Kate TaylorSee other travel guides written by Kate Taylor
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Situated in the north-west of the Republic of Ireland is the scenic County Donegal, the most northerly part of Ireland. It’s a region dominated by great mountains, vast lakes (loughs) and rivers inland. On the coast are sandy beaches, some of Europe’s highest sea cliffs and picturesque peninsulas, all along the wild Atlantic coastline.
If you like to get away from it all on your caravan holidays, County Donegal is the perfect destination. There were only 161,137 people living here at the last count. Yet it is the fourth-largest county in Ireland, bordering County Leitrim to the south, and Northern Ireland to the east.
This is an area rich in folklore and legend, so if you like your holidays to include history, myths and magic, you’re in the right place. It’s a Gaeltacht area, so the place names are written in pure Irish Gaelic as well as a phonetic version in English. It’s fun to spot similarities between them. Scottish Gaelic speakers may feel quite at home here.
Visit Ireland to see Malin Head, famed for its shipwrecks and its regular mention in The Shipping Forecast. This is the northernmost tip of Ireland, on the lovely Inishowen peninsula. Drive up to Malin Head car park to see the lighthouse and restless Atlantic waves crashing far below the cliffs. By contrast the little village of Malin is in a sheltered spot and has a beautifully manicured village green, complete with the Malin Hotel and restaurant.
Watersports and fishing are popular in County Donegal, too, both out at sea and on the many rivers and loughs. Water has shaped this landscape, and visitors can marvel at the sheer size of Lough Swilly, which separates County Donegal from Derry and Northern Ireland, as well as Lough Erne and Lough Melvin, to name just a few. Go surfing in County Donegal, to fully enjoy the thrill of Atlantic rollers breaking on the many soft sandy beaches.
Move south from Malin, along the shore of Lough Swilly, to the large town of Letterkenny, the largest town in County Donegal. There's ten-pin bowling and indoor entertainment for tiny tots and older children at Wayne's World. Visit Letterkenny for a choice of bars and restaurants, too. This is the commercial hub of Donegal, along with the city of Londonderry, on the opposite shore of the River Swilly. Letterkenny sits on a crossing point across this large river and has long been a powerbase. In Gaelic the town’s name means ‘Hillside of the O’Cannons', who were the last of the ancient kings of Tir Conaill.
Follow the Donegal coast north again up the west side of Lough Swilly along the Fanad Peninsula, going right to the end for more fine views and the photogenic lighthouse at Fanad Head, built after a tragic shipwreck in 1811. From this remote spot you can head for the bridge to Carrickart.
The coast road in Ireland has been dubbed The Wild Atlantic Way and tourists can now follow the blue wave signs for a beautifully scenic drive all the way along the crinkly north and west coast of Ireland to southern Ireland. You can even download a map of Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way coast route and keep a camera handy to take memorably beautiful photographs of your caravan holidays in Ireland.
For a dream beach holiday in Ireland, why not try one of the 12 Blue Flag Beaches in Donegal? One of the ’10 most beautiful beaches in the world’ is Ballymastocker Bay, Fanad. Other top beaches in Donegal are Ballyness Beach in Falcarragh, Buncrana, Bundoran, Coral Beach at St John’s Point (near Dunkineely), Dooey Beach (near Lettermacaward), Downings Beach, Fintra Beach (near Killybegs), Five Fingers Strand (Inishowen), Kincasslagh Beach, Kinnagoe Bay (Inishowen), Magheroarty Beach (near Donegal Town), Marble Hill, Pollan Bay (Ballylifin, Inishowen), Rossnowlagh Beach and Tran a Rossan Beach (Downings). There are many more beautiful beaches in County Donegal, and when looking for clues in the road signs, it's worth knowing that ‘Tra’ is Irish for ‘beach’.
The County Donegal wilderness offers many opportunities for outdoor activities such as rock climbing, mountaineering and walking holidays in Ireland.
A highlight of the north coast of County Donegal is Dunfanaghy, a lively town offering boutique shops, cafés, crafts, gifts, antiques, a delicatessen and live music in the bars and hotel. Dunfanaghy also offers a surf school and riding stables, both of which make the most of this little town’s fabulous sandy beach.
