“Do bears really love jam sandwiches?” Judging by her smile, this isn’t the first time our guide Fiona has heard that question.
he question comes to my 10 year old son today as we stand in a wood in Donegal and see two huge brown bears wrestling in the grass beyond. It’s a hot day, so the hardships don’t last long. Rionach, the smaller bear, climbs a log to sunbathe while her brother Donnacha heads to the lake for some floating fruit treats.
These siblings were rescued from cages in Lithuania by animal welfare organization Bears in Mind.
she will eat jam, Fiona tells us, but they prefer honey. Paddington has a lot to answer for.
It’s the first afternoon of our family trip to Donegal’s Inishowen Peninsula at the top of the Wild Atlantic Way and we’re already convinced. The easy road from Dublin got us here much quicker than we expected. So far we’ve stretched our legs and collected shells at Lisfannon Beach, marveled at the views across Lough Swilly, enjoyed ice cream at Buncrana – and now the bears. There are wolves too…
We spend a sunny afternoon at Wild Ireland (wildireland.org), an ambitious nature reserve designed to recreate a time thousands of years ago when Ireland was covered in Celtic rainforest and home to wild bears, wolves, lynx and wild boar – all long gone. But you can see all of these reintroduced animals here, along with owls, monkeys, deer, otters and many smaller, cute critters.
Guided lectures take place at various times throughout the day and it’s worth planning your visit to coincide with these. They are very informative and increase your chance of getting a good look at the animals while the guides feed or interact with them.
There is something unique about the landscape up here at the tip of Ireland. It’s epic in a different way than the rest of the Wild Atlantic Way – it feels new and unknown. It’s only been a few hours but as we drive down the coast road and the sun slowly sets over the water we all agree that we feel like we’ve really ‘got away’.
It’s fair to say we’ve worked up an appetite and we turn off the main road towards Lough Swilly Marina to find the Railway Tavern (Railwaytavern.ie) hidden in its own little pocket of peace. It’s a cozy place in the former station building of the Londonderry & Lough Swilly Railway, where steam trains ran from 1864 to 1953. The walls are covered in railroad memorabilia and the atmosphere is warm and inviting.
Steaks sizzling on an open grill in the center of the dining room add to the special occasion
We have great fun guessing which ones are ours. The food is delicious and we leave feeling relaxed, happy and ready for a good night’s sleep.
Our base for this two night break is the Redcastle Hotel on the shores of Lough Foyle on the east side of the peninsula. Once part of the 18th Century Redcastle Estate, the hotel has 93 rooms, a pool and spa, golf course and friendly and attentive staff.
It’s a bustling place, popular with both locals and tourists, and undoubtedly has to be in the running for the best breakfast view in Ireland. Sitting against a glass wall overlooking the water while sipping your coffee is the perfect way to start the day.
We’re lucky enough to snag the Olympic Suite, which has two bedrooms, one with a contemporary king-size four-poster bed. Being able to keep the kids close but separated is a real bonus and the extra large smart TV in their bedroom is a big hit.
The next morning we return across the peninsula to the imposing headland on which Fort Dunree (fortdunree.com). The fort was built in 1798 to protect against invasion by Napoleon’s French fleet and was an important site during both world wars. Under British control until 1938, it was used by the Irish Army until 1990. It’s like being on a movie set; Fascinating old military buildings are scattered throughout the grounds, surrounded by hiking trails and spectacular scenery.
The museum itself is small and perfectly formed. There are clever interactive elements to keep the kids engaged and the military memorabilia are carefully displayed. Reducing major events in history to what happened in that one place makes for a truly effective experience.
Moving again, we head north through the Gap of Mamore along a narrow road that stretches long and lonely into the distance. If you are looking for solitude, you will find it here.
We don’t meet any other cars as we drive through the hilly, green-brown landscape. It’s eerie and beautiful and just as stunning as the coastal routes.
