Beyond Sligo, the topography changes and the roads twist and turn through tortuous corkscrews. When the signs change into Gaelic, and the landscape opens up into great sweeping views of rocky hills and barren shores, and a freezing mist blows in off the sea, you've reached Donegal. The austere beauty of this county can be almost too bleak, but it is also unforgettable. On a sunny day, you can stand at the edge of the sea at Malin Head and, despite the sun, the wind and the sea spray will blow a chill right through you -- it feels as if you're standing at the edge of the world. Its natural wonders include the magnificent Slieve League cliffs and the remote beaches tucked into the bays and inlets of its sharply indented coast.

The towns of Donegal are perhaps the least developed for tourism in Ireland. Few tourists make it this far. Buildings are made of cold stone and villages perch on the slopes of precipitous hillsides. When you stop to take a wander, you can't help but worry whether the car's brakes will hold. But take the chance. The people in Donegal are as nice as can be, and meeting them is worth the trip in itself. Of course, fewer tourists mean fewer amenities. It's harder to find good restaurants and modern guesthouses. In addition, you'll have to contend with road signs that vary from cryptic to nonexistent. You will spend half your time lost. But Ireland is a small place; wherever you're headed, you'll get there eventually. And you're bound to have plenty of adventures along the way.

Donegal Town

222km (138 miles) NW of Dublin, 283km (176 miles) NE of Shannon Airport, 66km (41 miles) NE of Sligo, 69km (43 miles) SW of Derry, 180km (112 miles) W of Belfast, 205km (127 miles) NE of Galway, 403km (250 miles) N of Cork, 407km (253 miles) NE of Killarney

Overseen by a low, gloomy castle at the edge of the picturesque estuary of the River Eske on Donegal Bay, Donegal Town (pop. 3,200) is a small country burg. As recently as the 1940s, the town's central mall (called "the Diamond") was used as a market for trading livestock and goods. Today the marketing is done in the form of tweeds and tourist goods, as the Diamond is surrounded by little crafts shops and somewhat dingy small hotels. Although Donegal Town makes for a pleasant enough stop after miles of empty countryside, it's not the best place to spend the night as most of its hotels are old-fashioned and there are more interesting hostelries in the surrounding countryside. If you're here at the end of June, though, stop by the lively Donegal Arts Festival, which fills the town with traditional Irish singing, dancing, and storytelling.