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So You Think You Know the Northern Headlands?

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Lapped by the salty North Atlantic’s waters, roam centuries-carved scenery and island idylls before enjoying some rare wit by the crackle of a turf fire or a sunset stroll on what feels like the world’s edge. So wildly spellbinding is County Donegal, it has a whole Wild Atlantic Way region all to itself -- the majestic Northern Headlands.

Perched way up on the route’s most northerly stretch, here wait beach hideaways, deliciously fresh seafood, the cosiest pubs and a rich melting pot of language, music and culture seamlessly intertwined.

World-renowned for its traditional tweed and weaving, its roll call of musical luminaries such as Enya, Clannad and Altan, its love of the lyrical Irish language, its wave-thrashed shorelines adored by surf pros, not to mention an endless trail of beauty spots, County Donegal does a fine line in pretty enchanting experiences.

Get ready to take a whistle-stop tour of the county National Geographic Traveller proclaimed ‘Coolest Place on the Planet for 2017’, it’s time to head north:

  • Spend the night on the very edge of Europe in the shadow of the lighthouse on Arranmore.

Arranmore Island


An ideal place to soak up those captivating coastal views from, head to one of Donegal’s many ruggedly remote islands for a real retreat. The Gaeltacht island of Arranmore is especially picturesque. Nestled near Burtonport Harbour off the county’s north west coast, it’s Donegal’s largest inhabited island and has, remarkably, been inhabited since about 800 BC.

A spectacular place to really delve into coastal life, while away the days diving, deep sea angling or simply seal watching. The crystalline waters around Arranmore make for a world-class diving site, while the nutrient-rich Gulf Stream encourages a veritable marine life playground. Get closer to the shoreline’s stunning sea stacks and cliff-faces by taking the sea safari, all while keeping your eyes peeled for some curious dolphins, of course. 

Round off your days with a salty-aired walk as you drink in those Atlantic views, before raising a glass in one of the island’s six lively pubs. Hoping to boogie? Take to the dancefloor of the local nightclub -- it’s the only island in Ireland that’s home to one!


Glenveagh Castle & Gardens


Tucked away on 16,500ha of lush Donegal woodland, exquisite Glenveagh Castle boasts quite the guest book. The 19th-century castle in the wilds of the Derryveagh Mountains has hosted its fair share of classic Hollywood legends, including Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. 

And little wonder, the story of the castle’s origins is as alluring as the lush landscape it sits on. Beautifully located in Glenveagh National Park, one of five national parks on the Wild Atlantic Way, the castle was built by John Adair for his beloved wife Cornelia. Designed as a ‘Victorian Camelot’ and summer retreat, take a guided tour of the regal residence and don’t miss the chance to stroll the estate’s gardens. Also lovingly created for Mrs Adair, these enchanting gardens sit surrounded by wild bogland and mountain scenery and showcase beautiful views of the lake and the original (some might say unusual for Ireland) outdoor swimming pool. 

Beyond the castle grounds, explore miles and miles of tranquil parkland, watching out for the red deer, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, foxes, bats and more diverse wildlife that call the park home.

  • Europe’s highest accessible cliffs measuring an impressive 1,972 feet (601 metres).

Sliabh Liag (Slieve League)


A visit to Ireland, never mind Donegal, would merely be seen in the half-light rather than its full glory without a visit to the country’s highest sea cliffs, Sliabh Liag (Slieve League). A truly spectacular sight, and one of the Wild Atlantic Way’s 15 Signature Discovery Points, these heady heights are Europe’s highest accessible cliffs measuring an impressive 1,972 feet (601 metres). 

A clifftop visit here amounts to quite a humbling experience. Their lofty height coupled with the indescribable expanse of views across Donegal Bay, makes you feel like a dot on the enveloping Northern Headlands landscape. Only experienced walkers should brave the infamous and utterly (gulp) vertiginous One Man’s Pass to reach a superb vantage point of the cliffs, and arguably the best of the views.

Fanad Head Lighthouse


To pictorial Fanad Peninsula next, for more of Donegal’s captivating heights and scenic stretches. Another stunning Signature Discovery Point, Cionn Fhánada (Fanad Head) with its pristine white 19th-century lighthouse (one of seven on the route), sits between Lough Swilly and Mulroy Bay and looks towards Ireland’s most northerly point, Malin Head

Still in operation, Fanad Lighthouse recently celebrated its 200th anniversary and now welcomes guests to stay in its three refurbished self-catering cottages. With the waves greeting the land’s edge just metres from the cottage door, revel in a taste of that secluded, lightkeeping life. 

Regularly rated one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, resplendent Ballymastocker Bay waits nearby, along with picturesque drives, great golf and plenty of water-based fun too. And of course, keep an eye out for the glint of 22 gold bars said to lie deep in Fanad’s waters, the result of the SS Laurentic’s sinking in 1917.


Malin Head


Here’s a headland with quite a few strings to its bow. Not only is Malin Head, as you know by now, the country’s most northerly point, it was also one of the recent Star Wars instalment’s many west coast filming locations. Malin Head doubled as the film’s water-covered planet Ahch-To, while a gaping ancient chasm near the cliffs by Banba’s Crown (named after mythical goddess Banba) also saw plenty of screen time.  

