Travel: Enjoying a 'vantastic' Co Donegal vacation in a kitted-out VW camper van
It's time to hit the road and park up wherever you fancy (within reason) as David Roy and partner tour Co Donegal in a camper van during the hottest weekend of the year...
AS THE rain lashes the windows here at Irish News Travel Towers, morale levels have become increasingly reliant on pleasant sun, sea and sand-kissed memories of a scorching long weekend spent touring Co Donegal in a VW camper van last month.
I've never been one for a 'bucket list' – especially as I'm still suspicious of a term no-one had heard of before 2007's sleeper hit starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson – but holidaying in a camper van has definitely always appealed to me.
Who needs hotels when you can just park up and explore the local sights/attractions before eventually returning for a nightcap while enjoying whatever view you've pointed your sliding door at? Then, simply pop that top and hit the hay. Wake up and repeat until fulfilled. Happy hippy holidays, man.
Sounds appealing in theory, but what about the reality – especially in wet auld Ireland?
We found out when Belfast 'retail concept store' Jans Lifestyle offered us one of their brand spanking new VW Caravelle camper conversions for a weekend loan. Booked weeks in advance with a vague notion of heading up the Wild Atlantic Way into Donegal via Co Sligo, our dates just so happened to coincide with the hottest weekend of the year – result.
Of course, Co Donegal often has its own ideas about even the best weather, but we packed up and hit the road with hope in our hearts and a full fill of diesel in our tank. Not to mention sun-cream and beer in our fridge and tinned goods in our cupboard.
Yes, 'The Van', as it shall be thus referred to, came equipped with its own fridge with freezer compartment, a double-ring gas hob and stainless steel sink with on-board water supply (pack a five-litre water bottle and funnel for easier on-the-go refills), plus air conditioning and canvas pop-top with double-bed sized bunk complete with its own mattress – just add your own sleeping bags and pillows.
It also proved easy to drive, with a nice high driving position and super comfortable seats – important when you're planning on racking up a rake of miles in a short space of time.
The high clutch pedal action took some getting used to (automatic versions are also available, at a premium), but basically driving The Van wasn't much different to driving a large, comfortable car while on the road or motorway. The DAB radio with Bluetooth connectivity means you can choose your own soundtrack too.
Parking manoeuvres proved a bit trickier given lack of clear rearward visibility, so be sure to bring along a canny co-pilot who can jump out and provide verbal guidance/criticism – especially when reversing out of parking bays into busy traffic.
Also, be advised that some of the 'roads' in the wilds of Ireland's beautiful northwest can be slightly nerve-wracking to negotiate in a pristine £50k vehicle you've been driving for less than 24 hours. Just go slow, look for pull-ins to help negotiate oncoming cars/tractors and remember to always wave cheerily at whomever you've just narrowly avoided a head-on collision with: this is the Donegal way.
To be honest, I'd actually been slightly apprehensive about the whole 'parking up for the night anywhere you like' thing, especially as I'd heard it can be a bit of a grey area legality-wise.
Thus, our first night in The Van was spent in the somewhat aesthetically lacking but 100 per cent above-board setting of the car park behind The Pier Head Hotel in Mullaghmore. We love this picturesque Co Sligo fishing village and had stayed at the Pier Head before: they do excellent food and drink in their bar and let camper vans stay overnight in their secure car park for just €12 – win win.
We arrived in town early enough to enjoy a thoroughly pleasant afternoon swimming and sunbathing in the 30C heat on Mullaghmore's fantastic beach, followed by an equally pleasing evening enjoying Pier Head-supplied fish and chips and several pints of Guinness, consumed al fresco by the harbour wall while watching the sunset.
Returning from our evening walk along the nearby Atlantic-facing cliffs, we spotted at least eight camper vans still loitering in the village's public car park under the many 'NO OVERNIGHT CAMPING' signs. All were still there the next morning with nary a ticket, wheelclamp or irate Garda in sight.
