Walk Ireland: Donegal's bewildering beauty is best seen on foot

Donegal is quintessential Irish walking country. Mountains unfold like crumpled, lounging giants in green pullovers. Raindrops glitter on hedgerow fuchsias, waterfalls roar and black-faced white sheep sound the alarm as awestruck Australians with no discernible map-reading skills amble past.    

This most northerly county on the Irish isle, named National Geographic Traveller's "coolest place on the planet" for 2017 is just plain dreamy, to be sure.

Walking Donegal is like walking across the many facets of a green and glittering jewel, as lush woods, shimmering loughs, craggy mountains and wild rivers reveal themselves. The beauty is at times bewildering. No wonder we're lost.

We've come to Harvey's Point, a family hotel on Donegal's Lough Eske, named Ireland's Hotel of the Year in the Georgina Campbell 2017 awards, Ireland's independent hospitality guide.

The hotel poses like a beauty queen on the western shore of Lough Eske, surrounded to the north, east and west by the Bluestack Mountains. These mountains divide east and west Donegal, with Barnesmore Gap, the gateway to the west and Cruach Gorm, the highest peak at 674 metres.

Harvey's Point beckons indulgently. But the hills are alive and must first be conquered. Like England's Lakes District, Tasmania's Cradle Mountain or New Zealand's South Island, this is country that just screams, "walk!"

We oblige, dumping bags and heading off as rain clouds sweep in. We have sandwiches, water, raincoats, walking poles and an Ordnance Survey map the size of a tablecloth (and about as useful).

We've airily waved away offers of a guide, and the hotel's easy-to-follow pamphlet with its three and seven-kilometre walks – Rambles near Harvey's Point by Tom Phelan. Rambles! Don't think so. Our plan is to hike vigorously about 16 kilometres for about four hours along part of the 65-kilometre Bluestack Way.

Our walk will climb from Lough Eske up and around Burns Mountain and Banagher Hill, achieving lovely views of the Eglish​ Valley in the heart of the Bluestacks, as well as the Sligo Mountains and sandspits around Rossknowlagh and Ballyshannon, before sweeping down and back to Harvey's Point.

That's the plan, anyway. We'll stride through a mountain paradise, scrumping blackberries and recounting Donegal's many-layered history to one another. 

It begins well. We find the historic Famine Pot in the woods – the pot that provided sustenance for countless hungry people during the great potato famine of the mid-1800s. 

This is an area rich in history and folklore. The first hunter-gatherers arrived in 6000BC, followed by the sophisticated farmers of the Neolithic era. In the 5th century, recorded history began with the growth of monasticism. The writing of Irish history is a Donegal creation.

The Vikings arrived with a view to a plunder – Donegal means fort of foreigners in Norse – but were no match for the powerful O'Donnell clan. The Gaelic communities dominated until the 17th century, when the Irish chieftains were forced out in the Flight of the Earls in 1607. The conquering English initiated the Plantation of Ulster, with English and Scottish settlers arriving in Donegal. 

In-between all this lovely history, we must actually find our way down these rustic paths and mysterious glens. Higher and higher we go, with the green fields streaming behind us, streams gurgling beneath stone bridges until our written directions suddenly make no sense. 

Who knew an Ordnance Survey map with its artistic contour lines was so hard to follow? At least it's good as a tent when the misty rains arrive, as they do. It's five hours later, we're very high up, Donegal Town and the wild Atlantic are alarmingly visible from our mountain perch. It's gorgeous but no sign of Lough Eske. 

On we go, getting wetter, looking for that "five ways" the directions say will lead us home. But there are only three-ways, two-ways and six-ways. The five ways have gone where leprechauns go. 

The hedgerows, farms and woods fall away and we are in pine plantations, showing ominous "No entry" signs. It's regrettable that we haven't seen Ardnamona Woods, Ireland's last remaining primeval native oak woods, also with ash, alder, rowan and birch, with the plants of Irish mysticism and poetry – holly, hazel and willow – inhabiting the lower canopy.

We wanted to find the Fairy Glen that Irish poet William Allingham wrote about in his poem The Fairies, using the evocative imagery, "Up the airy mountain, down the rushy glen". 

Time to admit defeat and answer the hotel's siren call, which comes floating on the wind with the golden eagles.

How amazing it is to trudge drenched into our warm and palatial suite and sink into a giant whirlpool bath before heading down to the award-winning Lakeside Restaurant with its theatre-style open kitchen to be spoiled with outstanding local, seasonal Irish produce. 

Delicate jasmine-cured organic salmon with pear, chervil and licorice, fillet of Irish Hereford prime beef with potato, leek and salsify and finally, chocolate and rosewater cream with rosehip, white chocolate and yoghurt.

The morning reveals the lake, the resident swans, the islands, the mountains, the stone pier and the hotel's beautiful gardens through the restaurant's wide windows.

Is it to be the traditional Irish breakfast with McGettigan's pork sausages, Gallagher's dry-cured back bacon, scrambled eggs, mushrooms from the mountains, grilled tomatoes, baked beans, black and white pudding and fried potatoes? We'll have to walk to Dublin to work off that one.     

How to go past the smoked salmon, or Granny Gysling's Birchermuesli, or the honey-glazed Donegal bacon carved for you on the spot? Maybe a wee bit of everything.

If only the rain hadn't swept in again to sweep away our post-breakfast hiking plans. So we drive the Bluestack Way up from the lough, into the Eglish Valley, past the Grey Mare's Tail waterfall, under rainbows, between sheep, past little white, black-roofed cottages that look like sheep, following the little man on the signposts. Where was he yesterday? 

There's more than one way to skin an Irish cat.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/ireland

ireland.com

FLY

Emirates and Qantas codeshare from Sydney and Melbourne to Dublin via Dubai, then three hours by road to Lough Eske. See qantas.com.au

STAY

Harvey's Point, Lough Eske, Donegal. Doubles from €218 with breakfast. See harveyspoint.com

Alison Stewart was a guest of Tourism Ireland.

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