Banba’s Crown itself is also a prime place to catch views of Inishtrahull Island, Scottish hillsides and even the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. Thanks to Ireland’s location at the 52nd and 55th latitudes, this Donegal spot offers simply illuminating vistas. 

With boat and walking tours available locally, there’s no end to the ways you can explore the area. Wild and weather-beaten, it brims with unspoilt beauty and plenty of history too. Ireland’s first commercial message by wireless was sent from Malin Head’s signal tower, the tower was also used during World War I and II to contact offshore ships. Whatsmore, Malin Head was also the site of a top secret World War II operation. Radio direction finders were installed on the headland to monitor any U-boat and aerial activity in North Atlantic waters.

Dunfanaghy's Horn Head (Corrán Binne, meaning "Hollow in the Hills") under a spectacular sky.

Horn Head & Marble Hill


With windswept walks, breathtaking beaches and wild watersports, Dunfanaghy's Horn Head juts right out towards the Atlantic bringing you exceptionally close to the ocean’s might and majesty. Boasting incredible views across Sheephaven Bay and Tory Island, it’s panoramas like this that make the Wild Atlantic Way what it is. 

Roam further and take one of the area’s superb walks, a venture onto marvellous Marble Hill Blue Flag Beach. Here you can saunter the shoreline or seek salty thrills with some surfing, it’s one of the country’s most coveted watersports spots. Reward yourself with a coffee after all that fresh air at the Shack on the beach and just soak up Dunfanaghy’s rare charm.


Donegal Town


Looking for some lively buzz or good old hustle and bustle? Look no further than delightful Donegal Town. Rich in history, heritage, tradition and with plenty of craic to boot, this is the perfect pitstop on any Northern Headlands road trip. 

Perched by the River Eske, visit the fully-renovated 15th-century Donegal Castle. Built by ancient chieftans with some 17th-century additions by Sir Basil Brooke, take a guided tour and examine exquisite Persian rugs, French tapestries and much more. Catch all the natural sights in a novel way on the Donegal Bay Waterbus, this one-hour cruise includes commentary on the area’s historical, natural and geographical quirks. 

Head to the town centre and discover the ‘Diamond’, a hub of local businesses, shops and restaurants, and the perfect place to buy some iconic Donegal tweed at Magee Clothing. Take a jaunt outside the town too and explore Donegal Craft Village. Showcasing fantastic contemporary arts and crafts, its on-site workshops reveal artisans and artists hard at work creating everything from glass to wood to jewellery and beyond.


Traditional Music & The Gaeltacht

One of the Wild Atlantic Way’s many bona fide Irish language hubs, Gweedore in Donegal boasts one of the highest percentages of Gaeilge (Irish) speakers in the whole country. The connection to this ancient, 3,000-year-old language has left a palpable imprint on this Gaeltacht locality and is the wellspring of the county’s music, heritage and culture.

One musical pitstop to make is long-lauded Leo’s Tavern in Meenaleck. The late Leo Brennan, father of renowned musicians Enya and Clannad’s Moya Brennan, was the inimitable proprietor of this famous pub. A spot synonymous with Irish traditional music, this unassuming pub has and continues to attract huge stars. Regular music and trad nights are held with Moya herself at the helm of the monthly event night Clubeo. This enthralling night of music comes courtesy of talented songwriters, musicians and usually a surprise guest or two. 

A 15-minute spin west and you’ll find Teach Hiudaí Beag, An Bun Beag in Gweedore (Gaoth Dobhair), which hosts one of the country’s finest traditional music sessions every Monday night. A real roll-call of trad greats have honed their craft here, like the late fiddler Proinsias Ó Maonaigh (Francie Mooney), his daughter Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh from acclaimed group Altan, as well as Francie’s grandson Ciarán.

  • Grianán of Aileach said to be a burial monument for the son of an ancient Irish god, one of the Irish mythology’s Tuatha Dé Danann or supernatural ‘tribe of gods’. 

Grianán of Aileach 

If you’ve been expecting some captivating Celtic mythology on your Wild Atlantic Way travels, then this Inishowen spot certainly delivers. The ancient stone fort Grianán of Aileach sits atop the lush Greenan Mountain and is said to be a burial monument for the son of an ancient Irish god, one of the Irish mythology’s Tuatha Dé Danann or supernatural ‘tribe of gods’. 

The fort dates back to about 1700 BC, while nearby also sits another fascinating burial monument, a Bronze Age stone cairn. Given its high ground, this is a windy spot but well worth the trouble to reach as the views from its stone walls are incredible. At least five counties lie stretched before you, offering a fantastic view of the full expanse of Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle and the mountains and hills of Donegal on the horizon. 

A pretty memorable way to round off your Northern Headlands journey, survey the whole of beautiful Donegal and beyond as you reflect on your big wee trip in the mighty Northern Headlands.

Alongside the Northern Headlands, there are five more regions on the Wild Atlantic Way just waiting to be explored. Find out more and get planning your next coastal adventure.

Source article, Irish Times