National Geographic’s Coolest Place on Earth…could it be Macchu Picchu? The Pyramids of Giza? Wrong and wrong again. Our most northerly county and home to some of our most breath-taking scenery, Donegal, has been awarded the crown and rightfully so.
The otherworldly tip of the country juts out into the Atlantic way at its wildest, making it a natural choice for George Lucas’ latest Star Wars installment, The Force Awakens. Filmed in Malin Head, Donegal’s starring role in one of the biggest blockbusters of the summer is just one of the reasons for it to be on your stay-cation bucket list.
We’ve put together a list of the best places to eat, drink and stay in Donegal, so all you have to worry about is hitting the road (three and a bit wee hours in the car from Dublin with no traffic) and plotting your must-see sights.
The Counter Deli
A day of Donegal exploration requires a caffeinated start, and if you’re into coffee The Counter Deli is your first port of call. Owner Richard Finney transformed what was originally a wine shop into gourmet emporium and café deli with a contemporary feel in 2015. As well as expertly curating a collection of artisan delights to fill your basket with, Richard has a reputation as a serious coffee enthusiast, choosing Cork roasters Badger and Dodo as his house brew, with a regularly changing guest roaster on offer and a beautiful Barn Berlin-based blended iced coffee for warmer days.
For the most important meal of the day, simple but delicious breakfast fare includes avocado toast and nut butter smeared sourdough, sourced from Scarpello & Co, Ireland’s first fully functional wood-fired brick oven Bakery in nearby Lifford. Top that off with a generous selection of in house baked gluten free goodies and everyone will be pleased you stopped here.
The Happy Camper Caravan
One of those unforgettable hidden gems you are always hoping to stumble upon, The Happy Camper is what it says on the tin – a rickety little green caravan which parks up in the stunning Glenveagh National Park and in Creeslough. Evidence of good things coming in small packages, the Happy Camper delves out stacks of fluffy pancakes with irresistible toppings such as Terrys Chocolate Orange and After Eight, as well as Lavazza coffee.
Pancakes, coffee and views of the Donegal Hills? You may want to come back every day for breakfast, just be sure to pack an umbrella as seating is outdoor and makeshift, adding to the charms of this quirky breakfast spot.
Winner of Best Café in Donegal at the Restaurant Association of Ireland Awards last year, Aroma Café is located in the heart of the Donegal Craft Village, so you can get a feel for local artwork and handcrafted treasures before or after brunch.
Serving simple dishes crafted with locally sourced ingredients, the dishes at Aroma are designed to allow the produce to shine – from Mexican chimichangas to in-house baked goodies like their Tunisian Orange Cake, a firm favourite with regulars. So whether your brunch cravings are sweet or savoury based, you’ll find something delicious at Aroma.
Wholegreen Health Food
Donegal is the coolest place on earth, and we all know how cool and trendy the plant-based way of eating has become. At Wholegreen on Church Lane, Letterkenny, you can sip on a green juice or indulge in hearty veggie soups and salads packed with flavour and a nutritional punch. Trendier still, Wholegreen serves Buddha bowls bursting at the seams with pulses, spiralized veggie noodles and avocado, the perfect prelude to a slice of virtuous cashew cheesecake or a wedge of vegan jaffa cake – lunch with benefits!
Nancy’s Barn, Ballyliffin
Nancy’s Barn is much-loved bistro housed in a converted stone building at the heart of Ballyliffin Village, in the Inishowen Peninsula, headed up by chef Kieran Doherty, who just so happens to hold the title of Chowder Champion. Winner of the 36th Annual Great Chowder Cook Off in Rhode Island, Nancy’s Barn is home to the world’s best seafood chowder, so is well worth a visit for a warming bowl of seafood goodness – a real taste of the rugged coastline.
