Day 3 – Ireland East to West – Downpatrick to Glenveagh
The shortest route from Newcastle to Glenveagh takes about three hours and immerses you in the heart of the Irish countryside. You travel from the outskirts of Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, into the center of Gaeltacht, the Irish Gaelic-speaking region of Ireland.
You can see the transition as soon as you leave the seaside. The farther west you drive, the fewer houses you see. This route takes you by the Ulster American Folk Park, an immersive, interactive living museum that tells the story of Irish immigration to America. Alternatively, you could take an hour’s detour north to see the Giant’s Causeway, 40,000 interlocking basalt columns at the ocean’s edge.
Once again, there’s a seamless border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland at the Foyle River. You might not notice it at all, except the road signs switch to metric and are written in Gaelic first, with English as a secondary text. While that’s the standard for all of the Republic, it’s particularly significant in the Gaeltacht regions.
You also will notice the weather and landscape change as you enter the Atlantic coastal zone. The green pastures out your window change to peat bogs as you turn into the oddly named Glenveagh (glen of the birches) National Park.
There must have been a time when trees covered this valley, but that was a long time ago. It was long before John George Adair built Glenveagh Castle, his palatial country estate, and drove off the local villagers on one cold and brutal morning. It wasn’t long before invasive rhododendrons escaped his manicured gardens and began ravaging the hillside.
Visitors can still see the castle, gardens (one of Ireland’s finest), and vestiges of temperate rainforests in microclimate pockets around Lough Veagh that contributed to this estate becoming a National Park. You can also ride bikes through the park, learn more about history, and see how biologists are restoring the valley to its previous glory.
Logistically, you’ll want to plan lunch at the park at either the Synge & Byrne Cafe by the visitor center or at the tearoom by the castle and gardens. Leave the park in the late afternoon to enjoy the viewpoint above Dunlewey Lough before arriving at Gweedore for the night. An Chúirt Hotel is a 4-star hotel along the Clady river that offers comfortable beds and a delightful on-premise restaurant.