Thought I knew Donegal like the back of my hand. But bus tour operator Joe Mangan took me to new heights on his magical – very magical- tour of the southern part of country, along narrow, twisting coastal roads so beloved of Sarah Jessica Parker and her hubby Matthew Broderick.
The Hollywood movie stars have a house near Kilcar and the locals apparently leave them alone as they eat in local restaurants – and chip shops – and drink in the village pubs but jovial Joe swore blind that he didn’t know exactly where they live.
It was just about the only detail that he couldn’t supply as his minibus glided us through an area which is fast losing its ‘hidden gem’ status because the world is finally waking up to the fact that the West’s awake to its own tourism potential.
The National Geographic Traveller recently dubbed Donegal the coolest place on the planet and you won’t get much of an argument from us canny northerners who’ve never needed coaxing to go there, even during the worst of our troubled times.
Southerners who were wary of driving through the north to get to Donegal have long since gotten over their fears but the clever branding of the Wild Atlantic Way – WAW for short- is what is really helping to spread the WOW factor far and near.
Visitor figures in Donegal are rising and everywhere the tourists go now, they’ll find snazzy signs and information panels giving them the lowdown on 38 discovery points around the country.
And Joe Mangan’s Donegal Daily Tours are part of the new drive to put the country on the map.
I’d gone on one of his day trips to see Donegal from a different angle away from the limited view from the driver’s seat of my car. And Joe didn’t disappoint.
Starting off from Letterkenny he brought us over the Barnesmore gap on to the spectacular Donegal Bay coast road which affords fantastic views across to Benbulben and beyond on a clear day. And happily the infamous Donegal clouds had rolled away from the duration of our trip.
Which was singularly rewarding as Joe took roads less travelled up and up to the wondrous cliffs at Slieve League where tourist’s amenities have been vastly improved, and not before time.
There was a new car parking facilities and a cultural centre plus shuttle buses to ease visitors closer to the summit of the cliffs where no matter how long you spend in awestruck amazement, it simply isn’t long enough.
A quick but nonetheless tasty lunch of soup and sandwiches in the Slieve League Lodge in nearby Carrick revived us for the next stage of our jaunt to my favourite part of Ireland- the incomparable village of Glencolmcile.
The obligatory stop across the way from the magnificent Glen Head, with its imposing Martello Tower left first-time viewers on the bus lost for words. Not me, however. I proposed to my missus there a few years back.
At the nearby Folk Village after a swift tour of its thatched cottages and their glimpses into the past, the irrepressible Margaret Cunningham couldn’t wait to share news of plans for celebrations of the 50th anniversary of its opening by the innovative priests Fr James McDyer.
And talking of anniversaries, over the road in the Folk Village car park stands a fascinating new memorial to another historic milestone, the 1916 Rising. But this is no flag-waving, triumphalist tub-thumper in any shape or form.
In fact, it’s in the shape of a map of Ireland- a stone map of Ireland.
It’s a marvellous sight altogether and has been built into a 15-foot wall that has become a tourist attraction in its own right.
After Glen, it was upwards and onwards – and downwards – through the hair-raising hairpin bends of the Glengesh Pass to the heritage town of Ardara and then on through Glenties and Finntown before returning to Letterkenny where I stayed in Dillons Hotel on the Main Street.
It’s a place where I’d laid my head after many performances at the town’s An Grianan theatre in the town but back in the day hotel was called the Letterkenny Court.
And truth to tell, this time around, I didn’t recognise the Court.
What had been a tired and rather neglected hotel is now vibrant, welcoming establishment which is in the hands of the northern-based Mckeever Hotel Group.
The extended Dillons Hotel has been refurbished from top to bottom and their kitchen has also upped its game spectacularly.
I was lucky enough to catch their special five-course Wild Atlantic Way menu which did exactly what it said on the tin, diving into the nearby ocean for its inspiration and ingredients.
They even had a Wild Atlantic Way Mojito on the cocktail list which I thought it would have been rude not to try. And I’m glad I took the plunge because the infusion of turf smoke and seaweed worked swimmingly.
There was also superb turf smoked salmon from the Haven Smokehouse at Carrigart, run by Derryman Declan McConnellogue, and there were crab claws and haddock on a beautifully presented plate of starters followed by pork belly; seabass and the most mouth-watering beef that it’s ever been my pleasure to devour. I’m sworn off sweets so I had to give a bye-ball to the desserts which included a somewhat quirky cheesecake made from Ramelton’s love-it-or-hate-it Football Special soft drink but it scored big time with my companions.
I tried the harder stuff – a new whiskey called Silkie from the fledgling Sliabh Liag Distillery