Donegal, Ireland's northernmost county, boasts landscapes of rugged beauty, with cliffs battered by powerful winds, mountains and moors enhanced with the bright yellow of gorse. Its harsh climate is offset by the warmth of its people, who cultivate their traditions and a strong Gaelic culture.
From Fanad Head to Killybegs, let's set off to meet an endearing region, still little known, which has some great surprises in store. One more stop to explore on the Wild Atlantic Way, the 2 km tourist route that runs along the west coast of Ireland.
Fanad Head, the lighthouse at the end of the world
Perched on a northern tip of the Donegal, the white Fanad Head lighthouse seems to defy the raging sea, at the entrance to the natural harbor of Lough swilly. A particularly dangerous place for sailors. It was also following a shipwreck that the decision was made to build the lighthouse: that of the frigate Saldanha, which took place in 1811, and whose only survivor was… the parrot of the crew.
Today, it is still active, and serves as a landmark for ships crossing offshore. Several accommodations have been set up there, appealing to visitors who dream of spending a night (or more) at the end of the world.
To have a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape and take a look at the lantern, you can climb the 79 steps leading to the top of the lighthouse, which dominates the waves of 39 m.
Back on dry land, we will fight against the stinging wind by walking on the rocky promontory on which the lighthouse is built, the time to admire the force of the waves which come to smash on the jagged rocks below.
Beautiful walks are to be done on the Fanad Head Peninsula. Going back down to the south, one can notably stop on the large Portsalon beach, considered to be one of the most beautiful in Ireland.
Finally, located in the far north of Donegal, Fanad Head is beaten by a short head by the cape of Malin Head, the northernmost point in Ireland (but also one of the sunniest!), which is located on the nearby Inishowen peninsula.
Glenveagh Castle and its exotic garden
In the heart of Donegal, the Glenveagh Castle (Glenveagh Castle) has a curious history. In 1857, a certain Captain John George Adair, having made his fortune in the United States, created the Glenveagh estate. In 1861, considering that the small traditional houses (blakhouses) installed on his land were unsightly, he did not hesitate to evict the 244 or so people who lived there, in a cold month of April: a decision which earned him to return to popular folklore as the typical figure of the cruel man. Adair died less than 15 years after the construction of his castle.
In the 1920s, the house was occupied by the IRA, then by the army, before being bought by a Harvard professor, who mysteriously disappeared overnight, on his way to Inishbofin Island in 1933 ... Since 1981, the castle belongs to the State and is managed by the Glenveagh National Park.
Facing Lough Veagh, it was built in local granite, in a Scottish style, summoning all the feudal imagination with its square tower, its keep, its battlements and its thick walls.
Sharp with this austerity and that of the surrounding peeled mountains, lush gardens have been developed under the leadership of the widow of Captain Adair (apparently more comely than her late husband).
We discover a riot of exotic plants: palm trees, Japanese maples, red azaleas and huge rhododendrons. There is also a respectable oak tree, 340 years old, and Asian statues.
After the guided tour of the castle, don't hesitate to take a break in the tea room. Gourmets will find quite interesting cakes there.
In Glenveagh National Park
Spread over 16 hectares, the Glenveagh National Park attracts lovers of the great outdoors and wild nature. Cut in two by the valley which gave it its name (glen coming from Gaelic gleann, designating a valley of glacial origin), it declines landscapes of mountains, moors, dense forests and peat bogs, punctuated by lakes, including the biggest is the Lough Veagh.
Most of the mountain range of Derryveagh Mountains is on its territory, as well as part of the Mount Errigal, the second highest in Ireland (752 m). As long as you are a little sporty, you can access it from Dunlewey, to enjoy a magical view of all the surroundings, the Atlantic Ocean and the islands.
Before heading out for a hike in the mountains, it is recommended that you report your presence and route to the park visitor center, located at the northern end of Lough Veagh. Those who are not experienced walkers will opt instead for easy walks, such as the View Point Trail, a 1 km loop which allows you to dominate the whole landscape and the castle.
Among the animals visible in the park, we can mention many species of birds, including the golden eagle, which is the subject of a reintroduction program. Two large herds of red deers also live here, not hesitating to come and graze the young shoots in the green spaces of the castle, to the great despair of the gardeners.
After wearing your hiking boots on the trails of the national park, you can take a look at the Dunlewey Church, a romantic 19th century ruined church at the foot of Mount Errigal and overlooking Lough Dunlewey. A true Irish postcard, darling of all photographers.
Glenveagh National Park. The Visitor Center is open from 9 a.m. to 15 p.m. from March 17 to October 30, and from 17 a.m. to 13 p.m. from November to March. Entrance to the park is free. To get to the castle, you can either walk 9 km or take the shuttle (17 €). Visit of the castle: € 4. http://www.glenveaghnationalpark.ie
The cliffs of Slieve League: grandiose!
