Where to stay, rent and buy in Rossnowlagh

The tiny Donegal village on the Wild Atlantic Way is a haven for families and surfers


 Rossnowlagh is a tiny village built around its stunning Blue Flag beach, a sweeping stretch of seafront on the south Donegal coast, situated about 18km south of Donegal town.

It has been drawing holidaymakers since bathing became popular at the start of the 20th century and the Donegal Railway Company drew day-trippers from all the surrounding parishes.

The train service ceased in the 1960s, closing this beach link, but the area survived and, as the nearest stretch of coast to some parts of Northern Ireland, Rossnowlagh became a destination for visitors from the Six Counties. The village is also unique in the Republic in that it holds an annual Twelfth of July Orange parade, an event that has taken place since the 1970s and passes peacefully. Last month, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party Arlene Foster attended.

Since the peace process, the Northern market has been declining steadily, down from about 75 per cent of the business to just 25 per cent, says one hotelier. But word had filtered out to the surfing community about the cool and regular waves created by the crescent-shaped beach on even the calmest of days. Dubliners too began to explore the northwest market with new roads reducing the journey time to three hours. The fact that you no longer needed to cross the Border to get there also helped.

More recently, the Wild Atlantic Way campaign has brought fresh attention to Rossnowlag but the main attraction remains a stretch of sand that is better known in Donegal as a strand. The difference is in the type of mica underfoot, a harder variety, the kind that can take cars. Locals have mixed feelings about this access but, on the plus side, it means those of limited mobility can access one of our great natural resources, says one businessman. “Wheelchairs on the beach are a common sight,” he adds.

The real draw here is the “smell of the sea and the sound of the sea”, says Paul Diver, the owner of the Sand House Hotel: “It offers an ever-changing picture, the waves banging against the rocks, and when the tide is out there is mile after mile of ripple-marked sand.” The village has grown up around the 3km beach. Inland from the beach are swathes of houses, most of them holiday homes – it’s reckoned that more than 70 per cent of houses in the area are second homes.

What’s on offer accommodation wise?

The sea views at the Sand House are first class. The hotel looks straight out at the Atlantic and it caters very well to families. If you want to try surfing they’ll have a wetsuit dropped to your room and you can return dripping to your room. A two-night stay B&B plus one evening meal costs €209 per person sharing. (Availability is limited in holiday time.)

Most of the staff live locally and have good local knowledge on what to see and do. If you fancy being good to yourself you could try a Voya treatment in the spa. Voya is a range of products that uses seaweed harvested locally on the Co Sligo coast. During the recession the hotel, which had been owned and run by the Britton family since the 1950s, went into voluntary liquidation. Diver, then managing the hotel for the receivers, made headlines when he managed to raise funds from people he knew that had property in Rossnowlagh to buy the hotel from its receivers.

Up on the bluff is Smugglers Creek, an inn with four or five rooms, offering a more basic form of accommodation. Double rooms costs from €80 to €110 per night B&B. The pricier rooms have a balcony with sea views.

A 25-minute drive north takes you to the location of two fine establishments: the lakeside Harvey’s Point and Lough Eske where a night’s B&B will cost from about €245 to €275.

If you prefer self catering in the village itself there are plenty of places to choose from on Airbnb from a two-bedroom chalet that can sleep four costing €36 per night to an architect-designed cliff-top house with four bedrooms that can sleep 10 costing €217 per night.

There are lovely traditional-style, stone cut cottages, rebuilt by Creevy Co-op, at Cloughboile, about 6km from Rossnowlagh. Three of the five cottages are adjacent to each other and can sleep up to 14. The larger houses, which sleep six, would cost €879 per week in August if there was any availability. But in September a three-night stay costs €299 and €279 respectively for the homes that sleep six and four.

If you fall in love and want to buy, what’s for sale?

Number 9 Beach Cottages is just 400m from the strand and within walking distance of the Sand House Hotel. The stone-façade, two-storey, detached house has dormer-style windows and four bedrooms. It is asking €290,000 through agents Anderson Auctioneers.  

Two kilometres from the beach Dromore Cottage is a refurbished traditional cottage that has been extended and is now light-filled and tastefully decorated. It has four bedrooms, two of which are ensuite. Set on three acres it is asking €440,000 through the same estate agents.

Where to eat, where to have a coffee, ice cream etc

With Killybegs, one of the largest fishing ports in the country, just 20 minutes away you can sure the catch of the day in Rossnowlagh is ocean fresh. At the Glasshouse restaurant at the Sand House, situated on the first floor to take full advantage of the view, try the organic steamed mussels sourced from nearby Buckless.

At Smugglers Creek the kitchen batters its own fish, €14.95, and breads its own scampi, €15.95. If you’re staying at the Sand House the hotel will drive you to Smugglers for dinner. Most diners take a post-prandial walk back along the strand.  

