“Everything is different up here” they say – we cannot say whether that is really the case. Anyway, the far north of the Irish Republic, which is rarely visited by tourists due to its remote location and poor infrastructure, quickly captured our hearts. Full of extremes, it presents itself sometimes rough, whipped by wind and weather, sometimes gentle and inviting – but always untouched, fascinating and full of sheep. An anniversary was the reason for a first discovery tour through various counties in the North of Ireland.
On Christmas before we went to Ireland, I gifted Falk an overnight stay in an Irish Bubble Dome Hotel. You sleep there in a transparent, plastic hemisphere that stands in the middle of nature and from which you can watch the stars at night. What a romantic idea – and unfortunately not that cheap. For our anniversary we wanted to redeem this voucher. Unfortunately an overnight stay in the Bubble Dome was already fully booked several weeks beforehand. There was an alternative though: an overnight stay in a lodge with a view over Lough Erne. We drove about four hours to Finn Lough Resort in County Fermanagh (Northern Ireland) on the border to County Donegal (Republic of Ireland).
On our arrival we were greeted very friendly with a pot of tea and freshly baked biscuits. Also we were driven to our lodge in a bobby car, which supposedly should be the most beautiful of the whole resort – and we were actually really thrilled! A huge panorama window with a view of the lake, a spacious bathroom with a floor-to-ceiling shower and a free-standing bathtub, as well as small details such as a suitcase record player and a retro telescope, gave a certain charm to this stylish and cozy accommodation. Our booked appointments and congratulations on our anniversary were written on a small slate – how thoughtful!
After an extensive discovery tour through our accommodation, we wanted to see something of the area. Unfortunately, there was cloudy, rainy weather that summer’s day, which is why we only drove along the lake by car instead of paddling on it with a kayak, as originally planned. We visited Boa Island, a peninsula with the beautiful old Caldragh cemetery which is home to the famous Janus Stone. This is an approximately 2000 year old pagan figure with two grotesque human heads turned away from each other. Next to it is the smaller one-eyed figure of Lusty Man. We made a few funny faces with the stones. 😛
Then we actually wanted to drive through Lough Navar Forest Park to the 9 kilometer long and 250 meter high Cliffs of Magho with a view of the Blue Stack Mountains and the sea. But the weather and the time thwarted our plans. We had to quickly find something to eat in order to be back at the resort in time for our booking.
Due to the rain, the booked sundowner didn’t take place on the lakeshore with sunset, but in a wooden crate decorated with fairy lights in the forest – a bit more rustic, but still beautiful. We had S’Mores – a typical American campfire specialty consisting of melted marshmallows, a piece of chocolate and two biscuits – a sticky-sweet affair. There was also a bottle of red wine, which, in addition to the fire bowl, heated us up a little more. Nevertheless, we couldn’t avoid the uneasy feeling that today everything we had imagined and planned so beautifully had literally fallen into the water. No bubble dome, no paddling tour on Lough Erne, no romantic sunset and I had quite a cold on top of that. It was way too cool for mid-June and I sat there with a sore throat in the drizzle. But we made the best of it. A warm bubble bath with the rest of the red wine and a good book in the evening should fix things up again. After a good night’s sleep and a delicious breakfast, I felt better the next day.
All in all, our anniversary didn’t seem to be under such a good star, but we were hoping for an improvement during our upcoming trip to the far north of Ireland – County Donegal.
Spoiler: We shouldn’t be disappointed. 😉
Before that, we inspected the peninsula the Finn Lough Resort is located on, because we wanted to at least inspect the bubble domes from the outside. On our foray we noticed small, winding hiking trails marked with red flags that led through the jungle-like forest. Finally we found the bubble domes and were allowed to take a sneak peek inside. They looked just as fascinating as in the photos. In the daylight, however, we could hardly imagine what it would be like to lie there in the dark under the starry sky. We just decided that our Lakeside Lodge wasn’t that bad after all and walked back to our car. We can warmly recommend the luxurious Finn Lough Resort and would like to stay in such a bubble dome one day gazing at shooting stars.
