For those who grew up in Ireland and experienced the rain and cold of the western counties, like Mayo, Galway and Sligo, there is a tendency not to venture far from the east coast with its warmer and relatively drier weather.

Donegal in the north-west of Ireland is well worth the four-hour, or so, trip from Dublin and has more than enough to offer visitors in the way of spectacular views and unexpected delights.  So for starters, here are just three things not to miss when visiting Donegal- and don’t forget the waterproof gear.

Trá na Rossan Beach

Tucked away some twenty minutes from Carrigart, on the Rosguill peninsula is Trá na Rossan beach.  Depending on the day, you can get blown away by the wind or suddenly drenched by an incoming Atlantic cloud, but if you chance upon a sunny or even a dry day, this is a beach you will want to come back to.

A narrow wooden path, complete with occasional but very authentic sheep droppings, leads you down to the beach through grassy sand dune, to a wide stretch of unblemished sand. With sloping grassy hills rising up on either side of the beach, if you’re lucky you might get to see sheep being guided in a neat row, half way up the slopes. It's a wonder to see the beasts keeping their balance on the narrow paths along the slopes and you fully expect one to fall down at any moment. Maybe the farmers let their wool grow a bit more on one side to beat the forces of gravity!

The water on the beach is perfectly transparent.  And if you're brave enough to stand in it, make sure to keep an eye out for darting fish that leave a trail of sand under water as they shoot out to sea. It’s the Atlantic in the North West of Ireland, so the water will always be pretty darn cold, even in the height of summer. Having abandoned my boots so that I could follow our four-year who was wave jumping his way in to the water, my feet took the length of the thirty minute drive afterwards back to Creeslough to start to thaw out. But then, Donegal isn't for the faint hearted.

You might find yourself within ten metres of a bobbing seal out for a leisurely dip. If you’re really lucky then you might get to see that most special of sights - dolphins at play.  If you are travelling with kids, this will really make the trip worthwhile and from the shore you can often see the dolphins’ silhouetted shapes as they leap out of the water, their fins circling around as they chase each other across the stretch of beautiful sea in front of you.  Trá na Rossan is a haven of peace and purity in a very special part of the north-west of Ireland - so add it to your list of stop-off points. 

Trá na Rossan Beach
Credit: Neal Heavey

Lettergesh Pass

There’s a famous hairpin turn in the Monaco formula one race. Watching it on TV as a child, it was always the most interesting part of the race when these multi-coloured machines, built for extreme speed, had to come to a virtual stop while turning 180 degrees, while the cameras got a chance to frame the luxurious shops and marina-fronted coffee emporiums in the background. You could see the locals - if there is such a thing - watching on, their Swiss watches rattling in approval while they applauded the custom-built cars from their yachts.

The sudden Monaco-like turn that marks the halfway point of the descent down the Glengesh Pass is in an altogether different setting -  one better suited to a four-wheel drive vehicle then a speed machine. Set some 900 feet above sea level and cut by ice-age glaciers, the pass gives you a real sense of the impact on the landscape of the last Ice Age.

You will need your hand brake at the ready, but even for those who don’t buy cars for their looks, you will feel like you’re in an advert as your family car careers down the winding Glengesh Pass in Southern Donegal.

To find the pass, take the road between Glencolmcille and Ardara.  The drive through the pass will wake any sleepy  fellow travellers up and if you have no caffeine to hand, the adrenalin will wake the driver up.

Your brake pads get a good workout on the descent, as the winding road brings you down. True, you won’t get to admire the views but if  you have the time you can always swap drivers and do it all again.

Slieve League

And while you’re in the area, head further out to the edge of south-west Donegal with a trip to Slieve League.  Claimed by the signs as the highest sea cliffs in Europe, it’s a steep enough drive to get to the large car park.  You can drive a bit more up, but to get the most out of it, you're best to start walking at this point. You will meet a healthy mix of locals and hikers heading up. It’s a steep walk up the first part until you hit the main path. For those with the proper hiking gear on, you can venture off to get a closer look at the edges.  Even though you’ll meet others on the way up, it’s the quiet along with the breathtaking views that set Slieve League apart.  There are surrounding hills that the little ones will love climbing up using the soft heather as leverage. However, you will have to  fetch them when they realise that coming down again isn't as easy.

The countryside stretches out before you as you make your way along the path and there’s a shared sense of appreciation with those you meet on the way up. As a fellow traveller said to us as we started out, when we had made it up the steep path - "that's the hard bit done now!"

Donegal is a big county and has a lot of hidden gems that don’t get the full marketing campaigns that others sites in Ireland do. But if your car can take the extra strain and you have packed some good rain gear and sturdy walking boots, Donegal offers a real sense of getting away from it all, with views that will stick firmly in the memory for a long time after.

Slieve League Donegal
Credit: Neal Heavey