DONEGAL - TEN (OR SO) OF THE BEST
Donegal is different: this uncrowded county has an other-worldliness that is increasingly hard to capture in the traditional family holiday areas. Among the many things that make it a must-visit destination are its friendliness and laid-back charm, genuine hospitality at some of the country’s best owner-managed establishments, magnificent scenery, a great range of activities, good food - and that special sense of place. Magic!
Shandon Hotel Spa & Wellness NORTH-WEST DONEGAL
Marble Hill Strand Port-na-Blagh Dunfanaghy Co Donegal
For many families seeking the very best kind of traditional summer holiday, this large privately owned hotel overlooking Sheephaven Bay – and just a short walk down the hill to one of Ireland’s most famous sandy beaches – is simply heaven. Excellent facilities for families include a children’s play centre but - with good food and plenty for older members of the family nearby too, including activities and treatments at their impressive Ocean Spa & Wellness Centre, golf, horseriding and walking – it offers something for all age groups. Bedrooms vary in size according to their position in the building; the suites are especially desirable, but all are comfortably furnished and have sea views. With caring hands-on owners, a magnificent location, open fires and friendly, helpful staff, and a very relaxed atmosphere, it all adds up to a very pleasant place to spend a week or two.
McGrory’s of Culdaff NORTH-EAST DONEGAL
Culdaff Inishowen Co Donegal
Famous for its natural beauty and outdoor activities, Inishowen is the perfect place to blow away those city cobwebs – and McGrory’s would make an ideal base. An inn in the true sense of the word, offering rest and refreshment to travellers, this Donegal institution was established in 1924 and remains in the hands-on care of the hospitable McGrory family. Many visitors to the area will think of it mainly as a bar – it’s the perfect pit stop when touring the Inishowen peninsula, and they serve good casual food throughout the day– but they have very nice, reasonably priced, accommodation too, plus an evening restaurant that has loads of character and ups the ante a bit without being too formal. It makes a comfortable base for a break – there’s great walking in the area, and golfers can take breaks with special rates at Ballyliffin Golf Club included. And there’s no shortage of craic: as well as traditional sessions in The Front Bar on Tuesday and Friday nights, Mac’s Backroom Bar is a major venue for live shows featuring international names (live music Wednesday and Saturday; events listings on the web).
Bruckless House SOUTH-WEST DONEGAL
Bruckless Co Donegal
Overlooking Bruckless Bay and with fine Atlantic views, Clive and Joan Evans’ lovely 18th-century house and Connemara pony stud farm 18km (12 miles) west of Donegal Town is set in 18 acres of woodland and gardens and it is an ideal place for people who enjoy quiet countryside and pursuits like walking, horse-riding and fishing. The gardens are a special feature and, as one of the outstanding gardens in the area, they are open to the public at certain times (a small fee is requested for charity) and included in the Donegal Garden Trail (www.donegalgardentrail.com). The three acres of cultivated gardens stretch down to the shores of the bay; they are not too formal but beautifully designed and, with mature trees, colourful shrubbery and delicate flowers providing plenty of contrast, they are both inspiring and soothing - Clive says modestly that Joan is the gardener whilst he just cuts the grass, but it’s a vital contribution with his well-kept lawns the perfect counterfoil for her creations. A lovely place to stay - no evening meals (guests are directed to local restaurants), but freshly-laid eggs are a treat at breakfast.
Rathmullan House NORTH DONEGAL
Rathmullan Co Donegal
If you fancy the idea of a break somewhere handy to the rugged north-west tip of Donegal but tucked away in a sheltered spot and offering all the creature comforts including really good food, the Wheeler family’s gracious nineteenth century house on the shores of Lough Swilly could be the perfect place. Although it’s fairly grand - public areas include three elegant drawing rooms, one of which is now a bar - it’s not too formal, and there’s a characterful cellar bar too, which can be very relaxed. The 32 rooms include those in the original house, which are all comfortably furnished in traditional country house style but vary in size, decor, outlook (and cost), and there are also ten very desirable, individually decorated newer rooms – including a special pet-friendly room with a bed for your pooch. On site facilities include an indoor heated swimming pool, tennis courts and cookery classes and there’s lots to do nearby – walking the long sandy beach (almost deserted off season), pony trekking, Glenveagh National Park to visit - before returning for upbeat traditional cooking in the hotel’s renowned restaurant, The Weeping Elm. Chef Kelan McMichael’s cooking is upbeat traditional and his meticulously-sourced menus are based on the very best of local and artisan foods, especially fresh produce grown by Dennis Hawke in their own beautiful walled organic garden which he transforms into delicious dishes - and they offer a proper little person’s version of the adult menu for children too.
