I wouldn’t say that I’m bald, but if I was to wear a turtleneck I’d bear more than a passing resemblance to a roll-on deodorant.
Being follicly challenged has never really bothered me though... that is until I came face-to-face with Thomas the alpaca.
This wonderfully fluffy bundle of cuteness would melt anyone’s heart and has arguably one of the best heads of hair I have ever seen.
Thomas and his alpaca friends proved to be one of the highlights of my recent trip to Derry and Donegal — so much so that we have already booked a return visit for this summer.
I must admit it’s been close to 15 years since my last visit to Derry, so I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. As it turned out, a trip with my family couldn’t really have turned out to be any better.
We stayed at the wonderfully central 4-star City Hotel (cityhotelderry.com), which is just a short stroll from many Derry attractions such as the Guildhall, the Craft Village and the famous Derry Girls’ mural on the side of Badger’s Bar and Restaurant, opposite Foyleside.
Perched on the banks of the River Foyle, the City Hotel also offers great views of the famous Peace Bridge, as well as having a swimming pool which my son Noah absolutely loved.
It has a lively bar area, underground parking and our massive family room couldn’t be beaten for value.
One of my best decisions during the two-day trip was to book a tour with Gleann Doherty (derryguidedtours.com). His hour-long tour around the famous city walls was not only informative and thought-provoking, it was great craic too.
What this man doesn’t know about Derry really isn’t worth knowing. Make sure to give him a shout. You will not be disappointed.
I never knew that the Irish name Doire, from which Derry derives, means ‘Oak Grove’, but that is just one of the many facts and stories he passed on about the city’s history and heritage.
Derry is jam-packed with outstanding restaurants, and we chose Nonnas Wood Fired Pizzas (www.nonnas.pizza) on Shipquay Street as we had heard great things about the food.
This is one place that definitely lives up to its reputation and I can’t imagine that there are many better choices if you’re out with your family.
It’s not expensive and, hand on heart, the Diavolo and Diego pizzas we ordered were the best I’ve had in years.
If you do visit, I also recommend the mac ‘n’ cheese bites — they went straight to my hips but are so worth it.
We decided to visit the Brunswick Movie Bowl in Derry’s Pennyburn Industrial Estate to try our hand at 10-pin bowling for an hour. This is a family favourite in the area — for good reason.
After bowling we headed to Bananas Adventure Park in the same complex, which kept my son entertained for another hour.
He simply couldn’t get enough of the spiral slides, ball pools, scramble nets and rope swings.
Special mention should be made of the staff here too. They are truly brilliant with the children and were incredibly helpful to me when I stupidly left my phone behind and only realised 30 minutes down the road.
We didn’t get a chance to eat at Brunswick or take in a movie, but the centre would be an ideal place to spend a fun-packed day.
With my phone safely back in my pocket, we headed to Ballyliffin.
I remember when I was a boy my parents drove me to this small village on the north-western tip of Inishowen for a day trip.
There, my brothers, sister and I spent hours playing in the dunes at the nearby Pollan Beach.
In all honestly though, it had been so long ago I had forgotten just how gorgeous this area truly is.
Ballyliffin is a place of great natural beauty, and Ballyliffin TownHouse and Spa (ballyliffintownhouse.ie) is definitely the best place to use as a base to sightsee in the area.
I could tell you that the rooms are amazing and the quality of the food is outstanding, but what really makes this hotel stand out from the crowd is the people who own it.
Cathal and Jackie Doherty and their family have completely refurbished the hotel during the pandemic, with a stunning new spa built in the basement level.
Even chatting to Jackie for 10 minutes, you can’t help but be impressed by just how passionate she is about this beautiful corner of Donegal and providing each and every guest with the best experience possible.
After a long day of hiking on the nearby Urris Loop Trail, I can’t imagine anything better than relaxing in one of the outdoor hot tubs at the Tess Rose Ocean Spa.
Seaweed baths are also available for couples, as well as a relaxation hydro bath, eight treatment rooms, and infrared saunas.
My son loves animals, so it was a real treat for him to visit Wild Ireland, a unique wild animal sanctuary located on the Inishowen peninsula.
Just a few centuries ago, Ireland was clothed in a thick blanket of temperate Celtic rainforest. Due to destruction and deforestation, this woodland has all but disappeared, as have the animals that once inhabited it.
However, in this small pocket of remaining Donegal woodland, the hands of time have been rolled back.
The centre offers a sanctuary to many animals which have been exploited and abused in circuses, roadside zoos, the illegal pet trade and laboratories.
Wild Ireland (www.wildireland.org) is also home to many animals which have been persecuted and hunted to extinction Ireland, such as brown bears, wolves, lynx and wild boar.
Children will obviously love walking around, but the centre also tries its best to inspire a new generation of conservationists to ensure the preservation of our wildlife and forests, which in my view is worth the visit alone.
Our penultimate stop in Donegal before heading home brought me face-to-face with my hairy nemesis, Thomas the alpaca.
Wild Alpaca Way (wildalpacaway.com) is a family-run business based in Malin Head. John McGonagle, his wife Patricia and their three sons Danny, Aidan and Sean welcome visitors from all over Ireland to their land at Knockamany Bens.
The views from the hills high above Five Finger Strand are nothing short of spectacular, but you’ll be hard-pressed to take your eyes of your walking companions during the hour-long trek.
Alpacas are curious, friendly and inquisitive creatures with an excellent temperament, so they make ideal walking companions for young children.
Trust me, it is an experience you will not forget for a long time.
We opted to travel on to Malin Head — the most northerly point of mainland Ireland — after saying goodbye to Thomas and his pals, and it was well worth the drive.
As the beginning (or end, depending on how you look at it) of the Wild Atlantic Way, it should be on everyone’s Irish bucket list of places to visit.
Not surprisingly, it was rather blustery, but next time I plan to tackle the nearby coastal walk — and feel the wind in my non-existent hair.
– Encounter Ireland’s wild side in the legendary north west, the gateway to the Wild Atlantic Way and the Causeway Coastal Route. Combine Donegal’s breathtaking scenery with Derry’s vibrant and historic charm.
For more ideas, including shopping, award-winning dining, tours, museums, sightseeing, outdoor adventures and more, see www.bestofnorthwestireland.com