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Donegal Weaves a Poetic Spell of Enchantment : The region's lonely roads, magnificent mountains, meadows and peat bogs are the essence of Ireland.

March 15, 1992|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY

DONEGAL, Ireland — "Handwoven in my cottage in Donegal. K. Boyle, Weaver," says the stitched label on the incredibly soft tweed mufflers we purchased here for a pittance. But it is the colors that best "Weave the spell of Donegal . . . brown of earth and moorland, gray of drifting turf smoke, white of hawthorne spray, rust of autumn leaves and gold of gorse and wheaten sheaves." Even leaving out the purple heather, the Irish have always had a way with words.

Doyle is one of the 30 or 40 hand-weavers still working at old wooden looms in this northernmost of Irish counties, as they have for centuries. Their wives and daughters card and spin the wool, helping turn out about 135 yards of the precious cloth in a week.

Donegal's mountains and headlands reach out like fingers into the wild North Atlantic, creating majestic bays and loughs around the crescent coast. The region, along with neighboring Sligo County, is scattered with Europe's oldest and largest collection of megalithic remains. Alas, the weather can take one completely unawares, changing from cloud-fleeced sky to the chill wet lash of a morning storm with all the shiftiness of a legendary leprechaun.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 22, 1992 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 2 Column 1 Travel Desk 2 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Travel to Ireland--Due to a reporting error, a story on Donegal, Ireland, in last week's Travel section stated incorrectly that British Airways flies from Los Angeles to Dublin. Also, because of an error by a Delta Airlines reservations agent, the price of a round-trip flight from LAX to Dublin was listed as $598. Until the end of March, the fare is actually $798.

Donegal's coast is one of the loneliest in Europe, speckled with tiny fishing villages and remote hamlets with thatch-roof houses, each often having but one small hotel or perhaps a bed and breakfast inn. The hinterlands are scarcely more populous, leaving Donegal Town with a population of 2,000, the only place one could rightfully call anything but a village. And Gaelic is still the language of choice in the northwest part of the county.

Yet Donegal (Don-a-GAL), a wild region of magnificent mountains, meadows and peat bogs that has been inhabited for at least seven millennia, is the essence of Ireland. Anyone seeking beauty, grandeur and quietude will find immense pleasure in driving the lonely roads of Donegal's highlands and peninsulas, roads that always seem to lead to a warm hearth and even warmer Irish welcome.

How long/how much? After landing at Sligo city, take at least three full days to drive around Donegal. We found lodging and dining prices from moderate on up, almost an anomaly in today's Europe, where most countries are "up."

Getting settled in: Planning a trip through Donegal could very well land one in these places. Hotel Carrig Rua on the main road in the coastal village of Dunfanaghy on Sheephaven Bay resembles an old-style coaching stop. Many of the hotel's 22 bedrooms overlook the sea. The bedrooms are very comfortable, cozy and in good taste. The Red Rock dining room does an excellent job with steaks and seafood. Dunfanaghy has an 18-hole golf course and miles of fine beaches.

The Redcastle Country Hotel in Moville on the western shore of Lough Foyle is really a mini-resort, with its own golf course, tennis courts, inside and outside heated pools and fitness center. All bedrooms are handsomely furnished with pastel fabrics, some with four-posters, and the hotel is right on the golf course with no green fees for guests. Another fine dining room here; particularly tasty are the sumptuous desserts.

Strand Hotel in Ballyliffen on the north coast's Inishowen Peninsula is very contemporary in style, yet the personal touch of owners Brian and Anne Harkin gives it a homey atmosphere. The dining room overlooks the beautiful shoreline, and the small lounge bar is cheerful indeed. Each of the bedrooms has TV, a hair dryer and coffee- and tea-making gear.

Markree Castle, nine miles from the Sligo Airport in Collooney, has been in the Cooper family since 1640, with William Butler Yeats and other luminaries as regular visitors. The castle's magnificent oak staircase is overlooked by a stained-glass window tracing the family back to England's King John.

Huge bedrooms, while simply decorated, all have spectacular views of the 1,000-acre estate. There are five golf courses in the area, and a riding school nearby. More about the dining room later.

Regional food and drink: Seafood (salmon, whiting, mackerel, cod, plaice, trout, prawn and oysters) is here in grateful abundance. And the Irish, like the Scots, know more about making breads than the English apparently will ever learn, particularly the glorious Irish soda bread and scones. They also do marvelous things with duck, venison and other game.

Good wines are rather scarce, but remember that "Guinness is good for you," Harp lager is excellent and Smithwick ale comes straight from the wood.

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