This is the place where one is, for sure, stunned by the wild splendor of Irish nature. At the south-western tip of Donegal, about 7 km from Carrick, the steep Slieve League cliffs flow into the sea. Culminating at 609 m, they are among the highest in Europe.
Those who feel like walking can follow the One Man's Path, a narrow path winding on the ridges, not always practicable and not recommended for people prone to vertigo ... Arrived at the pass, trained hikers will continue on the loop of Pilgrim's Path. The others will favor the Bunglas trail to Malinbeg, less difficult.
More simply, from the belvederes set up not far from the car park, you can also just watch the fascinating spectacle of the bubbling waves crashing against the cliffs that plunge steeply into the sea.
And why not take a little walk on the moor bordering the precipice? Be careful not to get too close to the void: the ground can be slippery, and the winds strong. Along the way, you will inevitably come across white sheep with black heads, grazing peacefully, not afraid at all by the many visitors who frequent the place.
After this invigorating and salty stroll, you will have deserved an Irish coffee in one of the pubs of Carrick !
The heart of Ireland beats in Donegal
Irish identity and culture are strongly cultivated in Donegal. The Gaelic language is very present and the national flags green, white, orange fly everywhere. The fact that the county is wedged between the ocean and Northern Ireland, in English territory, undoubtedly has something to do with it.
In pubs, we listen to traditional music while tasting one of the seven beers of the little Kinnegar brewery, installed near Letterkenny.
Mandatory stop at Leo's Tavern, Meenaleck (not far from Donegal), a mythical place. On the facade, the Gaelic name stands out: Tabhairne Leo. It was here that the singer Enya and her siblings, members of the group Clannad ("family", in Gaelic) grew up. The walls display gold and platinum records, as well as photos of celebrities who have come here. Even Bono came to spend a moment there, that's to say!
Today, if Leo, the father and founder of the tavern (in 1968), passed away last year, his son Bartley continues the family work with just as much passion. And, of course, concerts are regularly organized there.
A well-kept heritage
Further south, at Ardara, craftsmanship is in the spotlight, with the tweed and the laine. Eddie Doherty has his workshop-boutique there. At over 75, he is one of the last three weavers in Donegal to handcraft pure wool tweed and blankets on an antique loom.
Also in Ardara, the Molloy family has been in tweed and woolens for five generations. Gradually shifted from "handmade" to mechanization and electronics, the company also uses some 300 home seamstresses. Tours of the workshops are organized every day in summer (and on request the rest of the year).
To step back in time and see how the people of Donegal once lived, head to the Glencolmcille Folk Village, which turns 50 this year. We discover there in particular a pub-grocery store, a fisherman's house, a 19th century school, and the cottage of Father McDyer, who founded this village-museum and worked to develop the local economy in the 1950s. shop, there are also plenty of local products, with, of course, wool and tweed!
Before leaving, do not forget to go for a walk on the large fishing port of Killybegs, where brightly colored trawlers are moored. There is always something going on there.
Find all the practical information, tips and addresses in the Routard Ireland bookstore.
To prepare for your stay, consult our Ireland online guide
Irish Tourist Board
How to get there and get around?
There is no direct flight to Donegal from Paris. It is therefore necessary to stop in Dublin, before taking a connection for Donegal airport (with Aer Lingus, British Airways…).
A word of advice: be sure to look out the window as the plane descends on Donegal Airport, which has just been ranked 2nd among the most spectacular in the world (by the company Private Fly). And for good reason: the view of the turquoise sea, Carrickfinn beach and Mount Errigal is simply magnificent.
Once there, you can rent a car (here, we drive on the left), just to be able to travel around the region. Otherwise, there are also coaches.
Where to sleep ?
- Castle Grove Country House, in Letterkenny. A beautiful house from 1695, with classic decoration, surrounded by well-kept gardens. We relax in front of the fireplace, before going to the restaurant, which offers refined cuisine in an elegant setting. Double room from 120 €, breakfast included.
- Woodhill house, in Ardara. Not far from Ardara town center, this mansion offers classic-style rooms in the main building and others in the annex, overlooking the garden. The welcome is particularly friendly, and in the evening, we enjoy ourselves in the hotel restaurant. Double room from 120 €, with breakfast.
Where to eat ? Where to have a drink?
- Nancy's. This is Ardara's must-see pub. We appreciate its small rooms with typical decor and a friendly welcome. You drink Guinness (or Kinnegar) there, unless you prefer whiskey. And, "cherry on the cake", we eat very well. On the menu: oysters, smoked salmon from Donegal or even seafood chowder, this thick, typically Irish fish soup. Authentic atmosphere guaranteed!
- Leo's Tavern in Meenaleck. One of Donegal's legendary pubs, mainly for its concerts. Do not miss.
AlgAran. Based in Malinmore, Italian Rosaria Piseri has embarked on the production of seaweed-based products, collected from the shores of Donegal and dried in her production workshop, where she organizes tours. Right next door, in the store she has just opened, you can find dried algae, but also condiments, soaps, creams and bath salts. All organic.