Why Ireland’s stunning northwest is the best for off season travel
Ireland’s unexplored North West
It’s about time we talked about the northwest of Ireland. It’s clear from our previous posts we’re quite fond of the southwest of the country! However, we’ve had several trips to Donegal, Sligo and Mayo in the northwest of Ireland, always during the off season, and absolutely loved it. We’ve hiked in the rain, frolicked in glorious Spring sunshine on remote, pristine beaches, snuggled beside cozy pub fires and stood beside the graves of Ireland’s ancient Royals. This part of the country gets less attention than the famous sights down on the Ring of Kerry, the Dingle Peninsula, the Lakes of Killarney or the Cliffs of Moher but it deserves more. We have been drawn to its wild and rugged character over the years and a recent trip has reawakened our thirst to explore it further. Here’s what we experienced on our travels in Ireland’s northwest and why we think it’s the best for off season travel.
Off season camping in Donegal - Spring
For 3 years we kept returning to our favourite camping spot in Donegal and each time was a soul-nourishing, rejuvenating escape from everyday life. Our first time to find this piece of paradise was Neil’s first time in Donegal. I hadn’t been back to Annagry, the local village, since I was a teenager attending a Gaeltacht, for 3 weeks one summer. It’s a way for school kids to practice the Irish language in a setting where only Irish is spoken (read about our trip to a Gaeltacht area in Kerry), and Gaeltacht areas can be packed full of teenagers in the summer months. Just beyond Annagry is Donegal Airport, voted one of the world’s most scenic landings. It’s positioned on a long peninsula behind the dunes of Carrickfinn Beach and at the end of this peninsula are jewel-like hidden coves with soft grass, perfect for a little tent to nestle in. The water is crystal clear, refreshing (it’s cold if you’re not used to North Atlantic swims) and perfect for a skinny-dip after a long walk. In spring, the dunes are adorned with tiny colourful flowers and we always have Mount Errigal (Donegal’s highest peak) as our ‘back garden’ view from the tent. The beaches around here are very popular in summer but in spring, you get them all to yourself and the weather is fine for camping!
Off season hiking in Donegal - Winter
Donegal is probably the wildest and most remote of Ireland’s counties as it bears the brunt of the North Atlantic storms. It really feels like the edge of the world when you stand above the crashing waves and face the biting wind, especially in winter. But if you’re wrapped up nice and warm and, with a good pair of hiking boots on, there’s nothing more invigorating than a brisk winter walk, breathing in some of the freshest air on the planet!
Narin and Inishkeel Island
We’d normally associate the Caribbean-like beaches of Narin and Portnoo with summer sunshine but this time we arrived in January and we had a local tip to walk out to Inishkeel Island when the tide was out. The weather was a mix of sunshine and navy-grey storm clouds sending sheets of drizzle across the bay and as we crossed the wet sand, the biggest, brightest rainbow we ever saw arced over our heads. We just had to stop and take lots of photos!
Beware of Bull
As we got closer to the island, the tide hadn’t fully retreated so we had to take our shoes and socks off and wade in for the final few yards. The water was cold but not bone-chilling and we were proud to note our first Atlantic dip of the year in Winter! We marked where we had crossed and timed our return for low tide. Tiptoeing our way across the rocks on the beach, we dried off our feet in the fresh grass and put our boots back on. As we headed around the shore towards an old ruin, we were greeted with the signs, “Beware of Bull” and “You better hope you can cross the field in 10 because the bull can do it in 9!”
6th Century ruins
The island was the site for a monastic settlement founded by Saint Conall Caol in the 6th Century and the remains of the early Christian church he founded, although weathered, are clearly visible. Legend has it that the church was built on the resting place of the last druid in Ireland. It’s common in Ireland for ancient Gaelic sites of worship to be re-purposed and replaced with Christian monuments in an effort to stamp out the pagan religious practices of the time. We explored the ruins for a few minutes before heading off across the island, taking care to keep the bull in sight, just in case! Watching the weather change and roll inland across the waves, we stopped for plenty of epic photos, not bothered by the wind and rain. It was such spectacular scenery.
