Since we had limited time to make our upper loop around Ireland we missed most of Co. Donegal– it just wasn’t possible for us to see and do everything.
We hadn’t booked a hotel so we originally went to the town of Belleek to see if there was anywhere to stay.
The main hotel was permanently closed and the other small B&B didn’t have any availability, so we backtracked to Donegal city for the night.
Donegal immediately struck me as a tourist trap. There were tons of tour buses, kitschy shops and hotels around the main square that all advertised ‘authentic’ Irish food, music, etc. Ugg.
It was late and we wanted to see the castle as soon as it opened in the morning so we ended up staying, and I’m actually glad we did. We had an incredible dinner in a tiny little booth at the Olde Castle Bar (wonderful seafood and the cheese platter was delicious) and had a chance to explore the town in the morning before anyone was up.
Watching the fog lift up over the colorful houses along the river outside the main square made for a beautiful and peaceful start to the day. We were the first ones in line when the castle opened and very few people joined us. The castle was nice but not expansive so we spent a little while there reading the history and taking pictures.
By the time we grabbed some coffee and made our way back onto the road I was in a great state of mind and excited for the actual tourist activity I had planned– touring the Belleek Pottery factory.
I don’t know how busy the Belleek Pottery tour gets during peak season, but we just missed a few tour buses of people as we were pulling in so it was just us and one other couple on our tour.
I know it’s a tourism activity like the Waterford factory tour or some of the distillery tours where the purpose is for you to end in a gift shop or tasting room to make a purchase. Nevertheless, I have a very real appreciation for the craftsmanship and enjoyed the tour.
We learned about the different steps in the production process and got to watch several of the craftsman working on their area of expertise in the process. Brian got to try his hand at crushing some of the defective pottery as well–they won’t sell anything that isn’t perfect. Of course, I had to buy a few pieces when we were done!
After our tour we drove south along the coast to Sligo. We parked downtown and walked over to Sligo Abbey. The Abbey was really neat and I appreciated the self-guided handout they gave us to explain what we were seeing. We explored the remains and the headed downtown to walk around.
The weather took a turn so we only made it around a few streets of shops and restaurants before ducking into Foley’s Pub, an unassuming corner bar on our way back to our car.
Best. Decision. Ever! The place was small and intimate, and Foley himself was working the bar. There were a few other older men at the bar who were clearly regulars–we stuck out like sore thumbs–but we were welcomed and questioned and had an incredible time drinking our beer and enjoying the craic.
Foley couldn’t believe we were from Lynnwood, Washington– he knew of another couple who was in several years before from Lynnwood and pulled out his old visitors logs and quickly found their names and note. Incredible–I can’t imagine remembering something like that! He asked us to sign his current visitor log, which we were happy to do.
We did have to eventually finish our drinks and hop back on the road, but we both agreed our stop at Foley’s was one of the unintentional highlights of our trip.
We didn’t have a hotel for the night so we thought we would continue south toward Connemara and see what we came across on the way. Another perfect decision for two reasons.
First, traffic was light so we made it much farther than I had anticipated. Second, we ended up in the ocean-side city of Westport, which I had never heard of and would not likely have picked for an overnight stay. It ended up being incredible.
Westport was rocking when we arrived in late afternoon– tons of people and traffic, despite it being off season. After driving around town we finally found parking near an interesting looking hotel in the middle of a roundable–only to find out they were booked. They recommended a hotel down the road so we packed up, parked again and found lodging.
There were tons of colorful shops and restaurants–we could have easily spent a day just seeing everything the town had to offer–but many were closing for the evening so we opted to tackle the 1+ mile walk to the harbor to see the sunset. Because of the hills it ended up feeling like a real hike, but a few other people were also making the trek and the sights along the way, as well as the end result, were worth it.
We walked back in the dusk and popped in the tiny Pantry & CorkScrew for a delicious meal. (As it turned out we were really lucky because everyone else had reservations and a few other people were turned away!)
The whole day was another perfect example of how things can work themselves out in Ireland. Not everything needs to be planned, and some of the best adventures and fondest memories come from the parts of your journey you leave to fate.
Co. Donegal, Co. Sligo and Co. Mayo, we will be back.