The ultimate road trip

The ingenious Wild AtlanticWay runs from Mizen Headin West Cork (pictured) toMalin Head in Donegal'sInishowen Peninsula.

Want to discover the Wild Atlantic Way? Tommy Barker checks out the most southern point, at Mizen Head in West Cork, and the most northern — Malin Head in Donegal.

PEOPLE get kudos for walking, cycling or running the length of Ireland, from toe to top, from Mizen Head in West Cork to Malin Head in Donegal’s Inishowen Peninsula, or vice versa, top to toe. Heck, they should even get credit for driving it. These dramatic headlands are poles apart, a country apart: in Irish terms, it’s sort of our own version of Land’s End to John o’Groats. Only more ruggedly beautiful.

Whoever said we inhabit a small, rugged island off western Europe wasn’t behind the wheel of a car, or the saddle of a bike, travelling from Cork to Donegal, the start-end counties of the ingenious Wild Atlantic Way which has soundly gotten into its stride this summer, luring visitors to the country’s dramatic western craggy and cliff strewn coastlines, away from the east coast Dublin magnet. Not only are these book-ending WAW counties far-distant from one another, their headland extremities Malin and Mizen are each practically a two-hour drive from their own county borders — but each are so well worth the extra bit of travel to the outer extremities.

Being already pretty familiar (and constantly awed/WAWed?) with the Mizen in West Cork, I decided to give Malin and Inishowen a whirl, adding in visits to other Donegal spots like Fanad Head also utterly unfamiliar (apart from shipping forecasts) to this Cork-based hack. The first time I had visited Donegal, it was to cover a ’90s teachers’ conference in Bundoran, in the south of the county. I went by motorbike, and it being Easter in Ireland, it started snowing, oh, about Knock. For wusses, a car is waaay easier. As to the people who cycle from one headland to the other in charity fundraisers, about 350/450 miles depending on route taken — hats off, give them every cent you have — I felt saddle sore even driving to Donegal via the Midlands, a ‘short’ cut to the northernmost county for my three-day staycation.

Unveiled this year, and with scope to do wonders for Irish tourism along the west coast, hooking around from Kinsale to Derry in Lough Foyle (as an act of tourist ecumenism?), the Wild Atlantic Way is a 1,500 mile/2,400 km driving route broken up into five distinct sections. Only a very few will ever consume it in one session: it’s not like a five-course meal, think of it as five extraordinary menus, and Donegal gets one section all to itself, with 350 miles or 580 kms of WAW signposted to experience thanks to the deep incursions up and down Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle’s indented headlands, and back down to Slieve League, Europe’s tallest accessible cliffs.

Loughs Foyle and Swilly might be familiar names from school geography lessons, or history’s flight of the Earls; I had classroom flashbacks brought knowledgeably back to life by taking a guided walk of Rathmullen with ex-civil servant Deirdra Friel of www.DonegalHeritageTrails/com, and she also does super-pretty Ramelton village (think Westport, without the bustle) with tours from just €5. Walking with Deirdra is a journey through time, as well as place. Also doing longer walks is ex-teacher Sean Mullen, of www.walktalkdonegal.com, and his trips go from half days to a week, with accommodation arranged. We met at the outpost Fanad lighthouse, in the company of a group of German visitors, some of whom had walked with him before, and who had returned with friends in tow to share the beauty. The lighthouse has just been ceded to the people of Fanad for tourism uses, and it’s hoped to provide guest accommodation here at the light, as unique as at Cork’s Galley Head.

Donegal’s tourism and heritage charms are abundant but under-appreciated, at least to residents of the lower half of the country. It might be two/three hours from Dublin, and thus on the holiday radar of those in the capital, or the midlands, but for Munster folk, there’s an element of “sure, why would we go there when we’ve lovely beaches and attractions here too, and much closer?”

Now, this is a Jesuitical sort of approach, but just those down south know there are places dramatically scenic and special as West Cork/Slea Head/Copper Coast/Cliffs of Moher..... they won’t ever really believe it. Or, won’t want to believe it. Well, I’m now a believer, a convert — and that was a after just three, all-too short days, hugging, cycling and kayaking the shoreline, up hills and down boreens.

A highlight was kayaking along Lough Foyle from the Victorian holiday village Moville, with ace whitewater paddler Adrian Harkin of JustKayak/Inishadventures, spotting wildlife, as well as the holiday homes of John Hume and Brian Friel from the water. There’s some 22 miles of lough mapped out for paddlers of all experiences in a comprehensive guide, and genial Adrian — who has over a dozen individual and group adventure activities on offer — has a second centre at Buncrana across the peninsula.

It was a toe in the water, literally and figuratively, and indicated the further up Donegal you go, the better it gets.