A dip in the Wild Atlantic in Winter
We were on the island for about an hour when we turned back to shore to make sure we didn’t miss low tide. Trying not to run so as not to alert the bull, we got to the gate that lead onto the beach and realised the tide was rapidly making its return. We had to disrobe while running towards the beach and we could see the water was much higher than when we had crossed earlier. Wading into the cold Atlantic, we had to keep our clothes and gear, especially Neil’s camera gear, high above our heads as some of the waves threatened to reach above our waistlines. Off in the distance, on the mainland, there were people watching us and they must have thought, “idiots coming on holiday up here and not knowing how tides work!”. It was an unexpected dip into the ocean in January but we survived and it really wasn’t as cold as we thought it would be. We got dressed again back in the car and looked forward to a hot shower!
Glenveagh National Park
Our visit to Glenveagh National Park wasn’t quite so dramatic but the scenery certainly was. In Winter, there’s virtually nobody around which only enhances Donegal’s reputation as wild and remote. With the Derryveagh Mountains dominating the skyline and reflected in the park’s lovely lakes, it’s a hiker’s paradise but our visit was short. Neil had a photoshoot in Letterkenny later in the afternoon so we just took a loop walk along the lakeside near the visitor’s centre. It was a very slow walk as we just couldn’t take our eyes off the scenery. The mountains played hide and seek between low hanging rain clouds and the sun sent sparkles across the lake. A lonely tree became Neil’s focus for a long exposure shot and before we knew it the time had flown by on us.
We knew we wanted to catch the rest of the daylight at Dunlewey Church, which is down a steep valley sheltered by Errigal Mountain. We have yet to see Errigal in the snow (we just missed it by a week on our last trip) and as soon as we do there will be more epic photos added to this post!
Off season walking in Sligo - Autumn
Sligo has stunning stretches of coastline. It’s now a mecca for pro-surfers from all over the world and they have the mighty Benbulbin as a spectacular backdrop for the beaches at Strandhill, Rosses Point and Mullaghmore.
At Strandhill beach you can warm your hands around a hot chocolate or a hand roasted coffee at the gorgeous Shells Café & Bakery. They have a delicious and extensive menu if you’re hungry or there’s freshly baked sweet treats for a quick sugar rush. We spent ages admiring all the unique, locally made crafts in their shop and gallery while downing flat whites and gooey brownies. It’s a fantastic selection with some great gift ideas.
Behind Strandhill beach, on the summit of Knocknarea you can pay your respects at the tomb of Maeve, the ancient Irish Queen of Connaught, and enjoy some of the best views over this part of the Wild Atlantic Way.
In Autumn, the wind is picking up, sending crashing waves onto the rocks and the air gets a little chillier. There’s no better way to warm up after a windswept hike or a dip in the Atlantic Ocean (with or without a surfboard) than getting cozy by the fire with pints and pizzas at The Strand Bar at Strandhill. It’s mere yards from the beach and you’ll get to enjoy traditional music without the crowds.
Across the road you’ll get cheaper rates at the Strandhill Hostel compared to summer prices and you’ll easily get a double ensuite room for around €50 per couple, with breakfast included.
Autumn colours in Yeats Country
Taking a detour off the well-worn coastal route, the colours of Autumn are at their best in and around Glencar Lake and Glencar Waterfall, which straddle the border with County Leitrim.
William Butler Yeats drew inspiration from the gorgeous scenery here. We highly recommend listening to his poetry (we recommend this one on YouTube) while you enjoy a drive around the lake and watch out for the clouds rolling mysteriously off Benbulbin. Ireland’s highest waterfall, The Devil’s Chimney, is accessed at the lakeside by a lovely forest trail that takes about an hour to complete. There are viewpoints all along the walk overlooking the lake and the surrounding trees turned gold, amber and burnt orange. The waterfall, however, doesn’t flow in dry weather so off season, there’s a better chance to see it at its best.
