The enchanting otherworld (otherwise known as Ireland) in seven days

Donegal's bewildering beauty.
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Donegal's bewildering beauty.

Ireland has been invaded for centuries, so perhaps the Irish psyche is hardwired to point strangers in the wrong direction – in the most agreeable way, of course.

Puzzling over our hiking directions in Donegal's Bluestack Mountains, we share our proposed route to the top of Banagher Hill for a view of Lough Eske with local foragers, their buckets brimming with chanterelles and hedgehog mushrooms.     

"Oh no, there's nothing up there," they twinkle, pointing the other way. Five hours later, in lashing rain, the lough has disappeared, the sheep have disappeared, the signposts have disappeared and we're knee deep in mud and misty mountains.

The Giant's Causeway on the edge of the Antrim plateau is Northern Ireland's only UNESCO World Heritage site.
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The Giant's Causeway on the edge of the Antrim plateau is Northern Ireland's only UNESCO World Heritage site.

The next day, we meet some Irish hikers admiring a rainbow. We agree to share the pot of gold before they proffer directions. "Donegal Town – that way," they dimple. "That way" is a dead end with the sign: "Warning: Bull in field".     

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Sunset over Dunluce Castle in Portrush, Northern Ireland.
CLODAGH KILCOYNE

Sunset over Dunluce Castle in Portrush, Northern Ireland.

On our third Donegal day, we're striding along with our walking poles when a wizened little fellow pulls up. "Would you be wanting directions?" he chirps with just the hint of a chuckle. 

Do we hear impish laughter on the wind? No worries. It hasn't taken us long to give ourselves over to the enchanted otherworld that is Ireland, replete with peculiarities, parallel realities and the most delightful, patient, chatty (occasionally misdirecting) people.     

We're on a seven-day 1100-kilometre road trip from Dublin to drive and hike the spectacular craggy Northern Ireland coastline, before swinging down through Derry and back into Donegal in the Republic, finishing in Galway.

The Peace Bridge over the Foyle River in Derry, Northern Ireland.
123.com

The Peace Bridge over the Foyle River in Derry, Northern Ireland.

The route traverses all or part of what is variously known as the Ulster Way, the Causeway Coast, the Ulster-Ireland International Appalachian Trail and the Wild Atlantic Way. This celebrated stretch offers geological wonders, beaches, cliff paths, historic places, mountains, blanket bogs, forests and loughs. 

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We'll enter and leave the domain of writers like C.S. Lewis, Yeats, James Joyce, Seamus Heaney and the imaginative realm of Game of Thrones.

Driving in Ireland is a dream. No horn honking, gesticulating, tailgating or even overtaking. They're equally lovely on foot – you can't walk 20 metres without someone stopping for a chat (followed naturally by an offer of directions).

Harvey's Point Hotel, Lough Eske.
VISIT IRELAND

Harvey's Point Hotel, Lough Eske.

Anyway, we're off out of Dublin, taking the 3½-hour inland route to Ballycastle and the spectacular 52-kilometre stretch of Causeway Coast, on the Irish isle's northeastern tip. You can almost reach out and touch Scotland's Mull of Kintyre.

Except you can't reach out and touch anything much today as the soft rain has turned "lashing". The Giant's Causeway on the edge of the Antrim plateau is our first stop – Northern Ireland's only UNESCO World Heritage site.

Irish rain, however, is a fickle thing, similar to the provision of directions. Suddenly the clouds part to reveal from our historic Causeway Hotel window, a curve of sheep-speckled green fields running down to Portballintrae Bay, which sweeps off towards Donegal. Direction-wise, Donegal, though it is "the south", is in fact, geographically north.

Temple House in County Sligo.

Temple House in County Sligo.

We join National Trust guide Scott Lynas for a walk to the Causeway, complete with geological explanations and mythical tales to describe the 40,000 interlocking polygonal basalt columns that rise in perfect horizontal sections.

They're the result of ancient volcanic eruptions from 60 million years ago but we prefer Scott's Gaelic mythological tales of Irish giant, Finn MacCool, who built the causeway across the North Channel to fight the Scottish giant Benandonner.

Rocky objects support Scott's stories – there's a Giant Organ (the musical kind, silly), Giant's Boot, Eyes, Granny, Harp, Gate and Chimney Stacks.