For creative inspiration, drive to the far north-west of County Donegal to see the two most remote and rocky places in the Republic of Ireland, Gweedore and The Rosses. These are both renowned as ‘Gaeltacht’ areas, where Irish Gaelic is spoken. Mount Errigal overlooks Gweedore, and it's here that famous musicians Enya and the band Clannad grew up and began to write their haunting Celtic folk-rock music. Gweedore also offers creative writing retreats so you can visit Ireland for your caravan holidays and return home inspired to write your first novel.
Visit castles and stately homes and gardens during your caravan holidays in Ireland, whatever the weather. Such places to visit in County Donegal don’t come much better than Glenveagh Castle and gardens, which look out over Lough Veagh. This well organized Donegal tourist attraction offers a sheltered car park and visitor centre, with buses along the lough shore to the castle and lush, verdant gardens. Hollywood legend Greta Garbo famously said, ‘I want to be alone’ and appropriately enough she once stayed at Glenveagh Castle, as the guide proudly reveals during organized tours inside the castle. The magnificent carpets in the castle were made locally in Killybegs.
Glenveagh castle is set in the heart of the atmospheric Glenveagh National Park. As you drive over the (often misty) mountain pass, watch the skies and you might see golden eagles, which have recently been introduced to soar over the Derryveagh Mountains in this wild part of County Donegal.
Drive further south on the Atlantic coast of County Donegal to the town of Killybegs, a bustling port with plenty of shops and entertainment. Go and visit Killibegs International Carpet and Fishing Centre while you are here.
Some of the tallest sea cliffs in Europe are in Donegal, the stunning 600m (1972ft) high Slieve League (Sliabh Liag), overlooking Donegal Bay. At the foot of the cliffs are treacherous rocks, such as The Giant’s Desk and Chair, linked by legend to Finn McCool, the Giant who built The Giant’s Causeway, on the Antrim coast. Visit the Slieve League Cliffs Centre, where you can discover Irish culture, artisan food, craft shop and art gallery.
From April to October it’s possible to take a boat trip to see Slieve League cliffs towering above from sea level. Swim in the crystal clear waters of secluded coves and you’re likely to see seabirds hunting or nesting. If you’re lucky you’ll see dolphins, whales, basking sharks or seals. Take other boat trips in Donegal Bay and try sea angling. The boats leave from Teelin, on the Wild Atlantic Way coastal road.
Visit Donegal town to see the fine Donegal Castle overlooking the River Eske and relax in the lively town centre, full of shops and restaurants. Donegal Tweed is world famous and the town still produces this hand woven cloth. This part of Ireland was badly affected by the Great Famine of 1847 and you can find out about Donegal town's Irish famine history here.
Further south is Ballyshannon, the home of the late 1970s rock guitar legend Rory Gallagher. You can find shops, pubs, cafés, restaurants and fuel in Ballyshannon. Near here is the seaside town of Bundoran, a popular town for family holidays in Ireland. South of Donegal town are the mountains and sand dunes of neighbouring County Sligo.
You'll have a lot of fun on your caravan holidays in Ireland if you can go to a music festival or simply listen to live music and enjoy the craic in local bars and hotels in County Donegal. Nightlife in Ireland really gets going after 9pm – so don’t be fooled if the bar looks quiet on the outside, step inside and enjoy the craic.
You’ll find live music daily at Scotsman’s in Donegal Town, on Saturdays at Shamrock Lodge in Falcarragh, Tuesdays at The Cottage in Letterkenny, Fridays at Roarty’s in Glemcolmscille. There’s music every night of summer and every weekend all year, plus regular live jazz and blues sessions at The Oyster Bar in Dunfanaghy. Other music venues in Dunfanaghy are Arnold’s Hotel and and (most nights, all year) Patsy Dan’s Bar.
Swapping from Sterling currency to Euros becomes the norm when you travel to County Donegal along the north coast from Belfast in Northern Ireland. With no passport checks or border fences, only the Gaelic road signs, speed limits in kmph and yellow road markings tell you that you’re in the Republic. Donegal is the largest county in Ulster, the ancient province spanning three counties in Ireland (Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan) and six in Northern Ireland (Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone).