The Lemon Tree Restaurant, Letterkenny
Recently rehomed in a larger premises on Oliver Plunkett Road, the Lemon Tree Restaurant has been a beloved dining destinations for Letterkenny locals since it first opened its doors on Main Street in 1999. Restaurants don’t enjoy longevity like that without having something special to offer, and in the Lemon Tree’s case it is the pride with which they champion local Donegal produce that sets it apart.
Here you can sample a seven course tasting menu designed by chef-patron Christopher Molloy to reflect the best the Forgotten County has to offer – think Mulroy mussels, Haven Smokehouse smoked salmon and local, seasonal veggies hand-plucked from Ballyholey farm, with all the accompaniments, from breads to pastries to pasta, made in house. Better still, they offer an extremely competitively priced early evening menu seven nights a week so from 5pm to 6.30pm you can indulge in a starter and main course for just €19 after a day of exploring.
Browns on the Green
Recommended by the Michelin Guide and a member of the Browns group which includes luxury Ard Tara Country House in Co. Down, Browns on the Green is located in the Letterkenny Golf Course Clubhouse, and has been known to serve food that is well above par. Head Chef Ian Orr is well known for his dedication to fresh seasonal produce and support of local suppliers, so expect beef sourced from cattle raised in the nearby Finn Valley, from Brendan Gallaghers butchers, Errigal Bay scallops and plenty of seafood options from the port of Greencastle.
On Ballyshannon’s Market Street, Dicey Reilly’s is a long-standing Donegal institution whose reputation has spread far beyond the bounds of our most northerly county. A family run pub dating back three generations, Dicey’s, as it is affectionately known, is also home to Donegal Brewing Company so you can be sure this bar cum microbrewery is an unmissable spot for craft beer lovers.
That said, with one of the most extensive wine selections in the country in the attached off licence, there is something for every kind of sipper in Brendan O’Reilly’s one stop shop, which is also known to host a wild trad session.
Smugglers Creek Inn
If you fancy drinks overlooking the sun as it sets across the sea, Smugglers Creek Inn, perched above Rossnowlagh beach, is the ideal spot to sip a chilled glass of wine or a creamy pint al fresco, if the weather permits! If not, cosy up by the roaring open fire in this traditional, casual bar dotted with sea-farer trinkets with an Irish whiskey and good company. An inviting tavern in the storm with panoramic coastal views, this is an inimitable Irish pub experience not to be missed.
There are few hotels in Ireland that offer an Irish welcome as genuinely warm as Harvey’s Point, where cead míle failte is far more than a seanfhocal. This luxurious haven sits on the banks of magical Lough Eske and is the ideal base for exploring the wonders of Donegal.
That is, if you ever want to leave – with so many interactive activities such as wine-tasting and cooking demos, nightly cabaret, an accomplished restaurant and palatial bedrooms, Harvey’s Point is a destination all on its own. Whether it is a family getaway or a couples retreat, the team at Harvey’s know how to make each and every stay memorable for all the right reasons.
Lough Eske Castle
If the Wild Atlantic Way views from Malin Head aren’t enough to wash your worries away, book in to five star Lough Eske Castle, one of Ireland’s premier destination spas housed in a fairytale-like residence.
On a rainy Donegal day there are few places better to be cocooned in a robe and slippers, unwinding in the state of the art Spa Solís. Become at one with the sea with a Yon-Ka Seaweed treatment or rejuvenate with an Anne Semomin Facial, making the most of your time off in the lap of luxury.
Four star Rathmullan House overlooks beautiful Lough Swilly, surrounded by enchanting woodlands. Run by the Wheeler family, this property offers understated elegance, classic decor and every comfort you would expect from a Blue Book property.
Home to a truly unique domed ceilinged restaurant dotted with fairy lights called Cook and Gardner and a more casual eatery, The Tap Room, which serves Scarpello & Co based pizza and local Kinnegar Brewing craft beer, Rathmullan House has something for all tastes. The icing on the cake? The hotel sits looking out over its own two mile long golden sandy beach. Heaven.
FEATURE BY DARINA COFFEY