Looking as if it were carved from stone, charming little Ardara is known for its exceptional tweed and wool creations. Astride a narrow river in a steep gulch, it is a pleasant place to stop, chat with the locals, and do a bit of shopping or maybe have a cup of tea in its small but useful Heritage Centre on the N56 main road through the village (open Easter–September). If you happen to arrive in June, you may catch the Ardara Weavers Fair, which has been going on since the 18th century, and features spectacular works in wool.
Heading north from Ardara, the N26 passes through the neat-as-a-pin little town of Glenties (Na Gleanta) (where playwright Brian Friel set his play Dancing at Lughnasa), and eventually curves inland to gorgeous Glenveagh National Park ★★★ and Mount Errigal, Donegal’s highest mountain. Just east of the park, the surprisingly good Glebe House and Gallery ★★ sits on lovely Lough Gartan.
However, it would be a shame not to sample some scenic coastal detours along the way. The southernmost is on R261, taking in two pleasant resort towns—Naran (An Fhearthainn) and Portnoo—both favorites with Irish families in the summer. Your next option is at Dungloe, where you can split off on coastal R259 to visit the Rosses, a rock-strewn land punctuated by mountains, rivers, and glassy lakes. On this loop you’ll pass Burtonport (Ailt an Chorrain), where, it’s said, more salmon and lobster are landed than at any other port in the country. The next coastal loop heading north is on R257, swinging through Derrybeg and Gortahork. This is known as the Bloody Foreland, from the fact that its rocks take on a ruddy color when lit by the setting sun. If you can arrange to be driving through here at sunset on a clear day, you are in for a treat.
If you follow N56 to the top rim of Donegal, you’ll find a series of small peninsulas like fingers jabbing out into the sea. West to east, they are Horn Head (Corrán Binne), with spectacular cliffs towering 180m (590 feet) above the ocean; Rosguill (Ros Goill); and the Fanad, jutting out between Mulroy Bay and the glassy waters of Lough Swilly. Each peninsula has its own driving circuit. Horn Head’s clifftop drive is the most spectacular but also rather perilous; you may want to opt instead for Rosguill’s scenic 16km (10-mile) Atlantic Drive, or, if you have more time, the Fanad’s 73km (45-mile) circuit. At the base of the Horn Head peninsula, pretty Dunfanaghy (Dún Fionnachaidh) can be a good option for an overnight stay, with a fine beach and an intriguing heritage center, the Dunfanaghy Workhouse. Between Horn Head and Rosguill, Doe Castle is also well worth a stop. At the base of the Fanad, the tiny village of Rathmelton (Ráth Mealtain) is eminently photographic, with its gray Georgian warehouses reflected in the mirrorlike water of the lake.
About 10 minutes’ drive north of Rathmelton, on the coast of Lough Swilly, the village of Rathmullan (Ráth Maoláin) is an excellent stopping point, with an evocative ruined abbey, a beautiful stretch of flat, sandy beach, and a couple of good hotels (splurge on the Rathmullan House ★★★ if you can swing it).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.