DONEGAL, Ireland - On a map, Ireland’s northwest corner appears as if it were stepped on by a giant, splaying the land into fingers webbed by a ragged coastline. Here wind-scoured headlands cradle swaths of sand, forested valleys shelter shimmery ponds, and heath-clad mountains overlook barren peat bogs. The area is expansive yet intimate, tame yet wild.
In spring, like much of the Emerald Isle, County Donegal is painted with brilliant greens and heather hues and splashed with sunshine-yellow gorse blossoms. In a place where soft rain, clear air, and golden sunlight ensure rainbows, this is the pot of gold. During 10 days of poking around northern Donegal, we fell completely under its spell.
We started on the Inishowen Peninsula, bound by Lough Foyle, Lough Swilly, and the North Atlantic. We had only one afternoon and the following morning to explore, so we set our sights on Bamba’s Crown, on Malin Head, Ireland’s most northerly point, and booked an overnight at the nearby Inishtrahull View bed-and-breakfast.
After devouring too many of the B&B’s welcoming fresh-from-the-oven scones, I walked down to the sea. Cliffs and rocky beach flanked a strip of grass marred by a hint of walls, all that remained from a 16th-century church. When a passing storm let loose a driving rain, I huddled in their meager shelter until, spying a cave in the cliff, I slipped into the Wee House of Malin, another among generations of pilgrims and visitors seeking refuge in what is said to be the former home of St. Muirdealach. I had it to myself, but according to local legend, no matter how many people enter, there’s always room for one more. I gave thanks, made a wish, and like others before me, tucked a coin into a crag.
In late afternoon we drove Malin Head’s scenic loop, cooing at rainbows that appeared and evaporated as clouds shifted. Not content merely to view the panorama from the car’s windows, I padded along a surfside trail, passing giant cliffs, a raised beach, and sea stacks. I marveled at Hell’s Hole, a subterranean gorge, and considered crossing Devil’s Bridge, but thought better of it. When it seemed it couldn’t get any better, another walker pointed to a large rock and said: “That’s the home of Niall Na Hairde, king of the fairies.’’
The next morning, fortified by a traditional Irish breakfast, we meandered down Inishowen’s western flank, following the sign-posted Inishowen 100 scenic drive. We stopped to ogle massive sand dunes at Five Fingers Beach, zigzagged through the Mamore Gap mountain pass, and explored Grianan of Aileach, a ring fort founded by the Druids roughly 4,000 years ago that caps a hillside affording head-swiveling, 360-degree views. We could have spent a week exploring this peninsula, but our rental house in Carrigart awaited.
Built high on a hill, our temporary home provided expansive views of the seascape from Sheephaven Bay, framed by Horn Head and the Rossguill Peninsula, to Mulroy Bay, shaped by the Fanad Peninsula. The location was perfect for touring these peninsulas, each rimmed with cliffs, dotted with whitewashed villages, and peppered with sand beaches. It also made a good base for trips to northwest Donegal. On nights I didn’t prepare dinner with finds from a local farmers’ market, we went to pubs to savor fish and chips washed down with pints of Smitty’s or Guinness and paired with good “craic,’’ the Irish term for fun, ranging from good conversation to live music.
From previous Ireland sojourns, I knew that the detailed Ordnance Survey Discovery Series Maps were indispensable for exploring. We purchased Map 2, using it to plan daily adventures in the area, and Map 1 for exploring farther west. I expected to hear Irish spoken, as much of this region is in the Donegal Gaeltacht, an Irish-speaking area. I also expected jaw-dropping vistas, and I was not disappointed. But it was the unexpected finds that made each peninsula loop and day trip memorable.
The seven-mile Atlantic Drive circles the Rossguill Peninsula, and we drove it at least three times, veering down different byways each time. Despite the frequency, I never stopped holding my breath on the cliff-hugging hairpin turns nor tired of viewing Tramor’s and Trabeg’s linked arc of golden sands, browsing McNutt’s Woolen Mill in Downings, or strolling Rosses Strand.