Despite the extreme heat, we slept pretty well in The Van's pop-top double bunk. Yet, as we sipped morning coffees brewed up on the camper's gas hob, it was decided that a cooling sea breeze and ocean view were in order for night two somewhere over the border in God's own county.
We were also now hauling bags of rubbish/recycling with us as there are literally no bins anywhere in Mullaghmore – there were, thankfully, public toilets though.
On the suggestion of a seasoned campervanner in an RV at least three times the size of our humble VW, we drove up into Donegal a bit to check out the secluded Dooey Beach, which would apparently be perfect for a "wee van" like ours to camp at. This involved a pleasant main road tour through the stunning scenery of The Glenties which eventually deteriorated into rough and winding single track (actually more like three-quarter track) hillside roads, where we were in constant fear of oncoming vehicles at every one of the many, many blind corners and steep crests.
Having somehow arrived alive, the beach turned out to be stunning – but sadly the good weather had already attracted a full load of camper vans in its tiny public car park. With no way to safely park up on the 'roads' above, we dipped our toes in the ocean before switching to plan B and setting off for the tiny adjacent seaside tourist traps of Narin and Portnoo.
After a quick pitstop at a big Lidl to avail of their bins and recycling facilities, we motored on and somehow managed to blag a prime parking slot right on the Narin Strand beachfront. The Atlantic was just a few hundred yards away, and there were also 24-hour public loos with an outside water tap within trotting distance.
A leisurely stroll down this fantastic two-mile-long Blue Flag beach was followed by a couple of restorative beers in our folding chairs as the sun set spectacularly over the ocean. The Van's gas hob was then fired up again and its handy stow-away folding table erected and set for two: I tell you reader, Heinz Spaghetti Bolognese from the can has never tasted so good.
After a raucous evening's imbibement at the local pub, Annora, it was time to return to base, clip the wrap-around blackout curtain in place and clamber up into our bunk for a much more pleasantly ventilated night soundtracked by crashing ocean waves and the occasional burst of teenage lalting as the young and full assembled in the carpark for their late night/early morning extractions.
Starting with a refreshing morning swim at Narin Strand (mind those jelly-fish) followed by a walk up to Portnoo village and coffees and amazing ice cream crepes at Narin's Pirates of The Coffee Bean, we took The Van around the corner to nearby Rosbeg and met up with our friend Doco, a south Belfast legend and die-hard 'Doney' advocate whose family have been holidaying at Tramore Beach Caravan Park every summer for 40 years.
Although we couldn't actually get a slot on-site there due to ongoing Covid restrictions, we were able to park up safely in the adjacent lane which led to – you guessed it – yet another stunning beach, this time surrounded by impressive sand dunes and refreshingly deserted even in the midst of a heatwave.
Doco took us to his favourite watering hole in Donegal, Dawros Bay House & Joe's Seafood Bar – or just plain 'Joe's to the reverential locals – which boasts incredible views over the adjacent bay and even better Guinness. Then it was back to the caravan site to explore "the secret beach" and work up an appetite for some amazing barbecued grub grilled up by Doco and Mama Doco.
After another sound night's sleep in The Van, we decided to head back round to Narin/Portnoo and escape the still scorching heat with a final swim in the ocean (and, yes, more ice cream crepes from Pirates of The Coffee Bean) before hitting the road back to Belfast.
A couple of comfortable, air-con cooled hours driving saw us arriving home tired, sun-burned, with sand in every nook and cranny – and dying to hit the road to do it all over again.
I checked the trip counter before switching The Van off for the last time: we'd covered 576 miles and visited three counties on just half a tank of diesel.
In a word? 'Vantastic'.
:: Camper van rentals from Jans Lifestyle in August start at £625 for a minimum five-day rental. For full information on rentals/sales, visit their Belfast showroom at 41 Boucher Road, call 033 0912 1465 or see Janslifestyle.co.uk