Tom Kelly: Sustenance, scenery and history on the road home
In his final staycation travelogue, regular Irish News columnist Tom Kelly visits Letterkenny and Malin Head before re-assessing the charms of historic Derry city
THERE is an Irish proverb which says "Nil aon tintean mar do thintean fein": "There's no fireplace like your own fireplace". In most cases that is true, except for Donegal. A roaring hearth is all part of the welcome and with a glass of Jameson in hand it is hard to dislodge from the warm embrace.
But dislodge we must.
We consider backtracking towards Carrickart and down via the heritage town of Ramelton but opt for a more direct route to Letterkenny. On any other day the nearby Glenveagh National Park with its spectacular gardens is worth the trek.
Letterkenny is where most tourists stop to pick up provisions at the large edge of town shopping centre. We are no different, so we stock up on Tayto Cheese and Onion and enough water to launch a ship.
Before leaving, we take an unscheduled 3km detour from Letterkenny to Newmills with its corn and flax mills. This is a part of Donegal's industrial heritage and home to one of Ireland's largest water wheels. It is hard to imagine this place was once thriving.
Back on the road, we face a 80 km trip to Malin Head. A driver is certainly disadvantaged when touring this part of the county, as the scenery is ruggedly stunning but the roads which seem to stretch forever require attention.
Sheep are mildly disinterested in tourists but twice we had to 'shoo' some back into fields. If there was a shepherd's exam we would fail.
A sign for Ballyliffin reminded me of a long standing invitation to call and play some golf with my old policing board chum, Denis Bradley.
A quick pit stop at the Mamore Gap to take pictures. It is spellbinding view. Mystical too as the landscape seems to unfold beneath wispy clouds.
Malin Head was in view. Having a father who rose ridiculously early to go to work but blasted his radio from 5.30am, Malin Head and Valentia were exotic names I recognised from the shipping forecast.
The Martello Tower at Malin Head was originally built as a buttress against a possible Napoleonic invasion and has since had various incarnations including even being recommissioned during the Second World War, making it a place which prepared for two invasions that never came.
At this stage, as we would say "the hunger was on me". Sea air and long drives do that: bottled water and a few crisps are of little sustenance to a man who appreciates fine dining. We had two choices: stop at the nearer Carndonagh with its imposing church or drive a little further and eat at the Redcastle Hotel. We decided on the latter.
A year ago, we had a spa break at this signature hotel and the food was mouthwatering. Though, rather embarrassingly, when trying to find the pier at nearby Greencastle I let the car run down a slipway. Partners don't forget these things.
Soon the Redcastle had us fed and watered with locally sourced salmon, scallops with black pudding and rich tasting Guinness wheaten bread and we rolled towards the car.
Now on the final leg, it's quick scoot across the border and we were now heading to Derry – the Maiden City. I am a late convert to appreciating Derry. Poor quality hotels and a run-down city centre marred my previous experiences. This time it was quite different.
Our hotel is the award-winning Bishop's Gate. Valet parking is always a good sign of quality especially when an hotel is slap bang in the middle of a city. The hotel is simply splendid – made more so by the friendliest of staff.
Despite its steep streets, Derry is very much a walkable city. And our first stop was the impressive City Walls. When on the walls, we encountered The Siege Museum. Apart from telling the story of the Siege of Derry, it also contains information about the Loyal Orders. It is a thought provoking space. In the interests of balance, we also made a visit to the small but informative Museum of Free Derry and of course, the world famous Free Derry Corner.
The new Peace bridge is stunning as it spans the Foyle. It also opens up the city to the Waterside and the former military barracks, now known as the impressive Ebrington Square, as well as providing connectivity to the city's 70 acre St Columb's Park.
Back in the city centre, Derry's august Guildhall is well worth a visit, as is the upscale craft village off Shipquay Street. The biggest surprise in Derry is the number of quality places to eat, including Siam Thai, Cedar the Lebanese restaurant and the trendier Quaywest wine bar which is alongside the river.
If craft beers are your thing, the Guildhall Taphouse is the place to go. But in fairness, Derry is a lively place at the weekends and a visitor is spoiled for entertainment. Though for us, it's the lure of those luxuriant Bishop's Gate rooms, a bottle of Prosecco and some chocolate truffles.
The morning comes all too soon and so too the end of our road trip. The dark Mournes now beckon and home. Slan go foill.