Afterwards we visited a castle ruin that reminded us of the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty. Castle Caldwell in the forest of the same name on the banks of Lough Erne is densely overgrown and can hardly be identified as a castle from the outside. Is there still a sleeping princess waiting inside to be kissed awake? This place invites you to take long walks on various routes between forest and water. We couldn’t spend a lot of time here, but there was still enough time for a short drone flight. Here somewhere in the middle of nowhere, once more we met other Germans who were out on the lake with a boat and were taking a break here – how could it be any different? The Germans are just everywhere on the green island, you’re never alone!
Afterwards the great discovery tour in Donegal started. At least the weather played along a lot better today than the day before!
After a short drive of about 20 minutes we reached our next destination, which is also on or rather in the water. Discovered on Instagram, we really wanted to see it for ourselves. We are talking about St. Patrick’s Purgatory, a Christian pilgrimage site that’s located on an island in the middle of Lough Derg in County Donegal. Lough Derg? You already know it from other articles about County Clare. Right, there seem to be two lakes with the same name in Ireland! In any case, many people are said to have made the pilgrimage here for spiritual purification for 1500 years, often to get rid of sins and to repent. In order to get into the purgatory at all, the pilgrims first had to fast and pray for 15 days, only to be locked in a cave for 24 hours, in which medicinal herbs were burned – one should inhale the “cleansing” smoke. If the pilgrims were found alive the next day, they were taken to a neighboring island for another 15 days of fasting and prayer. They did something like that voluntarily – hardly imaginable these days. Later in the 13th century, lawbreakers from across Europe were required to make pilgrimages to atone for their sins and obtain forgiveness. It was not until a few centuries later, around 1632, that pilgrimages were banned.
Even today travelers make pilgrimages to the purgatory, but only for a 3-day pilgrimage. But it’s still about fasting and uninterrupted prayer without shoes, food and sleep.
Unfortunately (or should we say “fortunately” regarding these facts?), a visit to the island wasn’t possible for us in person, but only from the air, due to lack of time. Falk unpacked his drone for the second time today, despite the drizzle and wind. Viewed from above, the buildings on the island look more like a noble estate for the rich. Nothing lets the lay eye guess what renunciation and agony people have been exposed to here – voluntarily or not – for many centuries. At the time of our visit we also had no idea what was going on there. We saw a few supposed vacationists taking a ferry to the island and even envied them for the luxurious break they were indulging in. We found the sight of this isolated bastion of tranquility, which was initially only inhabited by a few hermits, just beautiful and worth seeing. Well, appearances can be deceiving!
On the way to our next destination, we drove through Donegal City, where we only had a short lunch break in a quaint restaurant opposite the unmistakable Donegal Castle. As we still had quite a long way to go, an overnight stay in Donegal City was out of the question for us, but it’s said to be an excellent starting point for exploring the south of Donegal with many good restaurants and hotels.
The wild coast in the south of Donegal, we had heard so much about, was calling for us. A postcard motif was the crucial factor for our first destination there: It showed a lush green rocky coast at the end of a pointed headland that intruding deep into the Atlantic Ocean. The drive there alone was an experience – on narrow, winding paths, past rustic cottages and stone walls fencing the countless sheep on the green expanses, surrounded by the roaring sea and accompanied by low-moving sheep clouds in front of an indigo blue sky.
We made the first stop on a long, deserted beach with crystal clear, almost turquoise water. Two local fishermen or anglers were repairing their small boat on the beach in this surreal setting. We can only assume that it was St. John’s Point Beach.
