County Donegal, in northwestern Ireland, was given this title by a 2017 poll that predicted it would become a tourist hotspot in the coming year
There’s a nip in the air as a dozen of us, from as many different countries, undertake the short walk from Dublin’s Mespil Hotel to a seafood specialty restaurant called Matt The Thresher. It’s incredibly hard to get a table here, I’m told. Till five years ago, this wasn’t the case. Then, Michelle Obama paid them a visit on her trip here, and their fortunes changed overnight.
Ed Sheeran’s ‘Galway girl’ is playing softly in the background. It couldn’t have been timed better, as our server walks over with a large platter of Galway oysters – a specialty of the restaurant, and the best in the city, if locals are to be believed. Rounds of crab donuts and fish pie follow in quick succession, because a good night of rest is in order. We’re going to be on the road, driving across County Donegal and spending five nights in as many towns before returning to Dublin.
The view from Banba’s Crown in Malin Head — the most northerly point in Ireland
Early the next morning, the charming Rob Rankin of Vagabond Tours arrives to pick us up in what he calls ‘The Vagatron’. Rankin’s a self-made man – he started giving small group tours in 2002 to tourists who wanted to venture into lesser-known parts of the country and pick experiences that aren’t typically favoured by tourists. Vagabond now has a fleet of custom-built 4×4 Land Rovers and Mercedes vans, and in 2012, also launched Driftwood Tours. The latter is tailored to suit the needs of travellers who are less outdoorsy and prefer to soak in the scenery and culture at a slower, less strenuous pace. The Wild Atlantic Way, our focal point for the tour, stretches for 2,500 km along Ireland’s western seaboard. It is the longest defined coastal drive in the world, and as we come to discover, it boasts of ever-changing, breathtaking scenery and terrain. After a quick lunch stop in Carrick On Shannon, we’re off to our first point of interest – the Carrowkeel megalithic in County Sligo. Samuel Brett of Shanakee Storytelling Adventures, who meets us at the monument, is a raconteur par excellence. Standing amid the staggering remains, dating back to the Neolithic Era, he’s got us gripped right away because there’s a surprising Star Wars connection here. Brett brings up the Battle of Moytura and its protagonists, Balor and his grandson Lugh. Their story was used as the basis for the first Star Wars movie, where Balor is represented by Darth Vader, and Lugh is the model for Luke Skywalker.
Gorse bushes and sheep – two of the most popular sights along the Wild Atlantic Way – dot our trek down the hill. Apparently, if you pluck the yellow flowers off the bush and rub them together, they yield a coconut-like smell and taste. We’ve built up quite an appetite, so we lap up the experiment – turns out there’s no truth to the theory. That might be a good thing, though, because saving our appetite for dinner at the excellent Harvey’s Point Hotel is our best decision of the day. The all-suite boutique hotel is a beautiful property overlooking Lough Eske. Over the years, since its opening in 1989, it has expanded from 20 bedrooms to over 60 palatial suites. The Lakeside Restaurant, which comes highly recommended by the Michelin Guide, serves up a fantastic meal of pigeon, guinea fowl, Hereford beef and an assortment of cheese.
The next morning, we’re up bright and early to explore Donegal Castle – built in 1474 by the great royal family of the O’Donnells, who ruled from 1200 until 1600 over the Kingdom of Tyrconnell. It’s not too big, but it does manage to occupy pride of place right in the middle of sleepy Donegal Town, dotted with souvenir shops and small bars. I fall in love with Gift of Life, a painting by Choctaw leader Waylon Gary Whitedeer, which uses the most beautiful neon hues and fantastical imagery to depict the Native American Indian Tribe.
Trekking up Sliabh League
Hereon, there’s another trek in store for us – this time it’s Sliabh League. At 1972 feet, these are the highest marine cliffs in Europe. We’re meant to go on a boat trip, hoping to spot a dolphin or two, but it’s too windy and the rain won’t stop. Instead, we brave the rain to scale the cliffs for a spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean, Donegal Bay and Sligo Mountains. On our way back down, stopping by at the Glencolmcille Folk Village for a steaming cup of coffee is the only way to ensure that the brutal rain and wind don’t leave us ill. The little museum here is worth your while too – walk into cottages dedicated to the lives of Irish locals in the 1700s, 1800s and 1900s, as well as Glencolmcille’s 5,000- year history.
