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Donegal: Driving the Wild Atlantic Way

Driving Donegal's stretch of the Wild Atlantic Way reveals dramatic landscapes filled with mystery and legend

Published 4 Aug 2017, 09:00 BST, Updated 12 Jul 2021, 10:00 BST
Sunset at Sliabh Liag, Donegal

Sunset at Sliabh Liag, Donegal

Photograph by Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi

My wheel-clenching drive along Donegal's coastline is life on the edge. Narrow tarmac snakes its way around precipitous cliffs, whose ragged stacks have been chiselled over aeons by the relentless onslaught of the Atlantic. Stealing glances through the window affords sights of gunmetal seas, punctuated by the inky fins of basking sharks and pods of playful dolphins. Perhaps it's the perpetual fear of meeting another motorist or the effect of the mercurial skies brooding overhead, but clinging to this brink is pure exhilaration.

When Irish minister Michael Ring launched the Wild Atlantic Way in 2014, he promised motorists the 'journey of a lifetime'. He wasn't exaggerating. Extending 1,600 miles, it's one of the longest defined coastal routes in the world, encompassing breathtaking scenery as it shadows Ireland's entire western littoral. I'm tackling a part of the route that winds its way across Donegal's ravishing maritime landscapes, journeying from where surfers ride the point break down south to the remotest northern headland.

After speeding past the beaches of Bundoran, I offer a quick wave to bobble-hatted fisherman anchored at Teelin Bay before I reach Sliabh Liag as sunlight is breaking through a wreath of mist, highlighting Ireland's highest sea cliffs in iridescent ochre hues. Turning briefly inland, I negotiate looping turns to climb the high gorge of Glengesh Pass where an obstacle course of belligerent sheep sprawl across the tarmac. They provide an excuse to slow down and swoon over my surroundings; the steep tawny slopes of the Glengesh and Mulmosog mountains that frame Loughros Beg Bay, where the sea shimmers like polished steel.

My journey northwest continues along sleepy roads that curve through the Gaeltacht, the area where the Donegal Irish dialect still flourishes. This pastoral backcountry remains little affected by the passage of time, with its scattered hamlets, mossy dry-stone walls and remote blanket bogs providing peat for turf fires. With local songstress Enya cranked on the stereo, I let the Atlantic lead the way when the phone signal and GPS cut out. 

At Fanad Head, a solitary lighthouse stands stark white against a darkened sky and the elemental onslaught of wind and water. The lighthouse was built after the British frigate Saldanha was wrecked here in 1811; the ship's parrot was the only survivor. Inside, black-and-white photos tell other tragic tales of sunken treasure and lost souls swept out to sea. "In famine times, the lighthouse would be one of the last sightings of home for passengers aboard boats destined for America," resident guide, John Scott, tells me. 

My wild drive reaches its climax at Malin Head, the northernmost extremity of Ireland and a familiar namecheck on gale-warning shipping forecasts. The gnarled headland tip is named Banba's Crown after a Celtic goddess, though its true cosmic spirit is best revealed when winter skies swirl with Northern Lights. "Being annihilated by the wind, there's nothing like it," shouts Bren, a local guide, who gesticulates to follow him on a blustery walk along a westerly footpath.

Along a colossal rockscape, the sense of other-worldliness is almost overwhelming. I'm not the only one to feel the force; recently, camera crews chose this site for filming the next Star Wars. The idea of Donegal's coastline becoming a place of fan pilgrimage stirs in me a sense of unease. This spectacular land of mystery and legend has been long overlooked, and that's the way I like it.

Road tripping: Don't miss

Sliabh Liag
Europe's loftiest sea cliffs rise nearly 2,000ft and extend for several miles. A viewing area takes in the mighty rocks stained in a splendid array of roseate streaks by metallic salts.

Donegal Islands
There's an ethereal remoteness to the area's offshore islets — most are uninhabited and off the electricity grid. One of the most unique is Tory Island, the only place in Ireland to still have its own king. 

Fanad Head
Jutting out over heaving tides is the Fanad Head peninsula. Tours of its lighthouse unveil a tumultuous past with rollicking tempests and shipwrecks, while balcony views are far-reaching. 

Mamore Gap 
It's a steep drive over this mountain pass followed by a clutch-burning hairpin descent past wayside shrines as views of Lough Swilly's weathered shores unfold. 

Malin Head 
A crumbling watchtower marks Banba's Crown, Ireland's farthest-flung northerly point. Venture along a footpath past Hell's Hole, where raging tides surge through a narrow rock-cleft, and you'll feel the force of this unearthly headland. 

Follow @zoevemac

Published in the Donegal 2017 guide, distributed with the September 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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