‘ Coolest place on planet’ accolade stirs interest in Ireland’s wild north

National Geographic Traveller love Donegal, and local people in an area struggling for jobs and worried about Brexit see only benefits

Mornings in Donegal can be so beautiful they take the breath away. Last week, soft pinkish lighting violated through early clouds hanging over Killybegs harbour, bouncing off the water of the port and into the upstairs windows of the Bay View hotel. Tourists enjoying their breakfast seemed down on angling barges festooned with Christmas illuminates and bathed in unseasonally warm wintertime sunshine.

It was moments like this that resulted National Geographic Traveller to conclude at the start of December that Donegal was the coolest place on the planet to visit. The magazine predicted big things for a district often overshadowed in tourist terms by better-known counties such as Kerry, and cities such as Dublin.

Its a warm-hearted place, but wilderness always feels just a stones throw off, said National Geographic Travellers UK editor, Pat Riddell. And it is wilderness, world-class wilderness. We think its due a big year.

The global renown of Donegal had already been enhanced by the presence of the Star Wars cast shooting scenes for episode eight in the franchise, out in December last year.

Inside the Bay View, general manager Tracey McGill said the coolest place on the planet epithet came as no surprise, but would help set the hotel, Killybegs and the entire county back on the tourist map: National Geographic Traveller were telling us something we already knew here in Donegal!

The 35 -year-old native of Ardara, a small town 10 miles to the north in this Irish-speaking region of south-west Donegal, said: Its going to be a great tool for us to marketplace all of Donegal. Because we are so far up north, we often lose out to places like Kerry in the south-west. More foreign tourists go there than would come up here. This accolade will increase interest all over the world in what Donegal has to offer as well.

In my opinion it is all about the people. I genuinely believe that we have more time for tourists and visitors compared with other places. We are already ensure an increase in interest in the Bay View since the article appeared, and we are hoping that when the season begins for real in March, there will be a big upsurge in visits.

Ballymastocker Bay, Donegal. Photo: Rex/ Shutterstock

The hotel itself is a emblem of Irelands economic recovery after a brutal recession that saw 15% unemployment and the country teetering on the edge of national bankruptcy.

It had closed down but was rescued three years ago by a consortium of investors who include the father of Seamus Coleman, Republic of Ireland captain and Everton player. The footballer is widely admired in the town, and the county generally, for supporting local projects and promoting his native town.

Coleman has retained a deep connection with Killybegs despite the riches and potential distractions of the English Premier League and international football stardom. I know everyone loves where theyre from but I truly do love Killybegs. Im merely Seamus, who theyve known playing the Gaelic and kicking a football against the wall on St Cummins Hill, the housing estate I grew up on. This is peace and quiet, family and friends, and walkings along Fintra beach.

Its children on the estate knocking on the door and asking me to come outside to play football with them and chatting about the Premier League. But no one here treats me like a Premier League footballer.

Ten miles west of Killybegs on the Wild Atlantic Way, a coastal strip that runs for 1,600 miles along Irelands western seaboard the narrow coast road passes homes where sheep wander into front gardens. There are stunning vistas of rugged, bucolic coastal inlets. In the sixth century, Irish monks sailed from here to take Christianity to Iceland.

In the village of Carrick, Paddy Byrne runs a business ferrying tourists to the dramatic Slieve League cliffs the largest of their kind in Europe. Standing by one of his boats, he said: The Coolest Place on the Planet thing will undoubtedly help bring more tourists. I had a call yesterday from a foreign tourist to ensure I could take them out to the cliffs, but I dont get going until March. Yet the call goes to show at the least that the article has had some impact already.

But as he surveyed the spectacular scenery, with Slieve League mountain in the background and the quaint little harbour, Byrne also struck a cautious note.

This place may be beautiful but you cant feed beauty. A lot of people, especially our young people, have to leave the district to get chores, an education and opportunities.

Brexit is also a major concern. Donald Smyth, who used to work in the towns fish processing mill, said that while barges in Killybegs are subject to strict EU quotas, British challengers freed of such restraints could inflict further damage on an already fragile fishing industry.

Fintra beach. Photo: Alamy

The 67 -year-old said: Our boats are subjected to stringent tests to make sure they adhere to EU quotums, while foreign boats out there are no longer checked especially with the Irish Naval Service away on duty in the Mediterranean Sea rescuing people and not around much any more on fishery protection. If British fisherman after Brexit can take as much fish from the Atlantic as they want, and dont need to worry about EU quotums, then the fishing fleet here will be in even deeper trouble.

And while Donegals anglers worry about how Brexit might give their British equivalents the leading edge, there are farther frets over what will happen to the border with Northern Ireland when the UK leaves the EU.

Pressure group Border Communities Against Brexit, formed to resist the imposition of any frontier controls or passport checks on the 310 -mile border that reaches from the north-west Atlantic coast near Derry and stretches across to the Irish Sea north of Dundalk.

Its Donegal branch is headed by pharmacist Tom Murray, who points out that Donegal has perimeters with three districts in Northern Ireland Derry, Fermanagh and Tyrone so any disruption to cross-frontier trade could have a devastating impact on the county economy.

There are also fears that a tourist boom could be detrimental to coastal beauty spots such as Carrick and nearby Teelin. The tourist traffic is already increasing massively down in this corner of the county, Byrne said. I can cycle from the quay here up to Carrick in about 10 minutes but last summertime by auto it took me half an hour because of the traffic jams. We have to be very careful to conserve Donegals unspoilt, unclogged image even while we bring in more tourists.

Back in the Bay View hotel, McGill made an Irish tricolour with the signature of Seamus Coleman scrawled across it. Its a signed flag that I merely hand out to football-mad kids who stay in the hotel and of course visiting Everton fans, she said. He did loadings of them for me last period he was home.

As Donegal heads into a record-breaking tourist year, that kind of attention to detail will merely enhance the reputation of a region on the rise.

Donegal past and present

County Donegal, part of the ancient province of Ulster, encompasses 1,877 sq miles, and has a population of 158, 755.

Ballyshannon in the south of Donegal is one of the oldest towns in Ireland, with archaeological sites dating from the Neolithic period( 4000 -2 500 BC ).

Donegals Gaeltacht( Irish-speaking area) has a population of 24,744 around 25% of Irelands Gaeltacht.

The Slieve League cliffs in Donegal are some of the highest sea cliffs in Europe. From the highest point, theres a 2,000 ft drop into the Atlantic Ocean twice the high levels of the Eiffel Tower.

Donegal is home to Glenveagh, the second-largest national park in Ireland, with 35,000 acres of mountains, lagoons and woodland, with Glenveagh Castle at its centre.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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