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-century sort 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!"
Thankfully, Molly-Claire didn't have my Canadian woodsman pride and actually listened to her advice. Soon, a night of heavy darkness, the smell of turf smoke and the sound of gentle rain lulled us into a deep sleep inside the thick stone walls, our table strewn with maps and books.
The morning took us back down the track, through the majestic Glengesh Pass and into a seaside world of postcard beauty, the North Atlantic sunlight throwing a golden glow across a landscape little changed for eons.
Maghera beach was our first surprise. Cresting huge dunes of seagrass, we found ourselves totally alone on a pristine white sand beach that stretched unbroken for a mile along gnarly rock cliffs riddled with caves. "Take care with the tides! Dear me, they can run in so fast! The caves, oh, frightening!" Mary had warned. With one eye on the advancing surf, we ducked low and explored a deep cave, perhaps the very one that had hidden one hundred of Cromwell's men many years ago. (They lit a fire and were soon discovered by their pursuers and duly slaughtered, save one who hid in a high crevice.)
Not many miles away as the crow flies, but a good hour as the winding road goes, we pulled into the tiny carpark at Slieve League, some of the highest sea cliffs in Europe. Rising right out of the crashing surf to a height greater than the CN Tower, the cliffs with their colouring of amber, red and white deserve all the superlatives that can be hurled at them. The rolling waves arriving from Newfoundland exploded into mist at the bottom and the clifftops were shrouded in clouds, heightening the majestic mystery of the whole thing.
It is said that one-third of all Ireland can be seen from the cliff's summit on a clear day. It is in those other southerly two-thirds that the biggest tourist contingents congregate, drinking green beer and loading up on shamrock tea towels. County Kerry is more famous and much busier, with conga lines of tour buses in summer. County Clare's Cliffs of Moher are tiny compared with Slieve League, but much more famous. Dublin, of course, is the go-to cultural bull's-eye. Even Northern Ireland, with its world-renowned Giant's Causeway (and more recently the World's Leading Tourist Attraction, Titanic Belfast), siphons the crowds off before they can reach lonely, remote Donegal.
And therein lies a big part of the county's charm: true European wilderness with a feeling of the undiscovered. For now.
A closer look shows that changes are coming to Donegal. Killybegs harbour is the centre of a booming and expanding fishing trade, the Aran sweater factory in Ardara is gearing up for a record-breaking season and the tea shops are starting to make excellent flat whites now. Scenes for Star Wars: Episode VIII, were filmed on the Inishowen peninsula. Brexit has brought a dark cloud of questions about a possible return to the hassle of border crossings between the Republic and Northern Ireland. The wider world is inserting itself into this wild paradise.
And yet Mary Molloy isn't fazed by these changes; they seem a world away from her pristine valley. My daughter, after surviving a teary Donegal goodbye, observed: "Mary doesn't realize how cool she really is." Should she be named "Coolest Cottage Housekeeper of The Year?"
She has to be. She lives in a tiny cottage in the coolest corner of the coolest place to visit in 2017. She can build a proper turf fire, and she has yodel funk on her Irish radio.