The perfect short break in Sligo
Updated: Sep 8, 2021
My second Sligo trip of the summer brought a whole new set of adventures and explorations, but I still managed to revisit a few of my favourite spots from our June trip which you can read about here. This time around, our days were spent hiking and walking through some of Ireland's most beautiful landscapes; evenings saw us jumping into the sea for a refreshing dip in the Atlantic, then sitting to watch the ever-changing light as the sun dropped low in the sky. Let's just say, Sligo does a good sunset. It's a covetable lifestyle and I came away with an even stronger sense of attachment to this lovely county. As a friend said, there's a magic to this place, and I couldn't agree more.
Where to stay:
After a faultless June stay in one of the two fabulous self-catering apartments at Milk Harbour Holidays I knew I'd never want to stay anywhere else again in Sligo and promptly rebooked for this trip. The location is an absolute winner, right on the sea between Streedagh Beach and Mullaghmore, and you have the choice of staying in a luxuriously converted Forge or a Boathouse. Travelling with friends on this occasion, I opted for the two-bedroom Forge with views of Benbulben and the harbour.
Described on their website as a 'home away from home', I can only nod vigorously in agreement. Geraldine and Steve are warm and friendly without being intrusive, and are always on hand to help you plan a trip or to offer tantalising tidbits of information about the surrounding area. It was on their advice that we hiked part of the Sligo Way which was absolutely wonderful - more on that below. The apartments are furnished to an incredibly high-standard, spotlessly clean, and have everything you could possibly need for a comfortable stay.
There's a wood-burning stove to snuggle up in front of in the evenings after your swim and there are plenty of books for guests to enjoy. In the morning, sit outside on the terrace to enjoy your coffee; in the evening you've got ringside seats to some of the best sunsets in town. This was our view on the last night of our stay with the Donegal coastline and mountains in the distance - an extraordinary sight which rendered us speechless.
Rates: from €130 p/night for The Forge and from €110 p/night for the Boathouse. Minimum 3-night stay
What to do
For a hike with a view, hit The Sligo Way
Described by our hosts as having views like Provence, this 16 km stretch of The Sligo Way from Collooney to Slish Wood certainly lived up to its reputation. The higher we climbed, the more spectacular the views on all sides, and the mountain peaks between the trees certainly brought to mind the paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire by Cézanne.
There are a number of options in Collooney to start your walk. We parked at the church (you can't miss it - you can see the spire for miles) and set off from there. This is just one section of a longer 80 km route which starts at Lough Talt on the Sligo / Mayo border, and which continues eastwards to Dromahair, Co Leitrim.
If you start at the church, make sure to look out for some of the sculptures embedded in the external walls. They're really quite beautiful. The early sections of the route are gentle enough: you'll walk beneath a concrete bridge following a river bank, cross an attractive stone bridge and then take the winding road to Union Wood.
A leafy woodland path creates a verdant and peaceful sanctuary with nothing but birdsong to break the silence. Proper walking or hiking boots are essential as the terrain can be quite rocky underfoot and a little uneven, not to mention quite hilly, so a moderate level of fitness is required. There's an option here of taking a detour to Union Rock, noted as a panoramic 360 degree viewing point, but as it was a 4 km roundtrip we opted to keep walking. The views further on more than made up for it.
After about 6 kms, you'll exit Union Wood: at this point you'll find a car park and a rest area with picnic tables if you need a refuel. There's also the option of starting your walk from here. While the early section is leafy and lovely, the final 10 kms have views (and climbs) to take your breath away, in both senses of the word. So if you're short on time, I'd start from here and continue in the direction of Slish Wood.
The next winding path leads up into Ballygawley woods. For those with a poor sense of direction (I'm including myself in that category), never fear: the entire route is very well waymarked with yellow arrows and directional signage pointing the way. There was only point at which we went astray: at a three-way junction, the yellow arrows were missing from the signpost. Make sure to take the left turn here (if you're headed for Slish Wood / Dromahair) and continue up the hill to the next waymarker. The polished stone kilometre-posts are simply beautiful and so unusual: finely sculpted hares appear to leap out of shimmering gold discs at the top of each one.
From here on in, the views just get better and better and despite the dull day, the blue haze on the sunlit mountains in the distance provided a fabulous backdrop to our walk. For the last 10 kms we didn’t meet a single person - for those who crave some solitude, mindfulness will come easily up here with those expansive views across the Sligo countryside. It's utterly breathtaking.
A winding road brings you through some rocky cliffs, eventually leading you to what's described as a ‘tunnel’ of gorse. Shorts-wearers beware - the path is narrow so it's impossible to avoid scratches. And just when you think there are no more surprises, tiny Lough Lumman appears before you, decorated with multicoloured lily pads and glimmering despite the grey sky. It's glorious.
The last stretch swings downhill towards a forest once more where the path becomes a little less pronounced. But before you disappear into the trees one last time, you'll get your first glimpse of beautiful Lough Gill, shimmering in the far distant sunshine.