We know you’ll enjoy your caravan holidays in Ireland, particularly if you visit County Donegal.
Top five things to do in County Donegal
Go to the beach! With 12 Blue Flag Beaches in Donegal, you'll be spoilt for choice. Try Ballymastocker Bay, Fanad, Ballyness Beach, Buncrana, Bundoran, Downings Beach, Fintra Beach, Five Fingers Strand, Kincasslagh Beach, Kinnagoe Bay (Inishowen), Magheroarty Beach and Marble Hill Beach.
Listen to live music in Ireland in one of the bars and hotels in most towns. As well as traditional Irish music and some nifty fiddle playing you’ll find rock and pop tribute bands, depending on the night and the venue. When you visit Ireland don't get worried if the hotels and bars look shut. Appearances can be deceptive, so just open the door and step inside for a warm Irish welcome, peat fires, music and a good craic.
Play golf among the beautiful sand dunes of Donegal. Within the Inishowen peninsula you’ll find world class golf courses such as Ballyliffin (Glashedy) and Ballyliffin (Old). Dunfanaghy Golf Club is just west of here. Just outside Donegal Town is Murvagh golf course and in Downings, near Carrigart, you’ll find Rosapenna (Sandy Hills) golf course.
Go horse riding in Donegal as part of your caravan holiday in Ireland. Canter on the golden sands of Killahoey beach, in Sheephaven Bay, on the north Donegal coast, with the riding school tucked away behind Arnold's Hotel in Dunfanaghy. Trekking opportunities also abound, such as Trekking the Great Famine Track, the route families took across the bogs and wilderness to emigrate and find work and food more than 150 years ago. Another themed route is a three-hour ride along Donegal's former railway track, beneath Muckish Mountain. Lenamore Stables in Muff also offers riding lessons, hacking and birthday parties.
When to visit County Donegal
June is the time for Sea Sessions, Surf and Music Festival in Bundoran, held on the beach. Dunfanaghy Music Festival of Traditional Irish Music will boast Irish and international musicians performing Irish music, along with local musician and storyteller Seamus Harkin spinning yarns about Sheephaven Bay. Gaelforce North is also held in late June and it's an adventure race involving cycling, running, hill running and kayaking, over 45km or the full 64km. The race goes through Glenveagh National Park, Coillte forest tracks and the spectacular Mount Errigal in North Donegal. Ballyshannon's favourite son, the late guitarist Rory Gallagher, is celebrated there every June bank holiday with a Rory Gallagher International Tribute Festival.
Early July is marked by the Buncrana Music Festival with concerts, workshops and drama sketches, plus a Carnival for children, treasure hunts, a dog show, funfair and lots of live music in Buncrana on the Inishowen Peninsula.
July is an exciting time in Letterkenny, too, which hosts Earagail Arts Festival. Activities will be in Irish and English and include theatre, music, visual arts, family activities, circus, comedy and workshops, all on the theme 'Made in Donegal'.
August is the month of Ballyshannon's Lakeside Triathlon.
How to get to County Donegal
Take your caravan to Ireland by ferry, then drive to Donegal. When towing a caravan in Ireland, we'd advise you to use mainly motorways and N roads until you're close to your destination.
If you live in the North of England, choose a ferry to Belfast, then drive along the Antrim coast, going west for County Donegal.
Stena Line sails from Cairnryan to Belfast or Liverpool to Belfast routes, which are the best routes if you're coming from the north of Britain. If you’re travelling to Ireland from Wales, choose Holyhead to Dublin Port, or Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire.
Stena Line goes from Anglesey's Holyhead to Dublin Port or Holyhead to Dublin's Dun Laoghaire in three hours, 15 minutes. Alternatively Stena Line's fast ferry from Holyhead to Dublin's Dun Laoghaire, takes two hours 20 minutes.
Irish Ferries also has a fast ferry sailing from Holyhead to Dublin in one hour 49 minutes. It also has much larger, very stable ferries that take three hours 15 minutes.