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Two of Donegal’s best chill-out spots

November 4, 2013 1 comment

County Donegal – in the northwest of Ireland – was formerly known as Ireland’s ‘forgotten county’. Even though it’s becoming a more popular destination, there’s still not much choice when it comes to accommodation. Here are two of the best bases from which to explore this remote and spectacular part of Ireland.

Base 1: Southern Donegal

Lough Eske Castle, Donegal's only five-star hotel sits on 43 acres of woodland with the Blue Stack mountains in the background.

Lough Eske Castle, Donegal’s only five-star hotel sits on 43 acres of woodland with the Blue Stack mountains in the background.

The only five-star hotel in Donegal, Lough Eske Castle outside Donegal Town, combines an antique ambiance with all mod cons; its stunning location and top service have earned it a place in the World’s Best Luxury Country Hotels.

The castle is owned by Pat Doherty – a local Donegal man who purchased the castle ruins in 2007 and spent EUR 40 million restoring it to its former glory – and run by US-based Solis Hotels. Driving up the winding entrance to the castle, it’s hard to believe that, in 2006, the hotel was just a ruin with trees growing through the walls.

Lough Eske Castle is perched close to the shores of Lough Eske – which is not a particularly well-known lake in Ireland but is one of the few places where you can fish for arctic char.

“If you’re lucky enough to make a catch, the hotel’s chef will smoke it for you and you can eat it the next day,” says Mark Knox, Sales Coordinator.

For active visitors, there are plenty of hillwalking trails around the hotel in the Blue Stack mountains and 12 golf courses within a one-hour drive. The famous Slieve League sea cliffs, pretty Donegal Town, dolphin safaris are all within an hour drive.

After a long hike, fishing trip or sightseeing, unwind by the fireplace with an Irish whiskey.

After a long hike, fishing trip or sightseeing, unwind by the fireplace with an Irish whiskey.

To wind down and warm up from the crisp Donegal weather, enjoy the spa with its Ogra products made from peat which has body preserving qualities. Or savour a Connemara peat-smoked whiskey beside the fireplace in one of the castle’s cozy living rooms. Or, enjoy the sumptuous afternoon tea as it were in the old days.

Lough Eske Castle opened at the peak of the Irish recession but according to Knox, business is going up. “Donegal traditionally didn’t get many tourists but this is starting to change, now people are coming again.”

So what makes Lough Eske Castle stand out from any other Irish castle hotel experience? Without a question, it’s the friendliness and professionalism of the staff which is trained to ‘Serve from the heart’

Base 2: Northern Donegal

Once you have discovered the sights of southern Donegal County, it’s time to head to the most northerly part of Ireland.

The cozy family-run Rathmullan House on the shores of Lough Swilly.

The cozy family-run Rathmullan House on the shores of Lough Swilly.

On the banks of Lough Swilly, you’ll find Rathmullan House, a family-run country-style house with landscaped lawns, old world charm and direct access to a long sandy beach.

The property was built in 1820 as a summer residence for Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Knox but was later purchased by a wealthy banking family from Belfast. The current owners – the Wheeler family – bought it in 1962.

Now, your first impression – like ours – might be of disappointment when you step foot inside as the furnishings and décor have not changed much in the past forty years so don’t expect modern or designer-style perfectionism despite the quite pricey room rates. Instead, it’s all about slightly worn wallpaper, antique furniture and creaky floorboards.

However, once you have admired the landscaped lawns, the sun setting over the long golden beach, and enjoyed chatting on a sofa by the fireplace with your fellow guests over a nightcap, you’ll feel the stress lifting and your mood changing.

We met two lovely elderly ladies from Dublin – Maureen and Rosaleen – who have been coming to Rathmullan House every year for the past 25 years since their husbands passed away. They were thrilled to share their memories and give us tips on the local art galleries and sights.

The beauty of Rathmullan House is that time stands still and you can reconnect with yourself and your fellow guests. The location is a fantastic base to explore attractions like the Fanad Head, Glenveagh National Park and Derry City.

After four nights spent enjoying the beach, swimming pool, good massages and tennis court, and exploring the vicinity with long chats in the evening about our adventures, we were ready to venture back into our hectic ‘9-5’ world again.

The Slieve League cliffs in southwestern Donegal are amongst the most spectacular sea cliffs in Europe.

The Slieve League cliffs in southwestern Donegal are amongst the most spectacular sea cliffs in Europe.

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