One doesn’t drive the sprawling Fanad Peninsula as much as mosey. Rural roads snake through rolling farmlands and heathlands, nose out to beaches, and dead end at cliffs. We looped, sidetracked, and backtracked en route to Fanad Head Lighthouse, dramatically sited on a rocky outcropping on the northeast tip, then shimmied down the peninsula’s eastern side. A sign for the Donegal Garden Trail tempted touring the spring bounty at Carrablagh House; instead we walked the sands of one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, Ballystocker. Then we zigged west to Mulroy Bay and poked around castle ruins in Muross, stopped for memorable soups and salads at Curlew Café & Crafts in Kerrykeel, then zagged east to Rathmullan, on the Lough Swilly Coast, where I prowled around the ivy-covered seaside ruins of a Carmelite friary dating from 1516.
From our house, cliff-edged Horn Head’s distinctive silhouette, rising roughly 600 feet from Sheephaven Bay’s waters, beckoned. En route, we detoured to Doe Castle and Ards Forest Park, then explored the market town of Dunfanaghy. Thanks to a chance encounter over lunch at the Muck & Muffins, an order-at-the-counter restaurant, I met Brendan Rohan, author of the “Dunfanaghy Walk Guide.’’ After we purchased a copy, he directed us to Horn Head’s Tramore Beach with the directive: “If you do no other walks, do this one.’’
We expanded our explorations to northwestern Donegal. One day we shadowed the coastline, here salted with ledges and islands and scalloped with harbors and bays. We ebbed and flowed around The Rosses, from Dungloe to Annagarry, stopping to poke around pocket-sized fishing villages and stroll sand beaches. We pressed northward through adjacent Gweedore, Ireland’s most northwestern parish, passing through villages with irresistible hobbit-like names such as Bunbeg and Derrybeg. We debated whether to ferry out to Tory Island, once home to Balor, the Celtic King of Darkness, and where human history has been traced back 5,000 years, and paused to view a shipwreck on Magherclogher Beach.
The farther north we drove, the wilder the seascape and more rugged the landscape became. A crazy quilt of sheep-dotted, stonewall-stitched fields blanketed the countryside, yielding to an unforgiving coast. While it’s easy to imagine Bloody Foreland headland as the site of long ago battles or violent shipwrecks, the name comes from the sunset glow of its red granite cliffs.
Our last gadabout routed us through the woods and waterways and bogs and barrens of the Derryveagh Mountains and our grand finale, Glenveagh National Park. The prize of this trail-laced 39,000-acre park is the former Glenveagh Estate, home to the visitors center with information on the park’s history, red deer and golden eagles, and a spectacular, lakeside 19th-century castellated mansion and gardens. Its first owner earned infamy for evicting tenant farmers during the famine; the last was curator of decorative arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The mansion is a treasure. Rivaling it are the surrounding Victorian and pleasure gardens, which include the Gothic Orangery, Italian Terrace, and Tuscan Garden. I wandered in a misty rain, which illuminated brilliant rhododendron blossoms, then hiked the View Point Trail. The air cleared, the sun smiled, and as I looked down over the glacier-carved valley a rainbow kissed the sky.
If you go...
What to do
Ordnance Survey Discovery Series Maps (www.maps.ie, available online or in local stores, $11) detail roads that do not appear on the usual tourist maps. Invaluable for getting off the beaten path.
Where to stay
Inishtrahull View B&B
Ballygorman, Malin Head
En suite with breakfast $47 per person.
Ballygorman, Malin Head
En suite with breakfast $60 per person
A four-bedroom, two-bathroom house we rented, $800-$1,000 per week.
Downings Bay Hotel
Downings, Rossguill Peninsula
En suite with breakfast from $100 for a double.
Rosapenna Hotel & Golf Resort
Downings, Rossguill Peninsula
En suite from $160 double; golf packages available.