Shortly afterwards our journey continued to our actual destination of this detour, whereby the route was the goal anyway. The atmosphere that we felt on the rocky coast of St. John’s Point can hardly be described with words and pictures. The wind, the sun, the waves and the radiant, saturated hues of the landscape once again worked with wonders. You can’t help but carry a big grin in your face! So far outside you don’t meet any other tourists, not even local residents. Here you are completely undisturbed by yourself. At the very end of the rugged headland there is also a lighthouse, that we only viewed from the outside. On the way back down from the small peninsula, we were particularly impressed by a cottage that shortly afterwards turned out to be a traditional weaving mill – it was so old, small and lovingly decorated that we just had to stop. The remnants of McSwyne’s Castle on the edge of flat cliffs made us halt again.
In the late afternoon we finally reached the driveway to the highest cliffs in Ireland. A gate in the middle of the street blocked our way. Since it wasn’t secured with a lock, we decided to simply open it so that we were able to drive through it. It turned out that we weren’t the only ones who had this glorious idea. Only a few embarked on the rather long, steep path on foot. The light was magical – there’s no other way to describe it. We couldn’t have wished for a more beautiful lighting atmosphere for what we would encounter now. The entire landscape was bathed in the golden light of the low, early evening sun. Green, rocky hills, speckled with white sheep and a few splashes of floral color showed us the way to the Slieve League Cliffs (Irish: Sliabh Liag = gray mountain). Since we were already totally excited about the Cliffs of Moher in our home County Clare, we were a bit skeptical and weren’t expecting too much from these less famous Irish cliffs. Oh, how mistaken we were! With every step we got closer to the cliffs, the sight became more breathtaking. Large clusters of clouds failed to make it over the top of the cliff and got stuck, making for an even more dramatic sight. Here you feel like you are at the end of the world – in a positive sense. At the edge of the cliffs we felt an incredible feeling of freedom and absolute happiness. That moment was perfect. No wonder we tried to prolong it as long as possible, walking up and down the cliffs and always enjoying new perspectives. What a panorama! The Slieve League Cliffs are so elongated that you can’t actually get them in a picture without panorama mode, no matter how wide the lens is. It was hard for us to believe, that they are supposed to be 600 meters high, almost 3 times higher than the Cliffs of Moher, and thus count among the highest cliffs in all Europe. I guess once a certain height is achieved, it’s difficult to imagine the relations and – regardless of whether it’s 200 or 600 meters – it’s still very high. In any case, this experience will stay in our memories forever and is one of our absolute favorite moments that we have been able to experience so far.
With a newfound humility towards the vast nature and beauty of the earth, we set off on our further adventure along the northwestern Wild Atlantic Way. The next destination is one of the most beautiful beaches along the west Irish coast road and was only 45 minutes away from us. Silver Strand is a picturesque beach in a horseshoe-shaped bay near a Gaeltacht village called Malinbeg (Irish: Málainn Bhig). There we were also greeted with a bleat from some sheep grazing on the cliff above the beach. Numerous steps lead down to it. It’s a real workout going up! Although we were here at a moderate time of day in the middle of summer (around 7 p.m.), we only met two other people. Indeed, Donegal still seems to be a real insider tip that cannot complain about too many tourists. After a short time we were surprised with spectacular light again, when suddenly rain clouds came up and the evening sun conjured a delicate rainbow into the sky. A grandiose end to the day, if it hadn’t continued a little…
On the way to our place to stay for the night we passed a tripartite group of islands with a lighthouse, the so-called Rathlin O’Birne Island. In the glaring evening light the scenery looked fascinating and made us stop again. But the view all around, including the old buildings on the surrounding steep slopes, always grazing sheep in the foreground, knew how to impress.
The lookout point on the picturesque Glengesh Pass (Irish: Malaidh Ghleann Gheis) seduced us to a last stop before we reached our overnight accommodation on the proceeded evening. Unfortunately, we couldn’t make a detour through the narrow, winding pass flanked by green mountains. The view of the green valley alone was beautiful enough. It’s also called the Glen of Spells, hence the name Glengesh Pass. This name is as old as the legends of the Irish heroes and comes from lores that people who lived here were put under ban or in Irish “gesh” if they didn’t obey certain rules and broke taboos. The legendary hero Cúchullain was also given two bans that contradicted each other. Because he could only stick to one of them, he was sentenced to death.
