My dream break in Donegal – is Inishowen the best-kept secret in Ireland? – Independent.ie

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Saturday, 4 September 2021 | 16.3°C Dublin

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Miles removed from Ireland’s coastal tourist hotspots, the Co Donegal peninsula offers everything from awesome beaches to cosy Airbnbs and even alpacas
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The view from 'Twig and Heather', the cottage near Buncrana, Co Donegal
Five Fingers Strand, Co Donegal. Picture: Chris Hill Photographic
The cottage Bairbre booked in Donegal
Bairbre Power and alpacas Salt and Pepper
Tea for two in Donegal
The view from the Airbnb where Bairbre Power stayed near Buncrana
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Bairbre Power Twitter Email
September 04 2021 02:30 AM
“Nothing to see here but another beautiful, empty beach in Co Donegal.”
The Twitter post caught my eye on a miserable winter night in Dublin, and so I plotted my escape to Inishowen, the largest peninsula in the country and home to Ireland’s most northerly point, Malin Head.
Six nights in a charming Airbnb a few minutes from Buncrana with a car full of books (including Joseph O’Connor’s crime novel Inishowen), a few cheeky bottles of rosé, some indulgent charcuterie, chocolate and no clock-watching. I’d be happy out.
The only problem when I got to Co Donegal was that I couldn’t read more than half a page without looking up. It wasn’t the usual too-wound-up-to-read scenario, but the utterly compelling views outside my window overlooking Dunree Beach, and across Lough Swilly.
You couldn’t possibly justify keeping your head in a book when you had such a seductive vista outside the back door. So I parked the books and just sat watching the skies and the light shimmering on the water in the distance. It was utterly hypnotic and I felt my blood pressure decrease by the hour.
What did I expect on this staycation toute seule?

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Five Fingers Strand, Co Donegal. Picture: Chris Hill Photographic
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To be frank, I didn’t expect the city stress to ebb away quite this quickly, so I took advantage of it and went out exploring the necklaces of white sandy beaches that loop their way up the west coast of the peninsula, all within a few miles of each other, and with no traffic gridlock in between.
When I think of the grief people on the east coast go through to get to beaches in Wicklow and Wexford, and the endless traffic jams on motorways and access roads, this beach safari was the polar opposite.
And it all got me wondering.
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Before the trip, I told people I was going so far north, I’d practically be in Iceland. What baloney! I blushed at my clichéd crassness. Why had I never been to this part of the world before? Is the scenic and ruggedly beautiful Inishowen Peninsula the best-kept secret in the country?
A pair of long-haired Yorkshire Terriers were like gatekeepers at Leenan Beach and they barked their welcome. I was exhilarated by my daily discovery of new beaches — Dunaff, Culdaff, Trawbreaga, Tullagh and Lisfannon.
The coastal drives continued up the east coast of Inishowen, past Greencastle and Stroove, until I finally landed on Kinnagoe Bay. What a truly heart-stopping, gorgeous sight, with white sand, blue ocean, the frothy tips of the rolling waves and lush greenery running down to the shore. And out in that bay lies the tragic spot where the Spanish Armada vessel La Trinidad Valencera broke its back and sank in 1588.
Named Inis Eoghain after the son of Niall of the Nine Hostages, High King of Ireland, history lovers will appreciate all there is to explore on the peninsula, from the Grianán of Aileach hillfort to Cloncha High Cross and Doagh Famine Village. The museum at Fort Dunree (fortdunree.com) is definitely worth a visit, too. A defensive site down through history, the fort has one of the best collections of coastal artillery guns in the world and is located in one of the most scenic, peaceful sites you could imagine.

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Bairbre Power and alpacas Salt and Pepper
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The best laugh of the holiday came on the day with the worst weather. I headed out to Knockamany Bens, where the family-friendly Wild Alpaca Way venture (wildalpacaway.com) is situated in one of the most scenic places in Ireland. Here, I extended my hand to owner John McGonagle for an alpaca and was promptly introduced to two, named Salt and Pepper, and I doubled up laughing.
Their names were the very look I was trying to achieve, sans hairdresser during lockdown, and here they were. The real deal… alpacas in the wilds of Donegal.
We cosied up for a photo and they escorted me over the brow of the hill, and below was the epic Five Fingers Strand. That’s another beach I want to go back to, to explore more, because the landscape is so awesome. Another great beach can be found by catching the car ferry across Lough Swilly from Buncrana to Rathmullan on the neighbouring Fanad Peninsula, heading north to walk Portsalon.
Travelling around the rugged landscape of Inishowen, I was also very smitten by the Mamore Gap (An Mám Mór), which, fortunately for me, was only a few minutes’ drive from my Airbnb near Buncrana.
Once a site of Catholic pilgrimage, it’s a pass that takes you through the Urris Hills. There’s a short ascent, then over the top of the hill and… wow! A panoramic view stretches out before you to the coast below — it reminded me of a coastal equivalent of San Francisco’s famous Lombard Street, only better. It’s thrilling. Do not miss.
Following the ‘Inishowen 100’ signs, it’s easy to plot a route — over to Glenevin Waterfall, a visit to the town of Carndonagh, espresso from Caffe Banba, Ireland’s most northerly coffee shop on Malin. Here, expect to see Star Wars fans paying a pilgrimage to the coastline where a model of the Millennium Falcon was built, and which formed part of the planet Ahch-To in the 2017 movie Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.

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The cottage Bairbre booked in Donegal
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For any chocoholics out there, don’t leave Buncrana without collecting some amazing cakes from The Corner Deli on Main Street. They are sublime.
And then there’s the matter of the northern lights, aka the aurora borealis, which, I discovered, are very memorable on Inishowen. I need to do the research, get the dates and timings right. So it’s just the kind of post-vacation project I love while planning for the next one.
See you again, Inishowen. That’s for sure.
Shopping
Pick up a merino scarf or tweed coat from local designer Bernie Murphy in Buncrana. You’ll find leather bags by local gal Orla Vera in Blush Boutique in Carndonagh, or treat yourself to a keepsake painting from local artist Mary Crowley in Clonmany.
Stay
Twig & Heather is a quiet place for two described as a “soul tonic”. Excellent location, interiors and stunning views from €450 for three-day weekends or midweek breaks. twigandheather.com
Eat & Do
The Red Door Country House in Fahan, especially for Sunday lunch; crab claws at The Seaview Tavern near Malin Head; seafood chowder at Nancy’s Barn in Ballyliffin, and the Bean & Scone café at Pollan Beach car park.
The Colmcille 1500 Inishowen Walking Festival takes place September 10-12. govisitdonegal.com
Ireland
You either adore Donegal, or you haven't been… yet.
Staycations
It’s hard to tell whose holiday experience Paul Allen is more enthusiastic about when he talks of the relaxing break enjoyed by himself, partner Gráinne Downes and their dog, Ted, when they rented a self-catered holiday home in Dingle in June earlier this year.
Ireland
Pól Ó Conghaile maps out a driving tour of Wild Atlantic Way wow moments in Ireland's northwest.
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