Ferocious salty gusts of wind take hold as soon as we leave Teelin Harbour, a sheltered inlet northwest of Donegal Bay. Heaving, white-capped waves bash the bow and tilt the deck of our small 12-person boat, the Nuala Star, as it ploughs valiantly through the Atlantic’s peaks and troughs like a boisterous fairground ride.
White knuckles clamped to the railing, I curse my gluttony — why did I have that second helping of breakfast? — and stave off impending nausea by assessing the distance back to shore: too far to swim, too late to turn around.
Skipper Paddy reads my mind. “Expect a wee bit of rockin’ and rollin’ today,” he bellows in his cheery Irish brogue. “You’ve come to the Wild Atlantic Way, not the Mild Atlantic Way.” He has a point. I haven’t ventured across Ireland’s wild and windswept coastal road in search of a sunbed vacation by sea. Along with five other would-be seafarers, I’m braving Paddy’s boat trip for the drama of its backdrop and the chance to eyeball the mighty precipice of Sliabh Liag up close.
Rising nearly 2,000ft over the restless surf and spume, Donegal’s spectacular sea cliffs rate among the loftiest in Western Europe. It’s not all about stature, though; the hulking landmass is held in place by a vertical rock face streaked in polychrome hues of ruby, tangerine and ochre.
Through a veil of sea mist, I make out gravity-defying sheep calmly grazing on steep grassy headlands. Tufty sea pinks burst from every crevice, their dainty flowers fastened to the crags by wiry stems. Paddy is clearly in his element as he eases the boat around rocky arches and boulder-strewn bays until Carrigan Head appears on the horizon, marked by the stone ruins of a lone watchtower.
As we make for the shoreline, the roar of the ocean settles to a gentler hiss and fizz. I dare to test my sea legs and am rewarded by a sight of screeching sea birds nose-diving for fresh catch. Even an inquisitive seal pops up for a quick hello, whiskers twitching in welcome.
At Teelin Pier, we meet a father-and-son fishing duo hauling brown crabs and brawny whelks from pot-catches. “Next time you order fish and chips, you’ll know where they’ve come from,” says Paddy as he offers a weathered arm to steady my return to terra firma.
Back in the car, I relax behind the wheel until single-track roads swing me around a hillside sequence of switchback twists and turns. Baffling scenery stretches for miles around; barren and boulder-strewn, a timeless topography cast in elemental shades of green and brown.
At Bunglass lookout point, there’s a solitary wooden cart peddling ice-cream cones and hand-painted beach pebbles. I enjoy a double-scoop over grandstand aerial views of the entire cliffscape. Apart from a handful of hikers, I’m blissfully alone.
By now, the cliffs are contoured by hazy blue skies and the evening’s mellow shadows. I bask in the thrill of discovery while wondering how the brutal splendour of Sliabh Liag has escaped the world’s notice. Right now, I can’t imagine a better spot but I know the Wild Atlantic Way has much more in store.
Boat rides around Sliabh Liag run daily, weather permitting. sliabhleagueboattrips.com