The Wild Atlantic Way

What to expect along Ireland’s coastline

malin head cliffs wild atlantic way donegal ireland
The cliffs at Malin Head, Donegal (Photograph: Leighton Smith / Unsplash)

While the rest of Europe bakes in a climate change-induced heat of upper 30-40s centigrade, we hit the road to explore and enjoy a breezy summer in County Donegal, in the north-western-most corner of the Emerald Island. The moniker is not a cliché – the green of the Irish hills and meadows is nothing short of spectacular.

What to expect: Irish wit on tap, easy charm, blarney and hospitality, as well as a seemingly inexhaustible capacity for merry-making, usually centred in and around live music pubs, of which there is never any shortage.

Countless lakes, both small and large; named and nameless, with narrow winding roads circling them and leading to the endless horizons of the Atlantic Ocean stretching all the way to the Americas.

An astonishing array of flowering shrubs, rhododendrons and hydrangeas, the frequent palm tree in front of superbly kept lawns, densely forested copses, giving way to large impenetrable forests along winding country roads.

Newly built, architecturally compelling churches; substantial well-kept farms; stone ruins, many in the process of being given a new life; cute converted holiday cottages.

Jagged coastline, with ocean ingress forming miles long bays, and fascinating rocky formations leading to frequent waterfalls springing from this river or that.

Golf courses and restored castles.

Lots of great, inexpensive draft Irish beer and fresh local produce, as well as locally harvested fish, shellfish and seaweed delicacies.

We started with a flight to Dublin (doesn’t everyone?).

The capital of the Republic of Ireland hardly needs an introduction – it is one of the most vibrant European cities, with a huge number of visitors, and a massive influx of investment, making it, post-Brexit, a viable alternative to London.

The docks, dubbed Silicon Docks, boast some amazing futuristic buildings, headquarters to the likes of Google, Facebook, Airbnb, TripAdvisor, Accenture and very many more tech giants.

At dinner, we sampled a selection of Irish stews, then walked to Peadar Kearney’s Pub on Dame Street to listen to the unmissable live band and lead singer whose interaction with the revellers is epic.

Our next stop was the Titanic Quarter in Belfast. No visit to Ireland would be complete without experiencing the powerful emotions conjured up by the iconic landmark.

The Titanic Quarter is a cluster of buildings on the grounds of the old Belfast shipyard, famous, or infamous, for building the legendary cruise liner.

The Titanic Hotel is the hotel to stay in when visiting Belfast. Designed in the style of an elegant cruise liner, displaying large ship models, Titanic-related art, the hotel is hugely popular with tourists and wedding planners. Literally across is one of the most popular attractions: the Titanic experience itself, conceived by Pat Doherty CEO of Harcourt Developments.

This is the most comprehensive exhibition of Titanic-related material but most of all, it is a fully immersive experience in the world of 1900s Belfast and the ship itself. The touching and often haunting stories of passengers, from below stairs all the way to top class, come alive through letters, photographs, rescued artefacts, china and personal items, and authentic audio reminiscences. The ‘trip’ around the vast buildings takes place in Ferris-wheel type pods that take you from the top, and around, slowing down to show how the ship was built. The entire experience is somewhat surreal and poignant in a multitude of ways.

Well worth a dedicated visit even if you haven’t the time to visit Ireland as a whole.

Our next stop was the Redcastle Hotel, in the Inishowen Peninsula of County Donegal, near Moville and Malin Head. Named after the Redcastle village, the hotel is a large former private residence with a golf course and extensive grounds, overlooking the ocean.

Staff are friendly and service unaffected; the atmosphere informal and jolly. Breakfast takes place in a large dining area overlooking the dark waters of the Atlantic, with views that are as stark as befits the geographic position – with an edge-of-the-world kind of quality about it.

Do visit Malin Head and its lighthouse, at the most northerly point of mainland Ireland, which feels even more peripheral and really quite majestic. On the drive back, enjoy a delicious seafood chowder and the almost black Irish bread in the village of Redcastle.

Driving towards the west coast of Donegal, promoted as ‘The Wild Atlantic Way’, we stopped in Buncrana, just long enough to take pictures of its harbour and pretty main street. The road from Redcastle to Buncrana, across the peninsula, is extraordinarily pretty, fringed by thick and tall, seemingly impenetrable forests, and flowering meadows.

Buncrana itself is a thriving little town built on the river Crana and historically the seat of the O’Doherty clan (the ruins of the O’Doherty keep, a small, two-storey castle, are still there).

On to Letterkenny, another pretty town, Donegal’s largest, and a sharp turn towards the coast and Dunfanaghy.

Dunfanaghy itself is just a fishing village gone upscale but the road to it is fringed by stone ruins overrun by the prettiest wild flowers one can imagine. You can visit an original mid-nineteenth century workhouse near the village, but the Great Famine is definitively a thing of the past.

Today, Donegal looks seriously affluent and eminently desirable, especially those areas that are in the immediate vicinity of a lake or the ocean itself, which is never too far away.

The coastal road to Gortahork goes through elevated ground, with sweeping vistas across the ocean and a multitude of small islands. The road signs are increasingly Gaelic only, rather than in both Irish and English languages.

No forests or even copses there as the wind is quite awesome.

Driving down towards Derrybeg and Dungloe, you are never too far from the water: small rivers and waterfalls, lakes, the jagged bays formed from the ocean encroaching into the land and all the time, the amazing emerald green of the meadows.

There is a super-narrow winding, up and down road from Dungloe to Maas to Ardara. If you enjoy the thrill of rally driving, take that road. Lakes on each side of it make the drive all the more interesting and a tad perilous.

Ardara is another pretty holiday village we fell in love with because of its lively main street and a bridge over a picture postcard river with endless twists and turns, little ilets and watefalls.

A short drive to Donegal, the main town of the county, signals the end of the “wild” as we enter a more touristy area. Sitting on a terrace of a pub in the main square gives you a sense of the cosmopolitan appeal of the area: a lot, a lot of Americans but also Spaniards, French and German, as well as a fair number of East-Europeans. Donegal is flush with historical buildings and has a very pretty, busy port.

But our final destination is some 6km away and we are anxious to make it there before sunset: Lough Eske.

The castle on Lough Eske was restored by mega developer Pat Doherty, Donegal’s and one of Ireland’s most successful and colourful figures, whose vision has transformed the Belfast and Liverpool docks into prime destinations.

Some say he is ‘like the holy ghost’: everywhere, in reference to his international development projects.

He restored Eske Castle from a virtual ruin and has given it a second life as one of the most special hotels you could visit in the whole or Ireland.

A testimony to this is the full occupancy: hardly a table was to be had when we made it to the bar and restaurant area, but the ever-resourceful staff set one up for us off the main lobby room, next to the live music bar.

The hotel has its own golf course and an entire building functioning as a spa but for me, the best part were the magical grounds. Our suite had direct access to gardens lush with green wall climbers and flowers of every colour and scent.

This travel feature would not be complete without giving some space to Milford, Carrigart and Muroy Bay. We had to retrace our steps to get there but it was worth the drive.

Muroy Bay is a 36 mile ocean water ingress into the land. Carrigart overlooks the bay while the much visited Downings overlooks the spectacular Sheephaven Bay on the other side of the peninsula.

The dramatic scenery of northwest Donegal is enhanced by its mountains, sometimes remote; sometimes closing in on you as the road winds around eery lakes.

It’s a magical, captivating place whose spirit I hope to have conjured up with a few words and pictures, but to which no words can really do justice.

Do visit.