You'll need one last burst of energy to make the final short but incredibly steep climb on rough terrain, emerging onto a better track and then finally the road. Keep left to follow the waymarkers where you'll eventually end up on the main road, greeted by this fabulous view below.
Turn right on the main road and then take a left to continue into Slish Woods. Past the car park and through the trees, the final stretch will bring you to the shores of lovely Lough Gill. It's a highly recommended hike, lightly-trafficked and with a diverse, sprawling scenery that will make your jaw drop in parts. I'm looking forward to walking the final section to Dromahair on my next visit.
Enjoy the silence at Raghly Harbour
Easy like Sunday morning... I can think of few more peaceful places to while away a lazy few hours than picturesque Raghly Harbour. Tucked away at the tip of a promontory south of Streedagh Point, it has views across Sligo Bay that are hard to beat. And the best bit - you'll most likely have it all to yourself. Beloved of locals, it doesn't attract the large number of visitors that you'll find elsewhere in the county. We sat at the end of the pier, legs dangling over the water, and let the silence of the morning envelop us, the hypnotic lapping of water at the shore the only sound.
The harbour opens out to the vast expanse of the Atlantic but there is an incredible sense of stillness here. The Raghly Harbour looped walk is a gentle one, at just over 2 kms in total, but was a favourite of W.B. Yeats. It's not hard to see why a poet might be attracted to this peaceful place. The circuitous route starts at the harbour, following the quiet country roads and back to your starting point at the harbour. As you make your way around, you are treated to the most fabulous views of the surrounding mountains and Rosses Point peninsula.
Tip: don't attempt to drive down the narrow road all the way to the harbour. Park up at the entrance to the peninsula, before the Raghly Harbour sign. There is space for a few cars on the area between the sea wall and a large mound of stones. Make sure to venture up over the mound to the stoney beach below. Somehow the grey misty day just added to the atmosphere as the horizon line blurred between sea and sky, and sharp jagged areas of land jutted out into the sea.
Walk in the presence of a giant on Benbulben Forest Walk
And by giant, I mean the imposing mass of rock that we fondly know as Benbulben, one of Sligo's most distinctive landmarks. Emerging from an initial forested area, the landscape opens up, granting you an up-close and personal view of Benbulben Head which appears to be covered in a soft green velvet cloak.
This is a very accessible and easy woodland walk (practical info & directions here) and the signposting is excellent throughout. At just 5.5 kms in length, it is looped and mainly flat which makes it perfect for catching up with friends while taking in some truly awesome views. It's worth taking binoculars to zoom in on some of the stunning coastline and Inishmurray Island which is visible in the distance.
For the initial stretch, a curtain of thick forest runs along one side while the other side is dominated by the crags and peaks of Benbulben. Lone trees sway in the breeze, others display a pronounced weather-beaten lean.
After a time the track changes, looping downwards to your left and opening out to some glorious views of Donegal Bay. If you're lucky and visit on a clear day, you'll catch a glimpse of the jagged peaks of Slieve League, Ireland’s highest sea cliffs. You should also be able to see Mullaghmore Head and the imposing Classiebawn Castle, once the holiday home of Lord Mountbatten, in its isolated and quite spectacular location. A strategically placed bench takes advantage of some of the best and most expansive panoramas on the route, definitely a spot where binoculars come in useful.
Following the path along the forest with Benbulben now on your left, you are now treated to some wonderful views over Sligo Bay. Informational signage points out all of the points of interest within your eyeline including the unmistakable mound of Knocknarea, Rosses Point, Coney Island and the Ox Mountains. The scenery throughout the route is diverse and sprawling, and both wild and dramatic, but it's an effort-free physical activity which shouldn't take more than two hours or so, and that's taking into account dawdling and stopping to take photos / pausing to take it all in.
The route is signposted from the main N15 road heading north from Sligo town. There is a small car park at the top of a narrow road but it can be difficult in spots for two cars to pass. To avoid having to reverse, keep your wits about you for approaching cars and give way if there is space to pull in.
Best spots for sea views and sea swimming
With one of the most impressive coastlines on the Wild Atlantic Way, there is no shortage of gorgeous beaches in Sligo and luckily for us, the lovely Streedagh was just a short distance away from our Milk Harbour accommodation. A 3-kilometre sandy beach beloved of swimmers and walkers alike, and with a lifeguards' hut that always reminds me of a Lego house, this is one of my favourite spots in the county. After a day's walking, a refreshing dip in the sea was badly needed.
Having experienced the biting chill of the water on the east coast, I was prepared for a similar experience in the Atlantic. Like brave soldiers we ran into the ocean en-masse, primed for a teeth-shattering temperature. But surprisingly it was more akin to a lukewarm bath - a very pleasant surprise. We luxuriated in those fabulous views of Benbulben and the rugged Donegal coastline as the waves gently rolled over our tired bodies.
