There's one word that continually comes to mind when I think of Ireland—genuine. Everything, from the geniality of the Irish people to the castle hotels serving locally-made yogurt at their breakfast buffets, had a kind of sincerity that I've rarely experienced before. It was even more apparent when exploring the vast and scenic countryside of the Northwest, where homes looked as if they were built to suit the landscape and ancient influences were left unblemished.
They say it's not a trip to Ireland until you get lost at least once. Given my and Kara's track record for getting lost, I'm still shocked it didn't happen sooner than our third day in.
The lovely receptionist at Lough Rynn recommended we check out some incredible views near Sligo and Strandhill. She threw around the words "Knocknarea" and "rugby club" and told us to get off at the Colooney exit. Not knowing exactly what she was talking about but assuming we'd be able to ask someone in Colooney, we got on our way. We realized that wasn't the best plan of action when we began seeing signs for both Collooney and Coolaney—and couldn't remember what she said. A kindly grocery store attendant in one of the towns helped us figure out that we were headed to climb a large hill behind a rugby club, and got us on the right route.
I'm glad we endured the frustration because the sights were more breathtaking than the lady at Lough Rynn implied. Atop the massive hill—which only took about 25 minutes to climb, 30 if you stop to gape at the sheep crossing the trail—was a gargantuan ancient burial cairn that divided views of choppy blue-grey ocean waves and an expanse of vibrant green hills, made into a patchwork by the villages below.
About 30 minutes northeast of Knocknarea is Glencar Waterfall. It was a short hike (about a quarter of a mile) on a paved trail that walks you along a creek next to the woods. It wasn't one of the most awe-inspiring sights I've ever seen, but it was lovely walking through the woods to the soft rushing of the hidden waterfall.
Near Sligo was by far my favorite little town we ventured into—Strandhill. Between pastel beachfront coffee shops and charming restaurants that overlooked the misty ocean, I could have spent several days there. I immediately fell in love with Shell's café, recommended for the good take away coffee by our waitress at The Venue. Shell's light blue building—split into a café and a shop—sat right in front of the ocean. Everything inside was pastel and tastefully beach-themed; their dining chairs were my favorite color of seafoam green. I loved the place so much, I bought a bag of Sea Bee Tree muesli with seaweed to take a little bit of the shop and Irish coast home with me. I've been looking for an American replacement ever since I finished the bag.
Just down the street from Shell's was VOYA Seaweed Baths. I read an article somewhere that recommended a seaweed spa bath as something uniquely Irish to do in the Sligo/Strandhill area, so I decided to give the concept a try. It wasn't until I was standing in front of the tub full of seaweed that I remembered I hate the feeling of it, but not enough to forego trying it. So, after a few minutes in the sauna, I stepped into the seaweed-filled amber water.
I can't say I noticed any benefit from the seaweed's supposed detoxifying qualities, but I can see why people enjoy the baths. The bath water was warm, relaxing, and delightfully slimy from the seaweed. It felt nice to just sit in the tub and absorb whatever benefits the slimy kelp had to offer my skin.
Lough Eske Castle
Located in County Donegal, our second castle hotel was noticeably bigger and more upscale than our first. Lough Eske castle spoiled us with comfortable beds, modern cottagey decor, and massive bathrooms complete with two shower heads and fragrant local toiletries. The gardens weren't as impressive as the ones at Lough Rynn, but we basked in the luxury of an on-site spa that had a sauna, a solarium, a steam room, a heated pool, and an ice shower infused with essential oils.
Donegal was everything I had hoped an average Irish town would be. The main square, called The Diamond, had everything from tchotchke souvenir stores to high end tweed shops to The Blueberry café that looked like some place you'd find Alice in Wonderland breakfasting on homemade scones and jam. We walked into a wool shop, Irish House, which I wanted to support just because the associates knew the name of the local woman who made their tweed. I immediately took a liking to the pleasantly sarcastic store associate and fell in love with the most expensive wool sweater I now own.
Donegal, at Olde Castle Bar & Red Hugh's Restaurant, was where I had the best coffee liquor drink I've ever tasted—Tia Maria coffee. It had the warmth and slightly sweet heavy cream of an Irish Coffee, but settled with a soothing coffee liquor flavor instead of a bite of whiskey.
The same place also had the best (read: heaviest) Irish soda we ate in Ireland. It was perfect for soaking up the leftover white white and garlic sauce served over their mussels, which were caught fresh from Donegal Bay. Everything about the restaurant—the authentic food, dim lighting, and quiet ambience—had the genuine feeling that I'd come to associate with Ireland's Northwest.