When we arrived late at our B&B (Gort na Mona) in Ardara, we let the day end comfortably with live music and cider in a pub and then fell into bed overwhelmed by the diverse impressions of the day. What a compensation for the previous day that fell into water!
Speaking of water, the next day our first point on the agenda was the Assaranca waterfall right in Ardara. It’s one of the most accessible and photo worthy waterfalls in Ireland and has found its way into many photo albums – including ours! 😉
It’s located on the way to the impressive Maghera Beach, which we headed for immediately afterwards. This white sandy dream beach and its caves can be reached via a winding path through extensive dunes – simply nice to walk along here.
After a long walk, on which we hardly met a soul, we set out north. The largest national park in Ireland, that we didn’t know yet, was waiting for us there. Unfortunately the weather changed on the way there, so that we only had heavy rain for the entire stay. The Glenveagh National Park reminded us of a vast Scottish landscape, not least because of the cloudy rainy weather. It’s located in the heart of the Derryveagh Mountains and is ideal for short hikes along the large Lough Veagh as well as challenging tours in the mountains.
Because there was so little to do outside in this bad weather, we had more time for the castle, which is located in the middle of the National Park and which also adds to the impression that you are now in Scotland. Glenveagh Castle offers extensive themed gardens, you can wander through, and a fantastic view of Lake Veagh. During a tour of the beautifully preserved castle, which was inspired by the Victorian idyll of a romantic retreat in the Highlands in the second half of the 19th century, we learned more about the fascinating history of its builders and residents. It’s particularly noteworthy that a woman, namely the wife of the late builder John George Adair, had the construction of the palace completed and the gardens laid out. She lived here alone for many years in the summer and entertained high society as a hostess. The next owner was a professor at Harvard University and regularly held high-profile events to which he invited writers and artists whose paintings still adorn the library of the hunting lodge. Since 1984, it has been publicly owned and Glenveagh National Park opened to the public. It still attracts visitors from all over the world. Even if the castle is extremely worth seeing, for us a closer exploration of the National Park is definitely still on our bucket list with hopefully better weather.
In the late afternoon we made the long way back from North Donegal to Clare. In the evening we reached one of my must-sees, the Beltany stone circle, as the only stopover. It’s located in the far south of Donegal and is one of the largest stone circles in Ireland. It gets its name because of its orientation towards sunrise at Beltaine, the Celtic spring festival. The Beltany Stonecircle is believed to be one of the first stone circles originating around 3000 BC. This means that the pre-Christian ritual site is much older than, for example, the Stonehenge in England. Even when they are in the middle of a field full of sheep (or perhaps because of that?), such stone circles always have a special appeal to me and, last but not least, always remind me of one of our favorite series: Outlander. No stone circle that we pass can be skipped.
Only that night we reached our home in County Clare, exhausted but full of new impressions and memories. The far north of Ireland had definitely not seen us for the last time and always lures us into its wild, untouched realms. We can definitely recommend a trip to the north west of Ireland if you don’t mind stronger breezes and rough weather.
Because this was a very long blog post, here are the sights of the trip at one glance including our star rating:
- Finn Lough Resort + Lough Erne ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
- Janus Stone ⭐️⭐️⭐️
- Castle Caldwell Forest Park ⭐️⭐️⭐️
- St. Patrick’s Purgatory ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
- Donegal City ⭐️⭐️⭐️
- St. John’s Point ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
- Slieve League Cliffs ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
- Silver Strand (Malinbeg)⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
- Glengesh Pass ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
- Assaranca Wasserfall ⭐️⭐️⭐️
- Maghera Beach ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
- Glenveagh Castle + National Park ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
- Beltany Stonecircle ⭐️⭐️⭐️