In County Donegal, the cliffs rise to meet some of the highest in Europe. These Northern Headlands of the Wild Atlantic Way are set fiercely west of Northern Ireland, representing the northernmost stretches of the Republic of Ireland.

We had arrived for the Christmas holiday, our first forecast of rain, we happily took cover at Lough Eske—a castle hotel located at a lake of the same name in Lougheask Demesne. Lough Eske is a storybook castle turned modern-day hotel and spa. The castle dates back to the 1400s and is associated with the O’Donnell Clan, noted as the founding fathers of Donegal.

An hour’s drive north of Donegal, the Slieve League or Sliabh Liag cliffs teased their immensity. Slieve League meaning “grey mountain” is best explored on clearer days than our forecast allowed. They rise 1,998 feet above the Atlantic Ocean — three times the height of the more famous Cliffs of Moher to the south, and 222 feet tallest than even the top of the World Trade Center.

Visitors can take routes such as Pilgrim’s Path or One Man’s Pass for the immense views, and the latter to reach the cliff’s highest point. The latter is recommended for experienced hikers and all are recommended to pay attention to quickly changing weather and incoming fog. At the base of the cliffs is a white sand beach, accessible only by boat. There are two car parks at Slieve League, one for hikers and another for those who desire to drive right to the top. For those gearing to drive directly to the top, a sign warns: “The road is narrow and has blind bends and summits”. Sadly, weather nor time did not allow us a visit this trip, but since discovering the plethora of outdoor activity on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, I hope to return in summer months. By the way, I’ll be walking and not driving the blind bends and summits.

Foggy roads Lough Eske ireland
Coming out from the foggy roads beyond Lough Eske

At Lough Eske, the fogs in Donegal seemed to blend with the lake in such a way, it was possible the world had been flipped upside down. And when do the thick vapors do peel away, they reveal a fertile landscape. For anyone else out there who enjoys watching surfing, you may remember County Donegal featured in Dana Brown’s Step Into Liquid.

While I’m about the furthest thing from an expert in deciphering Irish accents, I can tell you the ones we heard in Donegal were some of the loveliest. With a cadence much like a song, there are few things more charming. Some Kilkenny-natives I met at our friend’s wedding in Dublin informed me as well, that the accents in Donegal are the sexiest in Ireland. And there you have it.

Tartan-clad Christmas dinner lough eske donegal ireland
Tartan-clad for Christmas dinner

For Andrew and I, Lough Eske was the perfect place to spend Christmas, being our first holiday away from our families. In a warm and welcoming setting, there are several libraries in which to drink tea, play chess, or simply enjoy a wood burning fireplace. The downstairs bar was welcoming and beautiful.

We’d scurry to enjoy the pool and when the rain would pause, explore the paths around the grounds. The hotel provided beautiful, mouthwatering spreads for all the holiday meals: it was truly a vacation.

On Christmas Day, a true smorgasbord awaited, an early supper as guests blew balloons and flung them to the ceiling. As most of the guests were from Ireland, we’re assuming balloons are a Christmas thing. In the night, the hotel’s bar crowded in as we all sat to enjoy the music of two uber-talented guitar players/vocalists: Paddy Malone and Ryan McCloskey, the latter of whom played in the Irish band, Little Hours (who are awesome, by the way).

Cheerful and friendly, Paddy and Ryan took requests through the night from The Eagles to Sam Sparro to Irish Christmas favorites like Shakin’s Stevens’ “Merry Christmas Everyone” and even a song from the Irish sitcom Father Ted:  “My Lovely Horse.” In a word, that last one was: hysterical. The super nice bartenders also introduced us to Father Ted at that moment — which we’ve been watching ever since.

With our trip in Ireland coming to an end we sipped some locally made spirits from the Sliabh Liag Distillery including Silkie, a delicious blended whiskey and An Dúlamán Gin, a fresh and delightful gin made from seaweed. The evening ultimately concluded with all of us joining in with the two guitarists to sing The Pogues’ “Fairytale in New York.”

 

If you go…

Stay
The sites
  • Tips on the site to see all around County Donegal
Helpful links for visiting Slieve League
  • Helpful logistics for the visit here
  • A bit of history here and here
  • Hiking and parking map
  • Last stop for coffee before the climb