After decades of honky-tonk, and blitzed by bungalows and holiday homes, Bundoran is trying to find a new image and surfing (and last month’s SeaSessions music weekend) is a way back to some street-cred: its main street has surf shops and schools rolling inwaves. We by-passed it to Rossnowlagh’s Sand House Hotel (the one bought back from an Allsop’s auction for just €650,000) to the unusual contrast of watching surfers from the breakfast table on the beach below, then turning back to an open log fire in the reception, and soft Donegal lilts from the staff. This is when you start to feel like a Yank, bizarrely like a tourist in your own land, saying things, like “the people here are really lovely”.

Case in point was Blaise Harvey, who we met as a guide on a cycle trip to Malin Head: as one half of Cycle Inishowen, she’s a locally-born passionate spokes-person and advocate for the untamed peninsula and its byways. With 24-gear Ridgeway hybrid bikes on offer (or bring your own and join their routes and groups) she and partner ‘Oggie’ Michael Ogden (he used to be a cycle courier in Manchester — another world away) they’ll do half-day, day, three-, five- and seven-day packages from €12 for a half day hire and reckon “Inishowen is Ireland in miniature”.

We wheeled away a few sunny hours among the contrast of thatched cottages and Met Eireann buildings, along bog-cotton strewn backroads to Malin Head and its 1805 signal tower. Here, there’s a Start/Finish line painted on the road to signal arrival/departure for those making destination Malin part of any physical challenge. Below the signal tower the word ‘Eire’ is marked out in large, painted white stones in a rock field — done to tell straying WW11 German planes to back off the fledgling republic’s land mass. And, you know you’re in Ireland, as ever since, visitors have made their own gestures, spelling out their names in painted stones on a smaller scale in the rock field falling away towards the sea.

Malin’s the first ‘Signature Point’ after Derry and “while lots of people won’t have the luxury of following the full route, chances are they’ll start out here and — hopefully with us,” says Blaise, who adds “there are definitely more people about than last year and I do feel it’s the start of the WAW effect. There have been a lot more touring cyclists than I have ever seen before and I think they are cycling the route, or selections from it.”

More luxurious than a saddle-bound spin around Banba’s Crown and beach dunes was the discovery of the Sea Vista guesthouse above Harbour View at Fahan, overlooking delta-like backwaters of Lough Swilly, Inch Island (a wildfowl reserve, with migratory swans and geese, and with bridge access for bipeds) and Fahan marina. A contemporary house design in an extraordinary setting, with hosts John and Lynda, it was a perfect five-star counterpoint to the old-world charm of that evening’s dining spot — the warm, inviting and classical Red Door country house at Fahan’s water edge: the Red Door’s previous owners include Phil Coulter.

Contrast again was the next night, in Rosapenna Golf Resort at Downings, a modern bock of a hotel that visually or architecturally does no favours for its sublime beachside setting: inside, looking out, thankfully was a different story, with genuine Donegal hospitality, but its design (and the rash of holiday homes strewn around sensitive headlands over past decades) does lend credence to the feeling that building, until the downturn, threatened to trump tourism as Donegal’s economic driver. Hopefully, the Wild Atlantic Way will put tourism (and sensitive development) back in the driving, walking, cycling and kayaking seat.

HEADING NORTH? TOURIST BOARD ARE FAMILY-FRIENDLY

The Northern Ireland Tourist Board will help with family-friendly activities throughout the province for those currently planning breaks. Included are visits to the Ulster Museum, Belfast Zoo and the Exploris Aquarium, Portaferry, County Down. Check out www.discovernorthernireland.com

FALCON OFF TO A FLIER WITH SUMMER 2015 PROGRAMME

Falcon Holidays has launched the 2015 summer programme with family prices pitched from €999. All inclusive holidays start from €719 per adult and €389 per child and the company has promised to provide a large number of free child places. Visit www.falconholidays.ie

AS HOLIDAYS INCH CLOSER CHECK OUT KERRY COTTAGES

There are thousands of options for those wishing to holiday at home this year — even at this stage — and one of them is at the Inch Beach House cottages in Kerry (www.inchbeach.com). Countrywide availability can be viewed on www.vacationhomesireland.com

DIRECT DUBLIN TO LONDON WITH BA FIVE TIMES A DAY

British Airways is to launch a new direct service from Dublin to London City Airport from October 26 with five services a day. The first is an early morning departure and allows for a full business day in London or connection to the airline’s 26 destinations from the Docklands. Prices start from €39. See www.ba.com

SHANDON MAY HAVE THAT CRUISE FOR YOUZE

Shandon Travel and the Cruise Centre have a range of cruises on offer for booking this month. Amongst them, the company is working with Norwegian Cruise Lines on a summer sale; a seven-night cruise ex-Barcelona is priced from €595 and there’s a nine-night special to Baltic Capitals from €650. Telephone 021-4277094

www.cycleinishowen.com 

www.inishadventures.com 

www.donegalheritagetrails.com 

www.cycleinishowen.com 

www.seavistadonegal.com 

www.thereddoor.ie 

www.walktalkdonegal.com 

www.rosapenna.ie


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