At home for the holidays

Siobhan Dolan goes back to her roots on a break in County Donegal
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The Independent Travel

"I've discovered a new animal - it's pink and fluttery and a bit shrimpish," cried Iggy, aged five, as he lay on the jetty gazing into the lake. "I've called it a 'bid' - it just came into my head."

Inishowen, Ireland's northernmost peninsula, is known as a haven for migrating birds and indigenous wildlife but, strangely enough, the "bid" wasn't up there with the chuff or the barnacle goose on our list of must-sees. Still, we were all delighted to be introduced to this small creature as it scooted around the jam jar, along with tadpoles and an assortment of other creatures.

I had returned here for the first time in many years. My mother came from Carndonagh, a small market town in County Donegal, and my family stayed with my granny there for three weeks each year. Now I was back with my own children. Sadly, my granny and their granny are no longer with us, yet it was memories of them that had drawn me back.

Inishowen is a wild and beautiful part of the world - bounded by sea on three sides and featuring Ireland's most northerly point at Malin Head - yet it remains largely undiscovered by tourists. However, with budget airlines now offering regular flights to Belfast and Derry, it's easy and cheap to get there from many parts of the UK.

My children's quick hop from Gatwick to Belfast, where we picked up our hire car, bore no resemblance to my childhood journeys. I recall getting up in the dark to drive the eight hours to Holyhead in Wales (with regular stops to be sick), four of us squashed in the back of the car. Then, it was three and a half hours on the ferry (sick again) to Dun Laoghaire, followed by a four-hour drive to Donegal.

Still, it was always worth it when we arrived. Sometimes referred to as "Ireland in miniature", Inishowen's diversity spans breathtaking landscapes, mountains, bogs, rivers, rocks and waterfalls. There are also a few historical sites, such as the Celtic Cross in Carndonagh and Grianan Aileach, a Stone Age fort outside Derry, the seat of Celtic rule in Ulster.

There are picturesque little villages and towns such as Malin, with its pretty houses and pristine village green, along with bustling fishing ports like Greencastle, where we visited the maritime museum and watched the fishermen land their latest catch.

As children we loved it: the endless, sandy, mainly deserted beaches of Culdaff and Five Fingers are a far cry from Clacton and Southend, the closest ones to our home in Essex. As we lined up in September alongside pals who'd been to Spain, we were, inevitably, the palest in the class - there's a lot of weather in Donegal - but that was fine. We generally had the best stories to tell, like the one about the bullock that went berserk in our granny's garden, or when my brother inadvertently bid for a heifer at the market.

My mother was happy there, delighted to go home and spend time with my granny. She, in turn, used to love going out for a "run" in the car. If we stopped by the shore, she would shuffle down to take a sup of the sea water. Once back in the car she would sit chatting while we ran to fetch her a soft pear and a bag of Tayto crisps.

With granny's house no longer an option, we were staying in Johnny's Cottage, a fantastic hideaway set in 25 acres near Culdaff village. Meticulously renovated by its owner, Chris Tinne, it's the perfect place from which to take in the peninsula's beauty without necessarily venturing outside its gates.

The interior is a striking combination of traditional Irish and contemporary styles: the stainless steel in the kitchen sits easily alongside Donegal tweed curtains and slate floors. Best of all, though, is the view from the living room, with the green, green grass rolling down towards the sweeping sandy beach and beyond to the curving, mountainous headland. Meanwhile, the kitchen window looked out over the beach and enabled us to observe the moving tides, changing light and tiny people-specks as they came and went through the day.

Outside, the gardens are beautiful - a delightful blend of native Irish wild flowers mixed with more exotic shrubs. There's also a small lake (where the "bid" lives), a bluebell wood and even a badgers' set. It's a wonderful place to just sit and look, and to tune into a splendid soundtrack that intersperses delicate birdsong with the distant sound of waves crashing.

Someone wrote in the visitor's book that they felt so laid back that they were "almost walking backwards". The children spent hours pottering in the garden, playing football or hide and seek, and then skipping down to the beach where they dunked their nets in rock pools and sledged down the sand dunes. In fact, they were so engrossed in their surroundings that there were no requests for television. My son went so far as to tell me that he was glad he wasn't getting "all that silly stuff in my brain".

Sightseeing is made easy by numerous signs for the Inishowen 100, a 100-mile coastal circuit of the area. The route is easy to dip in and out of, and takes in all the best of the scenery: the secluded Kinnagoe Bay where the Spanish Armada ship Trinidad Valenciera was discovered in the 1970s; the twisting and turning Knockameny Bends; and the Mamore Gap, a steep, narrow ascent sheltered by 700ft-high hills on both sides that affords great views of the Atlantic.

To get a real sense of the area's history and, indeed, its remoteness, it's worth stopping off at the Doagh Island visitor centre near Ballyliffen. Here, local man Pat Doherty has spent 10 years recreating an early 20th-century village during the potato famine. Moville is a bustling town that we used to love as children and which hasn't changed at all. It's still possible to park in the car park overlooking the sea and then take a leisurely walk across the cliffs. If you're craving a bit more life, head south-west to Buncrana, a lively resort on Lough Swilly with plenty of pubs, gift shops and amusement arcades.

We didn't get around to fishing (the mountain rivers are renowned for their trout and salmon), playing golf or partaking in any water sports (you can sail and water-ski on Lough Foyle and Lough Swilly). The charms of Johnny's always pulled us homewards, although we did sometimes stop off for a bite to eat or a drink at Culdaff's charming McGrory's Hotel (they also have live music a couple of nights a week).

On our final morning, I reached for the silver pot that I'd picked up every morning of our holiday and tried in vain to open it. I was determined to sprinkle some of my mother's ashes over her favourite beach before we left, but I just couldn't get the lid open - until now.

She would have loved Johnny's. She did love Johnny's, but, like us, she just didn't want to leave.

Johnny's Cottage (00 353 7493 79510; www.dunowen.net) costs from €1,400 (£1,000) to €2,000 (£1,428) per week. Alternatively, try McGrory's Hotel in Culdaff (00 353 7493 79104; www.mcgrorys.ie). The closest airport is City of Derry, served from Stansted by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com), and from Manchester and Glasgow by British Airways (0870 850 9850, www.ba.com). For more details on Inishowen contact the tourist board (00 353 7 4937 4933; www.visitinishowen.com)

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