We make a pit stop to see Glenevin waterfall at the end of a very manageable little walk of just 1km alongside a river path. It’s a nice picnic spot and we stock up on ice cream at a little shop at the entrance before heading out again.
Still north, and this time we’re going all the way – Malin Head, the tip of the island. Again the views! That’s why it was filmed Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the fans among us are arguing about the exact location.
Trekking with an alpaca is a bit like walking a dog
We take a stroll along the cliffs, past crashing waves at Hell’s Hole, and then who can resist the temptation of a hot chocolate? Coffee trolley Caffe Banba committed (www.cafebanba.com). Ireland’s most northerly cafe definitely hits the spot.
We’re on our way again, but it’s only a short jaunt to our next stop. Trail of the Wild Alpaca (wildalpacaway.com) is a family business founded by John and Patricia McGonagle not far from Malin. We are introduced to Ted and Fred, our furry companions for a walk around the Knockamany Bens. Trekking with an alpaca is a bit like walking them — but Ted’s tall, so we’re pretty much on par. It’s a surreal experience looking into those deep brown eyes as we stroll up the hill.
Alpacas love to be spoken to, we’re told, and it’s quite a sight, a line of people of all ages chatting to these docile creatures as they scale the hilltop with the beaches of Inishowen spreading out below .
We stop at a feeding station to give them grain from our hands and further on to take some photos with the stunning scenery as a backdrop. The location is a winner, but the alpacas are the real main attraction here. The kids are obsessed.
Our final day begins with a visit to Grianán of Aileach, a picturesque hilltop fortress that dates back to 1700 BC. Once home to the Kings of the North, it’s one of those places where you can almost feel history vibrating through the walls. It’s immediately enjoyable – you don’t have to spend hours here to feel like you’ve seen something special.
Our final stop is Oakfield Park (oakfieldpark.com) near Raphoe. Described as ‘a secret gem in the heart of Donegal’, we had never heard of it before, but it’s now firmly ingrained in the ‘good memories’ part of my brain. It’s exactly the kind of park I love: beautifully manicured, lush parkland, lakes, old growth forests, elaborate sculptures, and little surprises around every corner. My 12 year old daughter described it perfectly Alice in Wonderland vibrations.
There is even a maze – a correct Labyrinth – challenging, with high hedges; big, but not so big that you’ll never find out. And there’s a clever smartphone app to guide you out if you’re really stuck. I admit I was amazed, but the kids don’t give up. We sit outside on the grass and listen to their cries of frustration, joy and more frustration rising from within. You emerge radiant.
We can’t leave without taking the 4.5km narrow-gauge railway that weaves through the trees. Then a delicious lunch outside in the sun at Buffers Restaurant, where we put off the drive home as long as possible.
Inishowen is a holiday paradise. One local we meet laments that people holidaying at home head south – to Kerry, Cork or Wexford – more out of habit and tradition than anything else. “If only they knew what they’re missing out on.”
How right he is.
Tara McGinn was a guest of Fáilte Ireland whose Keep Discovering campaign encourages people living in Ireland to experience the joy of discovering the many hidden gems Ireland has to offer. If you need inspiration on where to go and what to do, join us discoverireland.ie.
Tara and family stayed at the Redcastle Hotel, redcastlehoteldonegal.com
Wild Ireland Wildlife Park, €15 per adult, €12 per child; below 2s are free. pre-registration recommended,wildireland.org
Fort Dunree Museum, family ticket €15, fortdunree.com
For a family (two adults and up to three children under the age of 14) a hike with two alpacas on the Wild Alpaca Way costs €45, wildalpacaway.com
Oakfield Park Family Pass, including train travel, €40 for two adults and two children. The opening times depend on the season, see oakfieldpark.com
https://www.independent.ie/life/travel/inishowen-peninsula-is-a-staycation-paradise-42012345.html The Inishowen Peninsula is a holiday paradise