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ULSTERBUS DAYTOURS - Rosapenna & Atlantic Drive, Donegal

Local travel writer COLIN McALPIN heads way out west as he continues his Ulsterbus Daytours travels. This time it's Rosapenna & Atlantic Drive, Donegal.

It’s not easy herding 47 eager and excited daytrippers around, especially the ones who find the scenery – and the shopping – so enticing that they don’t realise when the driver says “Be back at 3.15” he means it … not 3.30, not 3.45, not 4.00.

My fellow-passengers on the trip to the wild Atlantic coast of Donegal asked me to pass this message along to future travellers. It helps keep the driver sane. There is always a set pattern to these wonderful trips: on first boarding the coach people stick to their own company, after the first comfort stop it develops into a travelling, all-chatter and laughter party.

Our driver was the dapper Malachy McGarry, who has been with Ulsterbus for 27 years, initially working out of the Craigavon and Banbridge depots on service runs before, since l989, joining the Tours team. He does a lot of Private Hire runs but has also taken passengers around the Continent, Scotland and Ireland.

From Lurgan, he’s a big supporter of these day tours: “They’re terrific value and they give visitors a great opportunity to see places they wouldn’t normally think of visiting. They’re a cheap way of exploring the North.”

You certainly do see Ulster at its summery finest, this time racing along the M2 past Antrim and Toome, through the sweeping, sun-drenched Glenshane Pass, Dungiven – famous for its 11th century Augustinian priory, where there’s a stone said to be able to cure warts, and the castle, now a restaurant, built in the era of James 1st (on the left on the main street) - to the first brief comfort stop in Derry City.

Off again, alongside the River Foyle, towards the border and Letterkenny in Donegal – the town with the longest main street in Ireland. Donegal looks magnificent in the summer, all gently swaying trees dappling the winding roads, misty blue mountains in the distance, lovely little towns and villages like Ramelton, Rathmullan, Portsalon, Kerrykeel, Milford and Carrickart, with universal flower-filled gardens and neatly-trimmed lawns. Pretty seems inadequate to describe a Donegal summer, specially around Lough Swilly and Mulroy Bay.

But, and darn this credit crunch, what shocks is the number of beautiful newly-built or partly-built houses lying empty. If nobody else wants them I know 47 people who would happily move in.

It takes some skill on the part of a driver to get a large coach around some of the roads we encountered on the journey… I get the feeling half of us enjoyed the thrill of teetering on the edge of a drop into a bay far below and the other half covered their eyes and hoped for the best. Malachy simply got on with it – nothing deters an Ulsterbus driver – and took us into Portsalon down a helter-skelter, corkscrew winding road – well, really a narrow, twisting lane – along a quite stunning golden-yellow beach.

It’s interesting to see so many wonderful beaches with so few people on them. Why go to Spain to sit on your five inches of beach, shoulder-to-shoulder with others when you could have the entire Donegal coastline practically to yourself? We stopped for lunch at Milford Inn Hotel, set in some of the most stunning countryside and a mere 10 minutes from Letterkenny (by the more direct, less scenic, route). The food, even if it had to be served school canteen style, was excellent and very reasonable.

And then we were ready for our Atlantic Drive around the Rosguill Peninsula, first up along the narrow main street of Milford to the Rosapenna area of Sheep Haven Bay (signs can be confusing in Donegal: I saw Ramelton-Rathmelton, Carrickart-Carrigart, Sheephaven Bay-Sheep Haven Bay, Milford-Millford), Milford is named after Scottish mercenaries who came across to help the natives fight the English.

Then to the Downings resort – traditional cottages sharing the rugged landscape with brightly-painted new holiday homes, and a fine golf course, more endless beaches – and plenty of photo-ops.

This is truly a place of beauty and wonder – with the Atlantic rollers crashing over the rocks, sailing boats bobbing out in the water, and the realisation that the next stop West was New York and Boston.

On the way back to Letterkenny you can see to the right Doe Castle, first mentioned in 1544 and the refuge for Spanish sailors washed ashore from the ill-fated Armada in l588. Back in Letterkenny we had a stop to allow for the required shopping… and the late arrival back at the coach of some tardy members of the party… suitably greeted with applause.

Of course, after all this preaching, I was the last back on the coach in Derry. He who is without sin, and all that. A beautiful day of hot sunshine, unforgettable scenery and friendly companions. And back to the Daytours brochure for my next jaunt.

Ulsterbus has a wide range of Daytours, including Family Days Out, Events, Cruises and Shopping Trips, as well as Scenic Tours from several depots. For full details visit: www.translink.com or call the Travel Centre on: 028 9033 7004.

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