Southern Donegal Bay
To reach the southern section of Donegal Bay from Sligo, take the N15 road up the Atlantic coast, and at about 32km (20 miles) north, you'll come to Bundoran, the southern tip of County Donegal and a major beach resort. A victim of its own success, Bundoran is littered with tacky amusement arcades, fast-food restaurants, and cheap souvenir stands, and offers little to warm your heart, unless you're toting a surfboard -- its waves draw surfers from throughout Europe. In recent years, Bundoran has tried to rebrand itself as kind of the Las Vegas of northwest Ireland, complete with an annual Elvis festival in November. Whether you find this to be a good or bad thing depends entirely on your tolerance for kitsch.
Continuing up the coast, you'll pass Ballyshannon. Dating from the 15th century, it has a charming town center with a distinctive clock tower where its two main streets meet; it's another favorite with beachgoers, and is known for its lively pubs and traditional music. In late July or early August, the Ballyshannon Folk Festival brings music to the streets day and night.
Two kilometers (1 1/4 miles) northwest of Ballyshannon, Abbey Mills is a heritage center inside a restored portion of the grand Cistercian Assaroe Abbey, which was founded in 1184 and mostly lies in ruins. However, the great mill wheel has been rebuilt and is driven by water from the Abbey River just as in ancient days. Some 50m (164 ft.) away, at the edge of the Abbey River, Catsby Cave is a grotto where a rough-hewn altar still stands. Here, Mass was celebrated in secrecy during the so-called "penal years" (17th-19th c.), when Catholic rituals were illegal.
If it's a sunny day, you may want to leave the main road and head for the coastal resort of Rossnowlagh, with its gorgeous Blue Flag beach. At over 3km (2 miles) long and as wide as the tides allow, it's a flat sandy stretch shielded by flower-filled hills and ideal for walking. You'll see horses racing on it occasionally, and this spot is a splendid vantage point for watching sunsets over the sea.
Overlooking the beach from a hilltop is the Donegal Historical Society Museum, Rossnowlagh (tel. 071/985-1342; www.donegalhistory.com), inside a somber Franciscan friary. Its small exhibit on local history is limited in scope, but the place itself -- vast gardens overlooking the sea and peaceful woodlands -- is extraordinary. There's a tearoom with outdoor seating and a shop with religious objects. It's open daily from 10am to 5pm. There's no admission charge, but donations are welcome.
From Rossnowlagh, return to the main road via the Donegal Golf Club at Murvagh, a spectacular setting nestled on a rugged sandy peninsula of primeval dune land, surrounded by a wall of dense woodlands. From here, the road curves inland to Donegal Town.
Northern Donegal Bay
From Donegal Town, follow the main road (N56) for a slow, spectacularly scenic drive along the northern coast of Donegal Bay, where the road winds along past sheer cliffs, craggy rocks, bog land, panoramic mountain and sea views, and green pastures. You'll often see the distinctive thatched-roof cottages typical of this area -- with rounded roofs held down by ropes (called sugans) fastened beneath the eaves to help the thatch resist the strong sea winds. It's only 48km (30 miles) from Donegal Town to gorgeous Glencolumbkille, the traditional end of the west coast drive, but these are some of the most winding roads you'll ever drive, so it can take an hour or more.
Your first stop could be at Killybegs (Ceala Beaga) -- where, if you arrive around sundown, you can watch the fishing boats unloading the day's catch -- or at Studio Donegal in Kilcar (Cill Chártha) if you're interested in picking up Donegal tweed at a bargain.
Spectacular photo ops await at Slieve League (Sliabh Liag), with its perilously high sea cliffs crashing down into the waters below. (Take the turnoff for the Bunglass viewing point at Carrick.) Once at the cliffs, you must decide whether you want to merely gaze at their 300m (984-ft.) splendor or to brave a wind-buffeted walk along the treacherous ridge. (This walk should only be for the fearless and fit. Including the climb up and then back down, the hike is about 10km [6.25 miles] and takes 4 or 5 hr.)
Just before you come to Killybegs, the N56 road swings inland and northward, and the landscape becomes desolate and wild. Continue on the coastal road west to discover the extraordinary beauty of Glencolumbkille (Gleann Cholm Cille), a 5,000-year-old Atlantic outpost. Here the dark bogs disappear, replaced by a lush green valley. It is said that St. Columba established a monastery here in the 6th century and gave his name to the glen (its Gaelic name -- Gleann Cholm Cille -- means "Glen of Columba's Church"). Those interested in the history of the place will want to stop by the Glencolumbkille Folk Park (tel. 074/973-0017; www.gleanncholmcille.ie). Built by the people of Glencolumbkille in the form of a tiny village, or clachan, this modest theme park of thatched cottages reflects life in this remote corner over centuries. There are miniature playhouses to entertain the children, while a tearoom serves traditional Irish stews and brútin (a stew of hot milk and potatoes). Hearty Guinness cake is a house specialty. In the sheebeen, a shop of traditional products, check out the local wines made from fuchsia, heather, seaweed, and tea. Admission and tour are €4 for adults, €2.50 for seniors and children, and €11 for families. It's open Monday through Saturday from 10am to 6pm and Sunday noon to 6pm, Easter through September.
To continue touring from Glencolumbkille, follow the signs directing you to the charming, hilly town of Ardara (Árd an Rátha), reached over a mountainous terrain. The road follows another breathtaking drive, through Glengesh Pass, a narrow, sinuous, scenic roadway that rises to a height of 270m (886 ft.) before plunging, in a tortuously zigzag pattern of hairpin curves, into the valley below. The road leads eventually to tiny Ardara, a stone village known for its tweed and woolen craft shops.
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.