Murlough Bay and Fair Head in County Antrim, Northern Ireland.
The New York Times

Murlough Bay and Fair Head in County Antrim, Northern Ireland.

Afterwards, we hike the sea cliff footpath to the cliff top, and then scamper back to the hotel snug for a Guinness and G&T as the rain assaults.

Nearby Bushmills Inn, once a coaching inn in 1608, with its crannies, timbered panelling and wood fires, is our delicious dinner destination. Sticky toffee pudding and Irish cheeses follow prime Ulster sirloin.

Perhaps Daenerys Targaryen enjoyed a similar meal for the Game of Thrones mob has recently departed after filming at nearby Fair Head. In this realm of the Seven Kingdoms, you'll find such fictional GOT spots as the Kingdom of Dorne, the Iron Islands, Renly's Camp, Slavers' Bay, the Dothraki grasslands, the Vale of Arryn, the Kingsroad and the Eyrie. 

Parishioners and visitors attend mass at a Roman Catholic Church in the village of Knock, County Mayo.
CATHAL MCNAUGHTON

Parishioners and visitors attend mass at a Roman Catholic Church in the village of Knock, County Mayo.

After sweet dreams of giants and three-eyed ravens, we're off to Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge near Ballintoy harbour, where Theon Greyjoy was baptised.

The clouds are on the march again but we take the risk and hike from Ballintoy to the "rock in the road". Carrick-a-Rede Island was the westward sea route for Atlantic salmon. Since 1620, fishermen have reached it by rope bridge.

The bridge only admits eight each crossing and is guarded by a tyrant. A tourist with a selfie stick prompts an outraged bellow, possibly heard across the green water to Rathlin Island's gleaming white cliffs. On clear days (not today) you can see the Scottish isles of Islay and Jura. 

Signposts point the way to toilets, the hearing of Confessions and the location to collect Holy Water in the village of ...
CATHAL MCNAUGHTON

Signposts point the way to toilets, the hearing of Confessions and the location to collect Holy Water in the village of Knock, County Mayo.

There's whiskey to be drunk and castles to be viewed, so after visiting nearby Larrybane quarry where Breanne of Tarth swung her sword, we're away to the Old Bushmills Distillery. How lovely to sit with the rain thundering, warmed by a dram of aged barley water. "It's not bad if you don't mind drinking Protestant whiskey", offers a passer-by. Even grog has a religion in Ireland.

The medieval ruins of Dunluce Castle on a rocky promontory transport us back to days of intrigue and rebellion. We avoid the edge, which collapsed in 1639, sending the kitchens seawards. Giant's Causeway stones prop up the walls – did these warrior chieftains have no shame?

Dinner tonight is a memorable meal at Harry's Shack at Portstewart Strand, County Londonderry, where the Kingdom of Dorne is recreated near our seafront At the Beach B&B.

Galway is known for its lively nightlife.
CLODAGH KILCOYNE

Galway is known for its lively nightlife.

There's Greencastle hake fillet with chorizo, tomato and chickpea stew and couscous and a haddock fillet in buttermilk batter with mushy peas and tartare sauce – fine coldwater fish.

We hoover up an excellent breakfast before walking the Portstewart cliff path into the scenic Victorian seaside town, with a chinwag or three along the way.

Derry is next, reached via Castlerock, Coleraine and Mussenden Temple in Downhill Demesne – another GOT site high above the Atlantic on a cliff with views west towards Magilligan Point and County Donegal and east towards Castlerock, Portstewart and Fair Head.

The true grandeur of this landscape is hard to translate and combined with the delightful locals, it's a wonder the place isn't overrun by tourists.

For me, Northern Ireland's second-largest city of Derry (aka Londonderry) has long been associated with the Troubles – the 30-year conflict over Northern Ireland's constitutional status. The Troubles are thought to have originated in Derry, with the Battle of the Bogside.

Today, this 2013 UK City of Culture is a gorgeous creative centre on the River Foyle. Derry people will never forget their city's bloody history, but with its new Peace Bridge, the waterfront and Guildhall area redevelopments and burgeoning live music scene, optimism rules. 