You can sleep and dine at the Gaslight too. During daylight hours, on dry days, the outdoor area is hard to beat. Enjoy a warming bowl of chowder, €6.95, or share a couple of bowls of chicken wings, €7.95. If you’re brave enough you could try the Titanic burger, €16.95, a steak mince and chicken combo that would fill most diners.

Pier restaurant in the nearby Creevy Pier Hotel offers another scenic setting. Its slow-braised ribs are a hit with carnivores at €13.95.

For a coffee pop into Finn McCool’s surf shop and when you want a sweet treat seek out Co Fermanagh-based ice-cream operation, Tickety-moo’s pop-up shop, serving creamy Jersey milk confections.

The Gallery

Barry Britton is a legend in these parts. The illustrator’s comic strip talents inspired Fin McCool, a surfing superhero that his nephew, Neil Britton, has honoured by calling his surf school after the pen and ink creation.

Next door to the surf shop and school is Britton & Daughters studio, open afternoons from Tuesday to Saturday, where you can view Barry’s work which includes Ballyshannon Folk Festival and the Inter Country Surfing Championships posters. If the surf is up a “Gone Surfing” sign will hang in the vitrine. You’ll just have to come back or “look out to sea” to determine how long it might be before he returns, he says laughing. His work can also be seen at Local Hands on the winding main street of nearby Ballyshannon, the birthplace of blues legend Rory Gallagher.

Localhands.ie; Barrybritton.bigcartel.com


The whole idea here is to do very little. But you can’t come here and not try to surf. Rossnowlagh’s 3km-long sandy beach consistently generates waves of one, two and three feet high. “It’s a combination of being immersed, literally, in the water and also in the surrounding nature,” says Neil Britton of Fin McCool surf school. “You also get to use all your muscles without it ever feeling like work.” Lessons cost €35 for adults and €25 for kids. A five-day kids camp costs €95. You can also try stand-up paddle boarding and sea kayaking. Both can be organised by Bundoran-based TurfnSurf.

If you don’t want the briny immersion then the Rossnowlagh Beach Fit programme, run by Adam Devaney, whose motivational sidekick – bulldog Bentley – accompanies him on every training session, is a great way to keep the holiday pounds from piling up. He holds classes in all weathers, encouraging participants to workout barefoot as it puts less stress on the joints. An eight-week course of four sessions per week costs €80 but he also caters to holidaymakers who can drop into any of his four sessions per week for €10 per class or hire him for some one-on-one training, €20 per hour, or group get-togethers, €25 for five people for a one-hour session.

Kitesurfing classes run by the Donegal Kite Surf School take place at Murvagh Beach, about a 12km drive away, where the lessons are geared towards safety and making you independent, says owner David Colleran. A three-hour introduction costs €120 and you’re expected to do about 12-hours training before you can rent equipment and fly solo.

There is a plethora of things to do within a 30-minute drive. Don’t go home without viewing the sea cliffs at Sliabh League – the most touristy thing you can do in the northwest. Journey back via the Glengesh Pass and its hairpin bends and you will think you’re travelling back to the Ireland of your childhood. Lunch at Nancy’s in Ardara, where the flagstone floor and furniture is all an authentic part of the welcome. The seafood is first class. Anyone with the McHugh surname and the photo ID to prove it can enjoy a drink on the house, an initiative the family-run pub launched during the 2013 Gathering celebrations and has continued ever since. Anyone named Nancy can enjoy the same welcome. Arranmore Island is another day trip that will immerse you in the Donegal Gaeltacht.

You can see Irish dancing displays at the Reel Inn in Donegal town, pop into Magee to see what’s trending on the fashion front for autumn/winter or enjoy a proper pint or a ball of malt at the Old Castle bar. Set in the shadow of Red Hugh O’Donnell’s castle its restaurant upstairs serves fresh fish and steaks.  

When the weather closes in you can take the kids to Bundoran, to the amusements at Bundoran Adventure Park where you can enjoy old-school bumper cards and the more high-octane Master Blaster, just some of the adrenalin rushes you can expect. A four-person ticket that gives access to most of the rides costs €60.

If you decide to return home via Enniskillen then take in Belleek Pottery and Visitor Centre which is showing some of the historic works that make the brand a household name.

Finmccoolsurfschool.com; Turfnsurf.ie; Donegalkitesurfschool.ie; beachfit.eu; bundoranadventurepark.com; oldcastlebar.com; belleekpottery.ie

The Walk

The Creevy Coastal Walk is best experienced journeying from south to north so start at the estuary of the Erne in Ballyshannon and walk north, with the Atlantic on your left, to Cloughboile, a few clicks beyond the ruins of Kilbarron Castle, one-time home of Michael O’Cleary, a Franciscan who was chief author of the Annals of the Four Masters. The walk, set up by Creevy Co-op more than 20 years ago, used to extend all the way to Rossnowlagh. Its current distance is about 16km.


Where you might catch someone’s eye and what to say to them?  

All the bars here are situated within hotels or inns. Position yourself at any of the outdoor picnic tables at any of the establishments and open the conversation with a comment about the slow-sinking sunset.

Series concludes

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