With its yodel funk, stunning sea cliffs and thatched-roof cottages, Ireland's Donegal earns the honour given to it by National Geographic Traveller
Driving the twisting ribbon of asphalt that is Donegal's section of the Wild Atlantic Way coastal route, we had a "Cool Moment," the first of many in this coolest corner of the coolest place on earth. The Irish language RTE radio was playing and another heart-stopping vista swung into view before us, all crashing waves, misted sea stacks and foaming surf. Amongst the Irish chatter, the phrase "yodel funk" popped out and, on cue, a funky Gaelic yodeler, backed by a manic tin whistle, gave us a soundtrack to a day of superlatives.
We were on a father-daughter road trip, starting in Belfast where Molly-Claire was living, looping north along the rugged shore of Northern Ireland and then into the wild west of Donegal, the place that National Geographic Traveller anointed No. 1 on its "Coolest Places to Visit 2017" list.
But even before reaching Donegal, we'd started compiling our own list of "official" superlatives spotted along the way. "Hotel Receptionist of the Year," "Medium-Sized Town of the Year" and the lovely "Loo of the Year" (really?) to name a few. Before leaving Belfast, we'd taken in Titanic Belfast, voted "World's Leading Tourist Attraction of the Year."
Good as it was, you have to wonder: Who exactly does this voting anyway? But there was no dispute in our mind about the National Geographic's choice of Donegal as the coolest of the cool, once we got there.
The sun arrived as we did, glinting off the tempestuous Atlantic, which is never far away. The roads narrowed, the traffic dried up and the sheep multiplied. The road signs were in Irish, this being the main Gaeltachct, (Irish-speaking area) with almost 25 per cent of the Irish speakers in the country. A point called the Bloody Foreland or Cnoc Fola (the Hill of Blood) figures prominently on the map. This is country with a past.
Donegal has that faded-glory feel to it, and the cottage we rented near Ardara was a good metaphor for the county itself. Abandoned and a near ruin, it was found by architectural historian Dr. Greg Stevenson's organization, Under The Thatch, which rescues traditional buildings at risk, then rents them out to keep them alive and thriving. In his book Traditional Cottages of County Donegal, he cites the alarming fact that in 1950 there were 4000 traditional thatched cottages in Northern Ireland alone, but only 150 in 2005.
This cottage could have suffered a similar fate. But it survived and, thankfully, it was also too remote to be tarted up and ruined by amateur renovators. So when it was discovered by Stevenson, it was the real deal, only in want of a roof, some plumbing, a kitchen and tender loving care. It is minimalist chic in a 17 th-centurysort of way, and populated by a careful selection of folk art antiques. Unsurprisingly, it was named "Best Holiday Cottage in Ireland" by the Sunday Times. We were seeing a trend.
Stevenson had mentioned in his page of directions that it would be rude not to drop by for tea with neighbour Mary Molloy, the cottage housekeeper. So, as we squeezed past the sheep and made our way to the cottage at the dead end of a road the width of a hiking path, we stopped in.
"A lovely girl, you are, Molly-Claire!" she gushed, bear-hugging my middle child and speaking in exclamation marks. "A credit to you, David! Oh what a sweet girl!" Molly-Claire and Mary Molloy hit it off like a house on fire, while her husband, the grandly named Columba, sat unmoved at the kitchen table with a wry expression, unenthused about our intrusion into his world of big skies and lonely winds.
Mary advised us on how to make a turf fire: "Give it air! Give it time! Be patient and it will warm you nicely!"