The rugged romance of Ireland’s west coast has myriad charms that may well take you out of your comfort zone. The mystical beauty and wild drama of the landscape might inspire you to don a smock and attempt to capture the waves on canvas, pen a poem or two or even leave the warmth of the pub for a hike along the cliffs. But unless riding 60ft breakers and prancing about in neoprene is your idea of a holiday, chances are you don’t know that this wind-blown stretch of the Emerald Isle, notorious for the warmth of its hospitality, is also up there with Hawaii, Malibu and Bondi in every self-respecting surf dude’s hit list.
In fact, big wave hunters from around the globe now descend on the jade-coloured shores of the Clare, Sligo and Donegal coasts, which aficionados consider more than a match for the world’s famous and more exotic surf playgrounds. The good news is that you don’t need to be super fit to join in the fun. If you fancy dipping a toe in shimmering green waters – with waves this great it would be rude not to have a go – or have a brood of active kids or teens hungry for adventure, Donegal Bay is the holiday hotspot that guarantees an absolute blast.
While Donegal Bay offers a great choice of challenging reef and beach breaks for the pros, absolute beginners of all ages are also welcomed with a zeal verging on the evangelical. The same winds that make surfers froth with delight also produce perfect conditions for sailing, wind and kite surfing, canoeing and kayaking, offering a smorgasbord of options for messing about on the water. Even better, the bay is home to two glorious Blue Flag beaches, Bundoran and Rossnowlagh, which also have safe bathing areas for families.
If you fancy learning to surf and want to taste all the water sports, make your base in Bundoran. Situated on the south westerly tip of Donegal, it’s hailed as the jewel of the Ireland’s surf beaches as its shoreline comprises a series of headlands and flat rock reefs that face directly onto near constant swell. Here, you’ll find excellent ISA approved surf schools, including Bundoran Surf Co., Turf ‘n’ Surf and The Donegal Adventure Centre, where friendly qualified instructors will help you master the precarious art of staying upright on a board.
If you don’t have the skills or the nerve to brave The Peak, Bundoran’s famous and challenging wonder wall of water, considered one of the best waves in Europe, don’t despair. You’ll have a swell time in the gentler spots for beginners and there’s plenty of craic to be had on dry land, too. There is a great choice of charming bars and restaurants catering for families and couples as well as lively spit-and-sawdust watering holes that serve the surf fraternity.
Donegal Adventure Centre also offers the less challenging sport of body boarding (why try to stand when you can lie flat on your belly?) and for those who don’t fancy the feisty Atlantic waters, canoeing and kayaking on beautiful Lough Melvin. Adrenalin junkies can also indulge in the mystifying pleasures of cliff jumping while popular pursuits for families include learning how to build traditional Irish boats called Curraghs – available throughout the summer.
And you don’t need a board to explore the bay. For an exhilarating wind in your hair experience, you can climb aboard a speed boat for a marine tour with Bundoran Seaventures. Or if you fancy deep sea angling or the chance to spot whales and dolphins, Bundoran Star is a charter boat service that offers a fabulous choice of trips around Donegal Bay.
OK, so it’s hardly the tropics but when the tide rises and the sun shines you’ll be hard pushed to find a better water sports wonderland on your doorstep. All you need is a spirit of adventure – and possibly a thermal vest.
Other great surfing beaches
The Blue Flag beach of Rossnowlagh, a short hop from Bundoran, is another top choice for water sports action and offers a fun-filled holiday haven. Home to one of Ireland’s biggest surf clubs, Fionn Mc Cool’s, and prime surftastic waves it nonetheless offers beginners a warm welcome.
Heading a little further south, you’ll come to the top surfing beaches of Strandhill. Situated close to the town of Sligo, this is a popular haunt as whenever there’s a swell there’s waves. Likewise, further south down the coast the beaches of Lahinch are a safe bet offering a wide variety of beach and reef breaks and conditions for surfers of all abilities.
However, Lahinch has nightlife as active as its breakers, so prepare for crowds. Experienced surfers can test their metal at Mossies Reef and the ledge out at Gary William point off Brandon Bay beach while nearby Ballybunnion is the home of surfing in Kerry with plenty of schools for beginners. Looking for a challenge? Castle Freek boasts the best waves on the south coast: a long peeling right hander with barrelling sections purely for the brave.