Off Season travel in Mayo - Autumn
Last but not least, on this part of the Wild Atlantic Way is enchanting County Mayo. We spent a long weekend around Halloween, traversing the coast and going for long autumn walks. We stayed at Kilcommon Lodge and used it as a base to come back to every evening as it was ideally located within less than an hour’s drive to Mayo’s best historic sights and stunning coastal walks. The pot belly stove in the cozy common room was lit every evening, perfect for warming up beside, with our home cooked meals we prepared in the kitchen. The best thing about the time of year was we had it all to ourselves. Heaven!
The Céide Fields
Still considered a hidden gem, yet one of the oldest and largest megalithic sites in the world, the Céide Fields (pronounced Kay-jeh) are ancient field systems that have been preserved for nearly 6,000 years by blanket bog. Hidden beneath the wild purple heather and white bog cotton, are the remains of stone field walls, houses and burial tombs that reveal the everyday lives of an early farming community, their highly skilled and organised society, and ancient spiritual beliefs. With an excellent and award winning visitor centre there’s loads to learn and it’s a fascinating insight into one of Ireland’s most significant archaeological finds. After a walk around a section of the walls (the whole area is many acres in size) you can admire the view to Downpatrick Head and, if it starts to rain, duck inside to the onsite café for a bite to eat.
Having seen it in the distance we were keen to get up close for some epic photographs of Downpatrick Head and the mighty sea stack Dun Briste (the Irish for Broken Fort). Associated with Saint Patrick, legend has it that the old pagan God, Crom Dubh, tried to kill the new Christian rival but Saint Patrick drove him back to his fort and cut it off from the mainland, which is now, Dun Briste.
Of course it was nature that caused the formation of this icon of Mayo, eroding away the soft rock of the cliffs over time. There are numerous blowholes along the headland that are, thankfully, covered by protective grates and you can look down to watch the waves churn and crash against the rock face, witnessing the very process that shaped the landscape that surrounds you.
Westport - Gateway to the Wild Atlantic Way
On our way home we passed through Westport, the gateway to the northern section of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. We had planned to cycle part of the Great Western Greenway but the weather unfortunately discouraged us. It was a very windy day and we didn’t fancy battling the Wild Atlantic Winds! It’s definitely on our bucket list and we will absolutely be capturing our adventure for our blog. Instead, after a little picnic looking out over Clew Bay we made our way to the National Famine Memorial which commemorates the millions who died during Ireland’s darkest period in history. It’s a striking and very moving monument taking the shape of a coffin ship. The ships that so many people sought escape across the Atlantic on, were so called because of the dire conditions on board, with many passengers never reaching their destination.
One of the country’s highest peaks, Croagh Patrick, attracts over 1 million pilgrims every year to follow Ireland’s most popular pilgrimage route and follow in the footsteps of Saint Patrick. However, as with the church ruins in Donegal mentioned earlier, pagan rituals and sites of significance were re-purposed as Christian so it was a popular pilgrimage route long before Christianity arrived and was associated with the ancient Celtic harvest festival. We didn’t follow the route as the low lying clouds intimidated us and we were sure we’d get lost on the mighty mountain so we contented ourselves with views from the trail head and watched horses gallop along the golden beaches of Clew Bay. Every now and then the sun split the clouds and revealed the summit towering over us and we thought, “that’s for another day”.
If you’re planning a trip to Ireland, especially the Wild Atlantic Way, you should consider visiting outside of the very busy and popular high season. Ireland’s northwest has some of the most wild and remote scenery to be found in Europe and when there are no crowds to contend with, there’s no better place to find a piece of personal heaven. Just bring rain gear and a sense of wonder and you’ll have yourself an epic adventure.
For more off season travel in Ireland you should read all about walking among the spring wildflowers in Burren National Park, or discover why autumn is the best time of year to visit Ireland’s Ancient Sites.