Woodhill House SOUTH-WEST DONEGAL
Woodhill Ardara Co Donegal
On the edge of the famous village of Ardara and overlooking the Donegal Highlands, this large and hospitable house is full of character and would make a good base for exploring this fascinating area. It was once the home of Ireland’s last commercial whaling family and years of restoration work by the current owner, John Yates, and his late wife, Nancy, are bearing fruit. Now run by John and his son James, the house has a lovely atmosphere and there is also a bar (where you may find some unusual guest beers on offer) and a restaurant which is popular locally, so booking is recommended. Whilst the dishes offered are wide ranging, local ingredients star and specialities include Donegal mountain lamb, seafood and carrageen moss pudding, all at reasonable prices and served by friendly and well-trained staff. As well as the original rooms in the main house, which are at various stages of refurbishment, spacious accommodation is also offered in converted outbuildings, with balconies overlooking the lovely walled gardens which were Nancy’s pride and joy.
Kee's Hotel EAST DONEGAL
Stranorlar Ballybofey Co Donegal
Originally a coaching inn, this centrally located, all-year hotel has been in the Kee family since 1892 and it bears all the hallmarks of a much-loved family business. Hands-on management is the norm and not only is proprietor Vicky Kee always on hand to welcome guests, but she is constantly engaged in refurbishing and upgrading the hotel, and adding the little touches that add homeliness and character. Spacious public areas provide plenty of areas for guests to relax, and good food is offered in both the restaurant and the pleasantly informal Harry’s Bar (named after Vicky’s grandfather) where daily-changing menus are based on the best of local produce. Rooms at the back of the hotel with views of the Blue Stack Mountains are especially desirable and residents have direct access to a fine leisure centre, with swimming pool. Special breaks regularly offered by the hotel are very good value, and include golfing holidays, bank holiday breakaways and a novel "Post Christmas Recovery Break".
The Mill Restaurant NORTH-WEST DONEGAL
Figart, Dunfanaghy, Letterkenny, Co Donegal
Just outside the popular holiday village of Dunfanaghy, Susan and Derek Alcorn’s lovely restaurant with rooms is beautifully located on the shore of the New Lake, which is a special area of conservation. The Mill has been in Susan’s family since 1949, when it was bought by her grandfather, the watercolour artist, Frank Egginton, who converted the building and lived there until his death in 1990. Since modernised and enlarged by Susan and Derek to make a restaurant and accommodation, it has a cosy and stylishly homely atmosphere enhanced by an open fire – and lake views from virtually every window. It makes a lovely place to stay and the restaurant is a big draw for the many regulars who holiday and play golf in the area. Derek’s classically based menus are inspired by the best seasonal local ingredients, many of them grown especially for him at the Killult Organic Centre nearby at Falcarragh. The cooking style is very much his own - ingredients are sometimes unusual or under-used, but the originality is less in the choice of ingredients than how they are combined. House specialities include an unusual upside down fish pie, which is filled with all manner of good things - lobster, crab claws and john dory in a brandy cream sauce.
Harvey's Point Country Hotel SOUTH DONEGAL
Lough Eske Donegal Co Donegal
Blessed with one of Ireland’s most beautiful locations, on the shores of Lough Eske, this well-managed hotel was first opened by the Gysling family in 1989. In addition to its stunning location, the other outstanding feature of this hotel has always been the friendliness and helpfulness of the staff – and, although luxurious accommodation is also on offer these days, that is still its greatest strength. Grand rooms in a recent extension have lake or mountain views, but the older rooms - which are tucked away along a ground floor corridor – are of special interest to those in the know, especially those travelling with their dog; although less luxurious, they have recently been refurbished and are very comfortable - and have access to the lough. The hotel is renowned for its special activity breaks, offered throughout the year, and also as one of the region’s leading dining destinations: a welcoming turf fire sets the tone in the bar, and in the fine dining Restaurant - a large room, extending right down to the foreshore – where diners can enjoy the beautiful view across the lough and, perhaps, watch the hotel’s pet goose, Harvey, coming in from the water at feeding time. Head chef Paul Montgomery’s classically toned menus offer an extensive choice – and his assured cooking is well up to the theatrical nuances of the fine dining experience laid on by attentive and well-trained restaurant staff. The buffet lunch offered in the banqueting area on Sundays also has a dedicated following (reservations required) and a second restaurant, The Winebar, offers a less formal alternative which may be attractive to guests staying several nights.
