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Inishowen: Ireland's Secret


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by guest columnist Jim Kennedy

Very few tourists know about the Inishowen Peninsula. And that's just fine with me. It's so beautiful that I hope it never gets discovered. I'm selfish.

On the 13th day of my 36 day trip I left (London)Derry, crossing the River Foyle, and rode to Malin Head in County Donegal. The 30+ mile ride from Londonderry to Malin Head will take you through some hills, but nothing alpine. The ever-changing scenery keeps you going, hills or level, past the tidal flats, the rough countryside, the seacoast, all with very little traffic on the road. After a couple of stops for ice cream and tea, I arrived in Malin Head, latitude 55 23'. And that's as far north as you can go on a bike in Ireland.

An ancient-looking tower high on a hill served an 18th century insurance company as an observation post for keeping track of their ships as they rounded the point. Now it gives tourists a magnificent view of the seacoast. I booked into the Sand Rock Hostel, nicknamed "the Rolls--Royce of hostels" not only for its beautiful location on the coast, but for the polished woodwork walls and floors, the comfy, plush furniture, and its well-equipped kitchen. I consider it the nicest hostel I have stayed in over several decades of overseas bike touring. The rate is superb at 11.50 to 13.50 Euros a night.

After lazing over tea and cookies, I strolled down to the seashore right in front of the hostel and pried a mess of limpets off the wet rocks to supplement my pasta sauce for the night's dinner. I am sure the limpets went to a better end than their empty, meaningless existence: a futile clinging to rocks. They were splendid after being sauteed in olive oil with garlic and mushrooms.

The next day I cycled the loop around Malin Head, several miles along the coast road and then up into the mountains, along their high spine, and then a fast downhill return. Along the loop I spotted a bicycle racing group set up in a car park, apparently so the riders could train for something even more serious. Tom, a German cyclist was staying at Sand Rock, too, and he showed me the single pannier he had fashioned from a 20-liter heavy plastic jerry can. An excellent improvisation, it was lighter and stronger than the $300. models I had looked at in the States. And that excellence was Tom's undoing. He had loaded his pannier with 30+ kilos of gear, thereby breaking his antique cast-aluminum carrier rack in a couple of places. Rodney, the hostel warden, gave Tom some monofilament line to wrap around the broken sections in hopes that it would hold the rack together. Good luck, Tom!

Late that afternoon I rode to the Fishermen's Co-Op, less than a mile from the hostel. If you are there when the boats return from their day's fishing, you can buy fish or crabs or even lobsters, flopping or fighting fresh, for dirt-cheap prices. I asked one skipper for a crab and he reached into a live-tank to pull out a kilo+ beast, angry, snapping its claws, very pissed at the world. "One pound," the man announced. He meant one Irish punt, about $1.20. The crab's actual weight went well over two pounds. I gladly handed him the money, then balanced my crab on the handlebars, not so gladly. The enraged creature busied itself by trying to bite off my brake levers. Better that than my fingers.

Rodney, the hostel warden, saw me coming with my passenger, by now less feisty from dehydration and the bumpy ride, and got the pot boiling on the stove. My crab went well with a lemon-zest and olive-oil dip.

Rested up from 3 days at Ireland's nicest hostel, I then headed back south to L'Derry.

The Inishowen Peninsula, once the ancient territory of the O'Dohertys, is approximately twenty-six miles in length and about the same distance across. It slightly resembles the state of Maine, and its main town is Buncrana, long a center for the textile industry. It comprises an area of about 309 square miles with its northern shore the wild Atlantic Ocean. Lough Swilly forms its western boundary and Lough Foyle its eastern.

Grianan an Aileach, the ancient Temple of the Sun christianized by St. Patrick, lies at the base of Greenan mountain in the southern part of the peninsula. Founded by the Druids, this ring fort dates back to more than 2000 years B.C. It is just one of many stone antiquities in this most beautiful of places.

Castles abound, and the most famous is the Norman castle at Greencastle which was established by Richard de Burgo in 1305.

Until next time.

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