It’s the starting point of the now iconic Wild Atlantic Way and the accolades for Donegal just keep rolling in. This rugged place – famed for its ubiquitous solitude, proud heritage and rich tapestry of landscapes ranging from pristine coastlines to mountain hiking trails and everything in-between – was recently listed by the highly prized Lonely Planet Guide as one of the best regions in the world to visit.
That’s quite the coup. And let’s not forget that Donegal was already named by the travel bible in 2017 as “the coolest place on the planet” when the cast and crew of Star Wars came to town.
So it’s little wonder thousands of us fire up our own Millennium Falcons every year for some downtime in Donegal. And although you’ll not quite match light speed, new sections of the A6 will go a Wookie long way to making your journey a lot easier if travelling from a good part of the north.
Donegal is of course renowned for the friendliness of its people and that familiar steering wheel salute from oncoming motorists, the index finger one of course that you know well from rural parts, gladded my heart as I ventured to Moville and its landmark Redcastle Hotel on a typically frosty Friday in January with my husband and two-year-old in tow.
An easy drive well shy of two hours from Belfast, it’s easy to see why the hotel’s reception was filled with so many familiar accents. Some there to simply luxuriate amongst the hotel’s award-winning facilities namely its Cara Organic spa, golf course and 2 AA Rosette awarded Edge restaurant. Some were there to meet with wedding planners and name the happy day. And others, like my husband and I, there keen to rekindle happy childhood memories made along these coastlines with our own blue-eyed boy.
Having recently undergone a €500,000 refurbishment guests can expect unabridged comfort, open places in which to relax and rooms with lots of nifty little mod-cons like coffee stations and widescreen TVs featuring all the channels alongside everything from Netflix to YouTube for your perusal. That’s if you’ve a moment to peel your eyes from the sublime views of Lough Foyle.
And as we shut out the last embers of daylight, our excited youngster couldn’t help taking frequent peeks behind the curtains out there to the ocean and likely to the amusement, or annoyance, of guests in The Deck and The Edge Restaurant below and over a bit from our window.
The aptly named Edge Restaurant was of course the scene for our breakfast the next morning where fears of a overly sprightly toddler at the sight of a basket full of delicious pastries were quickly allayed by a waitress displaying that coveted Donegal hospitality by both admiring the tractor on his new sweater and pointing out the huge boat slowing passing by the windows. That thoughtfulness resulted in the rare occasion of a child happily taking to his high chair while mummy and daddy helped themselves to a feast of cereals and a full-Irish with all the trimmings. Scores of sausages, croissants and fresh orange juice continued to keep our young one content long after the big boat faded into the early morning fog.
Perfect fuel for a busy day exploring the many sights of Inishowen and Malin Head, starting with Kinnego Bay. If you want to feel like the only person in the world, this short and spindling drive from The Redcastle will offer you just that.
You’ll have very little for company on the roads as you meander around the bay, up and down like you’re on the edge of the world with the roaring ocean as your only way marker. It’s wild Donegal at its most wonderful.
Of course as Donegal continues to make its mark on the world stage, hospitality providers are increasing their offering of unique and unforgettable experiences. And there’s no finer example than the Wild Alpaca Way just outside Malin. Here overlooking Five Fingers Strand, home to some of the highest sand dunes in Europe, are a herd of beautiful alpacas living the dream near the ocean and you can enjoy wandering with them, learning all about their ways and even feeding these friendly chaps.
This innovative project, crafted with love and care, is the brainchild of local John McGonagle, his wife Patricia and sons Danny, Aidan and Sean who started their enterprise just before the Covid-19 pandemic.
And taking a stroll with these alpacas is a truly exhilarating experience. You’ll forget all your worries in an instant as you take your own assigned alpaca for a dander and feel the warmth of their cosy curly fleece. We were lucky to be joined by Tommy and Mojo on our walk and I’ve really never seen a happier child as ours proudly guided Mojo – magical by name and by nature – on our walk. He was in his element, a bubble of true bliss and it’s little wonder the Wild Alpaca Way enjoys great success with John telling us he has visitors from all over the world as well as day-trippers and of course families with young children as the alpacas are so gentle.
As well as telling you everything you need to know about these stunning creatures – the elements of north Donegal are really nothing compared to those in the Andes of Peru and Bolivia – John is also a pretty dab hand at photography and videography ensuring that we had a camera full of images documenting our happy day.
The pace of the walk is slow, steady and suitable for all ages and levels of fitness. The Wild Alpaca Way is about 30 minutes from The Redcastle and is well signposted from Malin. It really is a lovely alternative way to explore Inishowen and the Atlantic as John welcomes you onto his land with the utmost hospitality.
Precious memories secured, it was back to the Redcastle for some rest and warmth. A dip in the hotel’s pool was the perfect way to fill the final hour or so before dinner and helped our youngster build up a hearty appetite.
Dining at The Edge Restaurant is a very special affair for many reasons other than its inspirational views across the waters. It’s a multi-award winner and sets the bar high for fine dining in Donegal. Head chef Gordon Smyth’s aim is, in his words, “to showcase all the quality that Inishowen has to offer”. The result is a menu crafted with flair, provenance and attention to detail. We enjoyed starters of velouté of roast parsnip, bacon jam and pear and a Donegal crab tartlet with sheep’s youghurt, apple, butternut squash, ginger and elderberry. And mains of free range chicken complemented by a macaroni and cheese fritter, butternut squash, truffle and maple and sage and a braised daube of beef with bourguignon jus, garlic pomme puree and crispy onions.
A most memorable feast for a young family reluctantly, yet quickly, joining the chicken nugget, red sauce and chips brigade. In a welcome change of tack, our two-year-old happily tucked into some garlic bread and spaghetti from the children’s menu allowing mum and dad to savour a truly unique dining experience.
Inishowen and The Redcastle has all the right ingredients for a staycation whatever the occasion. Here in this beautiful hotel, voted Luxury Hotel & Golf Course of the Year, Ireland 2023 at the Live Wire Global Awards and named Ulster Family Hotel of the Year at the Irish Hotel Awards 2023, you’ll never be short of things to do. And if you want to just do nothing, which is also fine, let this sanctuary and its team of friendly and professional staff help host your perfect stay.
The Redcastle is currently hosting its ‘3 for 2′ package allowing guests to stay two nights’ bed and breakfast enjoying a third night free with the hotel’s compliments including a full Irish breakfast. For more information visit redcastlehoteldonegal.com
An alpaca family walk ticket (two adults and up to three children – under the age of 14) costs €45. For more information visit wildalpacaway.com