The view from the Sliabh League cliffs
This evening, our base is the little heritage village of Ardara, which is famous for hosting an interesting line-up of cultural festivals around the year. The Irish Times even voted it the Best Village To Live In – and they display the plaque proudly across the road from Eddie Doherty’s store. An important part of Ardara’s growth history is its role in the establishment of cottage industries for the making of fine wool fabrics, tweeds and hand knits that are distributed around the world. Doherty is one among a dying breed of weavers who warp and weft as a profession, and it gives him great joy to offer tourists and passers by a demonstration of his craft. This evening, he’s working on a lovely blue-purple-green-grey piece of the acclaimed Donegal tweet, which sells for a pretty penny anywhere else in the world.
With my brand new scarf draped around my neck, I join the group next door at Nancy’s Bar, where good old Irish pub grub and an expansive selection of beer and gin ensure everyone’s happy. Back in my room at the cosy Nesbitt Arms Boutique Hotel, a local seaweed gin – An Dulaman Maritime Gin – serves as the perfect nightcap.
Our bags are in the little carriage that trundles behind the Vagatron fairly early the next morning. We’re headed off to Glenveagh to explore, on bicycles, its 16,000 hectares of lakes, glens and woods in the Derryveagh Mountains. This is Ireland’s second largest National Park, and has the gorgeous Glenveagh Castle – a late 19th century castellated mansion, built as a hunting lodge – in the centre. Cycling through the wilderness is challenging, but in 12-degree weather, it doesn’t feel too daunting to ride up and down the rugged slopes, by the enchanting Lough Veagh and in search of seasonal waterfalls.
Arnold’s Hotel in Dunfanaghy – about 20 km away – is our stop for the night as we drive further north. A 95-yearold, fourth generation family-owned and operated hotel, it has breathtaking views of Sheephaven Bay. The next morning, we find ourselves riding horses on to the beach and into the water. My horse, Hugo, is a handsome chap from the Dunfanaghy Stables, located behind our hotel, and trots along merrily behind the instructor. It’s an experience I highly recommend for beginners too – the staff is friendly, the horses are well groomed, and the riding helmet and boots look impossibly cool.
Glencolmcille Folk Village
The rest of our day is quite leisurely. We stop for lunch at The Olde Glen Bar that turns 250 this year and is launching its own gin as part of the celebrations. Then, we drive to Culdaff to check into another heritage property – McGrory’s Hotel. First up is a drink at the bar downstairs, where we’re told the Star Wars crew partied after wrapping up the shoot of The Last Jedi. Head chef Gary McPeake then rustles up an unforgettable dinner using only the best local produce – fish from Greencastle, meat farmed and butchered in Inishowen, and vegetables from the nearby Ballyholey Farm.
Local musicians perform outside McGrory’s Hotel in Culdaff
Our last day on the trip – May 4 – is Star Wars Day, and we’ve timed our visit to Malin Head to perfection. This is the most northerly point of the country, and it served as an important location for the crew of The Last Jedi. The Millenium Falcon was built here, and the breathtaking terrain also forms part of the Planet Ahch-to in the movie. If you’re a Star Wars aficionado, you’d do well to reach out to Bren Whelan for a guided tour. With over 25 years of experience in mountaineering and climbing, Whelan also served as a consultant for the crew, and has great anecdotes to share. Besides, he also brings along light sabers and remnants of the Millenium Falcon and takes great pictures for you.
Back at the parking lot, I buy myself a steaming cup of coffee from the Banba mobile espresso van that also served the crew, and recap the entire experience in my head. It’s been a whirlwind –with adventure, activity, great food and hospitality. Would I recommend this road trip to anyone? Without a doubt.