With umbrellas and a guide, we walk the intact 17th-century walls (with their seven gates), hearing of a vivid history, from the 1688 Siege of Derry until today.

The historic Edwardian Bishop's Gate Hotel is our excellent hotel in the Cathedral Quarter within the walls. Its recent renovation has retained historic values while imparting a swashbuckle of luxury.

The hotel's Gown Restaurant, outstanding for dinner, is equally so for our full Irish breakfast. Our Bluestack Mountains Donegal hike (in lashing rain) is today, a Sunday. No shops are yet open, so the hotel allows us to plunder the breakfast buffet for a ham-and-cheese-on-soda-bread picnic.

Ireland turns a deeper shade of green as blackberry and fuchsia hedgerows lead us towards Donegal, named Dun na nGall – fort of the foreigners – by the Vikings who arrived, licking their lips, in 807. Our destination is the family-run Harvey's Point on the shores of Lough Eske at the foot of the rugged Bluestack Mountains – a much-loved base for walking and cycling. 

We have our ordnance survey maps for our hike – what could possibly go wrong? Well, I defy anyone to read one of those once already directed towards the place called "lost", in lashing rain, with no Google Maps phone reception. 

We resourcefully retrace our steps and find we have been upgraded to a palatial suite with spa bath, followed by an outstanding dinner of cured salmon and Irish Hereford beef fillet, enforcing the quality of Irish produce.

Ireland's highest sea cliffs at Slieve League on the Wild Atlantic Way are our next stop and we travel there via remote Glencolmcille, an early Neolithic settlement in a Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) area.

The Atlantic, Sligo Mountains and Donegal Bay reveal themselves as we hike towards the Slieve League heights where the Bunglas cliff soars more than 600 metres. We venture onto One Man's Pass that loops around to the Pilgrim's Path, but a growing gale contrives to scare us off this sacred, unfenced mountain. Best to retreat to the Slieve League Lodge for a mean smoked mackerel pate.

From Donegal we drive into County Sligo, Yeats' "land of heart's desire". Mullaghmore, famed for its huge surf, is a quick stop, as is Drumcliffe Church at the foot of the Benbulben Mountains, where Yeats' simple grave bears no relation to the spot marked on the church map. Hordes of tourists wander about vainly asking directions.  

Strandhill Lodge and Suites is tonight's home at this popular seaside spot. We opt for a "room picnic" instead of sampling something called black pudding lasagne at a local restaurant.

En route to Galway, we can't resist stopping at Knock in County Mayo, where Mary, Joseph, Saint John, Christ and various angels miraculously appeared. We observe our own miracle – a parking spot directly outside the shrine.

Having followed the rules to not drink the holy water, we're away to that most Irish of Irish cities – bohemian Galway – currently heaving with graduating students.

This final, atmospheric stop on our Irish arc, with its salmon-rich River Corrib, Arran sweaters and Claddagh rings, plump oysters and cobblestones also rewards us with a wonderful hotel. The historic Meyrick, grand dame of Galway Hotels, overlooks Eyre Square – no directions required. Our Aussie eyes are definitely smiling.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/ireland
ireland.com 

STAY

Trinity City Hotel, Dublin. Doubles from €161 (NZ$250). See trinitycityhotel.com  

Causeway Hotel, Bushmills. Doubles from £75 ($132) with breakfast. See giants-causeway-hotel.com 

At the Beach B&B, Portstewart. Doubles from £230 ($407) for two nights with breakfast. See at-beach.com/  

Bishop's Gate, Derry. Doubles from £96 with breakfast ($170). See bishopsgatehotelderry.com 

Harvey's Point, Lough Eske, Donegal. Doubles from €218 ($339) with breakfast. See harveyspoint.com 

Slieve League Lodge B&B, Carrick, Donegal. Doubles from €50 ($78). See slieveleaguelodge.com 

Strandhill Lodge and Suites, Strandhill, County Mayo. Doubles from €158 ($245) with breakfast. See strandhilllodgeandsuites.ie  

Meyrick Hotel, Galway. Doubles from €119 ($184) with breakfast. See hotelmeyrick.ie  

FLY

Emirates and Qantas codeshare from Auckland to Dublin via Dubai. See qantas.com.au 

Alison Stewart was a guest of Tourism Ireland

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