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Donegal’s hidden gems along the Wild Atlantic Way

Portsalon Beach
Portsalon Beach
by Doug Bardwell - http://DougBardwell.com

The Wild Atlantic Way seems to go on forever, but it obviously has to start somewhere. That some where’s northern-most point is Malin Head where the ocean has worn deep crevices into the headlands. Hell’s Hole, shown here, accentuates the surf as it fills and recedes, providing a constant concert with the sounds of the many birds that flock here from Iceland, Greenland and beyond.

Following the Wild Atlantic Way south, you’ll drive along the eastern side of Lough Swilly, a glacial fjord that separates Inishowen Peninsula from Fanad Peninsula. At its southern tip is Letterkenny, where the road turns north again and takes you past beautiful Rathmullan House and on to Portsalon Beach on Ballystocker Bay.

Recognized as the second most beautiful beach in the world by The Observer, Portsalon is a Blue Flag beach with inviting large rocks for climbing and sand dunes for exploring. Found some fascinating snails while wandering among the dunes.

[See a map of points discussed here in County Donegal]

Proceeding to the northernmost tip of Fanad Peninsula, you’ll arrive at Fanad Head, site of one of my favorite lighthouses. This second most northerly lighthouse in the Republic of Ireland overlooks the site of a famous sea battle in 1798 which resulted in the capture of Wolfe Tone, father of Irish independence. About a half-century later, this area’s population was devastated by The Great Hunger.

Next stop on our road trip was Rosapenna, where we met up with Grassroutes Electric Bike Adventures. Select from their day packages and ride for 1, 2, 3 or up to 10 days on one of their excellent Kalkhoff battery-assisted bikes. It’s an easy way to see more without the “pedal fatigue” common among casual riders.

Various packages introduce you to the beautiful roads across northwest Ireland. We didn’t have a full day, but we did manage to ride Atlantic Way all the way to the coast of Sheephaven Bay. I’m already thinking about upgrading my mountain bike back home for one of these.

Driving around to the western shore of Sheephaven Bay, you’ll find yourself in the little town of Dunfanaghy and its protected bay where you can ride horses on the beach. After lunch at Arnolds Hotel, we mounted up at Dunfanaghy Stables and set out for the surf. It was low tide and the water was quite a distance from the shoreline.

As we headed back, we rode through the dunes, often losing sight of the horizon as the sand and the sea grasses were quite tall.

[See more photos for this story]

Ready for a cold one, we pulled into Crolly and found Leo’s Tavern, a cute but unassuming pub in Meenaleck. Only after meeting proprietor Bartley Brennan and being welcomed inside do you realize you are in a very special place. Gold and platinum record albums line the walls among photographs of the who’s who of the recording industry. (Watch a video about the history of Leo’s.)

Leo, it turns out, is father to Emmy award winning Enya, Moya Brennan and music group Clannad. Sit at the table where Bono sat in the main dining room or grab a brew in the smaller, intimate room with a peat fire going in the floor-to-ceiling fireplace. Get nice and warm, because were heading for the sea cliffs next.

Click here for the index of all Wild Atlantic Way articles in this series

Previous article in the Wild Atlantic Way series: Bantry – County Cork

Next article in the Wild Atlantic Way series: County Donegal – part two

Why travel the Wild Atlantic Way? [Infographic]

Doug Bardwell, based in Cleveland, OH, writes about travel destinations, photography and tech topics across the country and around the world at DougBardwell.com. Feel free to drop him a line at travel.dougbardwell@gmail.com with suggestions for future stories. To get his stories delivered to your inbox, click the RSS feed or the "Subscribe" button above or follow him on Facebook , Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+. To read Doug’s disclosure notice, click here. For travel ideas in Cleveland and around the world, check his Calendar of Events. To see his travel photo collection, see BardwellPhotography.com.