It’s easy to forget your worries when you plunge into the depths of Lough Gill. As I forced my body into the lake, the icy slwap of the water hit me like a truck, vanquishing my ability to think of anything other than how bloody cold I was. There’s a reason wild swimming is pegged as a form of therapy – it’s pretty much impossible to feel anything, good or bad, when you’re so cold you can barely remember your own name.
ut then, just as my extremities went numb, I looked around and remembered how beautiful Lough Gill really is. The rugged Sligo mountains rising from each side. The tiny, tree-filled islands scattered along its surface. The reeds that sway and cling to the edge of the shore. The whole damn thing is like a visual Valium.
Sligo is always where I’ve gone to clear my head. It was my backyard until I moved to Dublin recently. Whenever times are rough, I’ve drawn solace from the smell of the cold, damp air, the forests filled with giant trees, the dependable pounding of the surf. Which is why, when Dublin was released from Lockdown 1.0, it was one of the first places I went. And Lough Gill was top of the hitlist. And why, while we’re in Level 5, my mind keeps going back there.
You don’t have to risk hypothermia to experience it, though – the numerous forest trails around its edges give all the views with none of the frostbite. Though I’ve walked Dooney Rock countless times, I only recently discovered an alternative route, to the right of the car park, that leads you up a steep thicket of towering tree trunks to two little benches that overlook Cottage Island.
I thought I knew that stretch of lakeshore like the back of my hand, but this little patch was completely new.
It felt like Yosemite, the thick tree trunks wizened like mammoth legs, blanketed in swathes of bright green bracken. When I reached the lake below, I happened upon tiny little private bays, with crumbling, moss-covered jetties and fine pebbles lapped at by gin-clear water.
For a long time, Sligo was short of accommodation with an element of cool. But that’s all changing. In Rosses Point, for example, a new arrival set up shop in 2017, combining a seafood restaurant with some bedrooms upstairs.
The Driftwood (www.thedriftwood.ie) brought a sense of boutique charm that was lacking from the (rather stuffy) village of Rosses Point. The main restaurant is flooded with light and undeniably chic – think exposed brick walls, marble tables and plush green banquettes – but the rooms upstairs are even better, with roll-top baths in the bedroom and quirky art.
If you’re talking baths in Sligo, you can’t ignore the Voya Seaweed Baths (due to reopen December; www.voyaseaweedbaths.com).
Sure, I’ve gone dozens of times over the years, but the appeal of sinking into a scorching hot bath that oozes with seaweed never gets old. And the walk afterwards, along the blustery shoreline of Strandhill, is like a wake-up call for every cell in your body, which leaves you aching for a hearty feed.
Much as I adore Strandhill’s Shells Cafe (and frequently go to sleep dreaming of its garlicky lemon chicken burger), it’s often impossible to get a table on busy days. Its new-ish brother cafe Baker Boys (www.bakerboys.ie), however, is right on the edge of Sligo town. Blissfully spacious and calm even when it’s hopping, this spot is just what Sligo needed. The menu is filled with things like towering, citrusy fish burgers and avocado toast alongside glossy, lacquered Danish pastries and sugar-dusted cronuts the size of a baby’s head.
The handiest thing? Its Finisklin location means that you can get straight out on the road again when you’re done, rather than tackle the hellscape that is the one-way system in Sligo town. Donegal is just a few miles north, and you can be up in Lough Mardal Lodge (www.loughmardalglamping.ie) within the hour, hugging the coastline along Mullaghmore and Grange, passing by the dramatic ridges of Benbulben.
If you close your eyes and picture the perfect winter wonderland, the yurts at Lough Mardal would tick every box. Thick, faux-fur throws top the beds, twinkling fairy lights weave among the lattice walls, and a wood-burning stove fills the dome with warmth and a flickering amber glow. The day I arrived was Baltic, but within seconds I was as toasty as a marshmallow, plonked by the fire with a glass of wine in my hand.
Between Bundoran and Donegal town, Lough Mardal is the gatekeeper for the rest of the county. From there, you weave through countless gorgeous sights as you make your way to the very tip of Ireland. Glenveagh National Park has the kind of otherworldly charm that makes you want to throw on an Aran jumper and Dubarry boots, and stomp around the rocky peaks and serene lakes like you’re modelling for the tourist board. Driving through it, even in the pounding rain, you’re met with the kind of beauty that makes you endlessly proud to live on these shores.
There’s no doubt that Donegal has plenty working in its favour. The sprawling, desolate beauty of this county is as magical as it is beguiling. But one thing it lacks? Enough decent places to eat. All the good restaurants are out-the-door popular – which makes reservations frustratingly tough to get.
I spent an evening further north making call after call to try and snag a table for dinner – with no joy. The few places that were open midweek (and off-season) were booked solid, and so I ended up in my pyjamas with a Chinese takeaway.
But a disappointing meal is soon forgotten when you’re at the top of Horn Head. The colour of the heather-strewn clifftops was changing by the second as the grey clouds approached, turning what was green mere seconds ago into a sludgy, slatey brown.
I’m far from dainty – but mere moments after I reached the peak I was lifted clean off my feet and dumped back to earth a few inches away. The strength of the wind was incredible, as were the sheets of sharp rain as they swept over the sea and pelted down on my head.
As I raced back to the car, the clouds passed over me once more. Seven minutes later, the sky was such a glorious shade of blue that the heather was glowing in the sunshine, and the only memory of the rain came from my sodden jacket. The sea that swirled against the bottom of the cliffs was impossibly blue, and the storm that passed was just a memory.
Nicola travelled as a guest of The Driftwood (www.thedriftwood.ie) and Lough Mardal (www.loughmardalglamping.ie). Both places plan to reopen after December 1, but check on new opening times. Rates at The Driftwood start from €75, and yurts at Lough Mardal start from €120
3 places to visit
1 The family friendly woodland walk in Sligo’s Hazelwood is always a winner, and the full 3km loop makes for a pleasingly robust stroll.
2 The adorably tiny Cosgrove’s (071 914 2809) is a Sligo deli that’s been on the go since 1898. Head there to pick up all the charcuterie, artisan cheese and cupboard essentials to keep you going.
3 If you’re down in Easky, Pudding Row (www.puddingrow.ie) is a charming cafe with impeccable dishes (and killer sweet treats), currently doing takeaways only.
Sunday Indo Living