, it is truly a fantastic getaway.

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