On day two, after the somewhat challenging 16 km hike on the Sligo Way, our aching limbs were in need of some further sea therapy. This time we set off in the direction of Mullaghmore Head. The northernmost point in Sligo, it boasts some of the most spectacular views imaginable, especially at sunset.
As we headed for the harbour, the most extraordinary early evening light had enveloped the coastline as a soft-blue haze settled on the water, blurring the outline of the mountains, while big fluffy clouds hovered above. White sailing boats bobbed and gleamed in the water to create a picture-perfect vista. The temptation was too much - within minutes we were parked up and in the water. Bliss!!!!
Okay I may get in trouble with my Sligo friends for drawing attention to this terrific little find but it was too good not to mention. Following the coastal loop around by the harbour and towards Mullaghmore Head, you'll find Bishop's Pool, a natural swimming pool nestled between two craggy rock outcrops. The temperature is a lot colder here than at the main beach, and the water a lot deeper, but you are tucked away in safe swimming territory, no matter how wild the waves are in the open sea. It's basically like a free infinity pool with some of the most life-affirming views imaginable. There's no better time to come than in late evening to watch the ever-changing skies - the sunsets are simply mesmerising.
Cliffoney Beach is another locals' favourite, often described as the 'secret beach'. Hidden from view by some monumental sand dunes as you approach from the roadway, even the signposts give nothing away. But cross over those dunes and paradise awaits. I'm not even exaggerating.
A vast, unspoiled sandy beach stretches out in front of you for miles with views of Mullaghmore and Classiebawn Castle to the north, while the water is crystal-clear. On a sunny day, it looks positively tropical. And the best bit - few tourists visit here so you'll probably have it to yourself.
We experienced it at its best, on a warm summer's day with glorious blue skies and fluffy clouds perched above the mountains. I walked for maybe an hour along the shore, knee-deep in the sun-warmed water and entirely captivated by those incredible views, meeting only one other solitary soul. Just one thing to note - due to strong tides, swimming is not advised. But walking mindfully along the shore is highly recommended...
Another day, another fabulous view... Here we have Strandhill pulling out the big guns on our last evening, gleaming in the late evening sun and trying to convince us to stay. This was our view as we sat outside the lovely Shell's Café, basking in the late August sunshine and tucking into a feed of burgers and fish 'n' chips. The lemon rosemary chicken burger and the veggie burger with halloumi come highly recommended. Don't forget to ask for chips with basil mayo - so good.
A super-relaxing seaweed bath at Voya Seaweed Baths was our final holiday treat. It's a snip at €30 for 50 mins and your skin will thank you for it. The private seaweed bathing room has a combined steam room and shower, and those fabulous Voya products are provided for your use. Make sure to pile the seaweed onto your hair and face also. Your face will glow with health and your hair will feel super-shiny. Always one of my favourite things to do in Sligo, especially when you can sit and enjoy those phenomenal sea views across the road afterwards. Impossible to feel more relaxed.
Check out Sligo's hottest new restaurant at Bridgefoot House
Bridgefoot House opened its doors not long before a global pandemic tragically forced their closure again for well over a year. Thankfully it had already started to develop quite a reputation for excellence so when it reopened for indoor dining, visitors came flocking back. And it's not hard to see why.
This was the standout meal of our trip, and one of the best I've had this summer. Let's start with the service, which was excellent from start to finish. Staff were super-friendly, knowledgeable on all aspects of the menu and very efficient, which stood out in stark contrast to some of my other dining experiences this summer. The décor is contemporary with vibrant pops of colour, and the atmosphere was vibey with a long-missed hum of chatter and laughter at other tables - it's good to be back.
And now for the food. Described on their website as 'tasty affordable food, that is locally sourced', all of their meat, fish and fresh produce are provided by local suppliers along the Wild Atlantic Way, and the ingredients across the board are of the highest quality: you can taste that from the first bite. The huge BBQ prawns were so perfectly sweet and fresh, while the mussels which accompanied my brilliantly titled Kentucky Fried Monkfish were plump and juicy. The warm smoked salmon was perfect and just flaked away under my fork but the biggest surprise of all was the Heirloom Tomato Salad. Who would've thought a tomato salad could taste that good? It's like a big bowl of summer with the most flavoursome tomatoes, fregola sarda (like giant couscous) courgette and melon, drizzled in basil oil. Divine! We also couldn't resist the sides, opting for triple-cooked chips, broccoli and spiced corn ribs. Finger-licking good.
Heroically we managed to make room for dessert. And oh my, were we glad we did. While the Creme Caramel with poached pears was absolutely delicious, it was the other two desserts that nearly destroyed our friendship. A fork fight broke out over the Honeycomb Parfait with popping candy, topped with fresh raspberry. The combination of flavours and textures was flawless and I think it may be one of the best desserts I've had in my life. So there. The gauntlet has been thrown down. The cheesecake is pretty far up the League Table too, served like a scoop of ice-cream with strawberries on an almond crumble.
A terrific spot and one we'll happily return to next time. If we can manage to get a table.