A Derry girl sees county from a new perspective

Relaxing in style in County Donegal

By Gráinne Brinkley

GROWING up in Derry, you tend to take having a county like Donegal on your doorstep for granted. Day trips to beach-side towns like Buncrana, Greencastle and Moville in the Inishowen Peninsula were such a regular occurrence as a child that I  never really appreciated the beauty and history of Donegal like tourists from further afield would.

When talking to work colleagues in my adopted city of Belfast they would always remark on how lucky I was to have grown up just a 15-minute drive from the beaches of Lisfannon or the Celtic landmark of Grianan of Aileach.  So when I wanted to book a short weekend break that was close to home I decided to opt for a proper tourist experience in Donegal and experience the county through the eyes of someone who never had the luxury of living so close to an area of such outstanding beauty.

Since Inishowen was already my childhood summertime stomping ground, I wanted to experience a part of the county that I had never visited too often, so I headed to the southern part of the county near Donegal Town.

I made the confines of Solis Lough Eske Castle the base for my two-day stay. It’s a luxurious five-star spa hotel set in the refurbished and extended castle that was constructed in the 1860s.  The castle, nestled at the foot of the towering Bluestack Mountains right on the shore of the historic Lough Eske itself, is a symbol of the rich history of this part of Donegal where the O’Donnell clan ruled up until the Flight of the Earls in the 1600s. Indeed, in the grounds of the Lough Eske resort sit ruins of the original Lough Eske castle built in the late 1400s by the O’Donnell clan who founded Donegal Town.

The minute you walk through the doors of the refurbished castle hotel you immediately feel a sense of comfort and home that’s missing from many resorts of this quality.  There are open fires dotted around the building that are encircled by comfortable seating areas. The walls are decked with photographs and paintings depicting the local countryside.

We were greeted by friendly, attentive staff who took us to our room, which was a junior suite that was practically the size of a two-bedroom flat. It contained a king-sized bed, a living area, dressing space and a luxurious spa bathroom with walk-in shower.

However, for those who prefer the more informal nature of self-catering accommodation, the nearby Brae Holiday Cottages provide four-bedroom en suite cottages suitable for large families right on the hillside overlooking Lough Eske.

For our first night in town we decided to dine at the castle’s Cedars Restaurant for convenience. The food served at Lough Eske is seasonal and locally sourced, as it is with all the restaurants in the general area. I had been told by hotel staff that the castle had its own smokery to the rear of the building, so when choosing my evening meal I had to go for the smoked salmon for starters and was not disappointed.

Since we had a long day ahead of us on the Saturday, we opted to stay in the hotel and listen to live entertainment provided in the Gallery Bar and lounge all while nestled in one of the many big comfy chairs situated nearby.

The next morning we embarked on a hike around the woods at the bottom of the Bluestack Mountains that envelope the Lough and hide the castle from the sight of the main roads. This hike proved to be one of the highlights of the trip as our guide, local man Patsy McNulty, was a friendly and captivating oracle on all things Donegal, from the local Celtic folklore to the present day goings-on. The walk was made even more comfortable by a packed lunch provided by the hotel itself. During our hike we drank the clearest water I have ever tasted from a natural Irish spring that Red Hugh O’Donnell’s horse once drank from during the Nine Years War against the English invaders in the 1600s (that’s if we believed one local man who stopped to chat to us).  Our trek also took us past an original Famine Pot used by the Quakers to feed the thousands of people left to starve as result of the Famine.

After this long trek I treated myself to an hour-long aromatherapy spa treatment in the castle’s Spa Solis that not only nearly sent me to sleep but made me realise how many knots I had in my upper back thanks to years hunched over a computer.

That evening, after a quick bite in the Gallery Bar, we headed into Donegal Town to check out some local bars and catch some live Irish traditional music sessions.  The town was buzzing with activity so we called into the Abbey Hotel for a quick drink where there was an traditional band playing live music.   But, fading fast from our big trek earlier on in the day, we headed back to the castle where yet more live music was provided for guests to enjoy before we called it a night.

After tucking into a delicious, casual breakfast and bidding goodbye to our home from home for the weekend, we decided to drive to Murvagh Beach to take in some sea air.  Located seven miles from Donegal Town on the way to Ballyshannon, the beach was unusually deserted for a Sunday morning, but we made the most of the quiet sands and stunning views over Donegal Bay.

Alas, all good things come to an end and so we made the long, picturesque drive northwards though Donegal and back into Derry. Having experienced Donegal through a true tourist’s eyes, I’ll never take the county and its subtle beauty for granted again.

How to get there: Lough Eske is located just over 100 miles from Belfast city centre and can be reached in two hours by car.  For more information about accommodation rates, reservations and how to get there, visit www.solislougheske castle.com, or telephone + 353 (0) 7497 25100.

For Brae Holiday Cottages call + 353 (0)74 97 21746, email selfcateringdonegal@gmail.com or visit www.lougheskecottages.com Visit www.discoverdone-gal.ie for more information on what to see and do.

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