Ard na Breátha SOUTH DONEGAL
Drumrooske Middle Donegal Town Co Donegal
Theresa and Albert Morrow’s welcoming guesthouse on the edge of Donegal Town is, as they say in their brochure, ‘a place worth finding’. Although a residential area has grown up around them, the guesthouse - and restaurant – is tucked into a quiet corner of their busy working farm, with views over the garden to the countryside. There is a very happy atmosphere and the house is carefully planned to be relaxing, with a proper bar and a contemporary residents’ lounge with an open fire and a view of the Bluestack Mountains. Attention to detail, caring customer service and concern for all things environmental has earned the Morrows a great reputation with their many delighted guests, who like the country style rooms and, most particularly, Albert’s excellent cooking. The restaurant is open by reservation in the evening, when Albert offers a very reasonably priced full dinner menu based on locally sourced ingredients, which are organic where possible. Specialities include Donegal rack of lamb and sirloin of Irish Angus beef and the natural flavours of these fine ingredients are allowed to take centre stage. Staff take pride in offering real Irish hospitality and many guests opt to dine in on the first evening and never feel the need to go out for the rest of their stay - it’s easy to see why.
Castle Murray House Hotel SOUTH-WEST DONEGAL
St. John’s Point Dunkineely Co Donegal
About 16km/10 miles west of Donegal Town and with wonderful sea and coastal views over the ruined castle which inspired its name, Martin and Marguerite Howley’s beautifully located (and immaculately maintained) small hotel invariably makes a favourable impression – and it has great charm, making a relaxing and comfortable place to stay. Individually styled bedrooms are named after the various townlands of St John’s Point, and there’s a little bar, also a large decked terrace where meals may be served in fine weather. The restaurant is the heart of the house - dramatically situated on the seaward corner of the building overlooking the castle (which is floodlit at night), with an open fire ensuring that it’s cosy even in winter. Head Chef Remy Dupuy lays a strong emphasis on local produce, with seafood starring in summer then meat and game in winter. This delightful place has many devoted fans (Julia Roberts among them), and lots to do nearby including walking, riding (Bruckless), and garden visits (Salt Hill among them).
Castle Grove Country House Hotel MID DONEGAL
Letterkenny Co Donegal
Parkland designed by “Capability” Brown in the mid-18th century creates a wonderful setting for Raymond and Mary Sweeney’s lovely period house overlooking the lough. Castle Grove is undoubtedly the first choice for discerning visitors to the Letterkenny area, especially executives with business in the town; it is, as Mary Sweeney says, an oasis of tranquillity.
Constant improvement is the policy and recent years have seen a number of additions, always carefully designed and furnished with antiques to feel like part of the main house, and the original walled garden is under restoration. Public rooms include two gracious drawing rooms, each with an open fire, and a proper bar. Spacious bedrooms are elegantly furnished with antiques and, where practical, bathrooms have walk-in showers as well as full bath. Good breakfasts include a choice of fish as well as traditional Irish breakfast, home-made breads and preserves and The Green Room restaurant is a favourite fine dining destination, drawing guests from a wide area. Carefully sourced speciality and local ingredients are used: many of the herbs, vegetables and soft fruits are home grown, the seafood - such as Swilly oysters - is local, and local meats are regularly used. Mary Sweeney’s personal supervision ensures an exceptionally high standard of maintenance and housekeeping and staff are invariably friendly and helpful. Two boats belonging to the house are available for fishing on Lough Swilly and there is a special arrangement with three nearby golf clubs.
Frewin NORTH DONEGAL
Rectory Road Ramelton Co Donegal
Thomas and Regina Coyle’s unusual and beautiful Victorian house just outside the pretty little riverside town of Ramelton is not especially big but it is set in lovely gardens and is a great place for anyone with a sense of history to stay. Thomas Coyle specialises in restoring old buildings and is a collector by nature - much of his collection finds a place in the, making it an especially interesting place for anyone who loves old buildings and will appreciate the attention to period detail. On arrival, guests usually have a cup of tea in the little book-lined library, allowing time to admire the antiques and drink in the atmosphere before settling in - and you will see that the old parish safe is still set in the wall. The lovely old-fashioned bedrooms are all highly individual and, although no dinners are offered, a delicious breakfast, including freshly baked breads warm from the oven, is taken communally at a long polished table.
Arnold's Hotel NORTH-WEST DONEGAL
Dunfanaghy via Letterkenny Co Donegal
Many will have a soft spot for this traditional holiday area set in spectacular scenery way up on the north-west coast. In Dunfanaghy village, overlooking Sheephaven Bay, the friendly and delightfully old-fashioned Arnold's Hotel has been in the same family for three generations, and has built up a special reputation for activity holidays, especially equestrian breaks - Dunfanaghy Stables offer a special discount to hotel guests and you can do anything from a one hour ride on adjacent Killahoey beach to a 5-day trail ride. There’s an amazing range of other breaks to choose from too, many of them a celebration of the great outdoors - try, for example, rambling, hiking, hillwalking, golf, fishing or watersports – while others are artistic, such as painting, writing, photography or quilting. Or you can simply relax and enjoy the easy hospitality of this old world hotel, and soak in the beauty of the area.
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