Donegal has long been a place renowned for its beautiful and untouched landscapes, its rugged wild Atlantic coastline and its warm hospitality. It offers visitors paths to walk along, a sea to surf on and a sky to gaze the Northern Lights upon. From its blue skies to its Blue Flag beaches, from its golfing greens to its newly proposed greenway, Donegal has so much to offer that it was with little surprise to those in the know that National Geographic Traveller named it ‘The Coolest Place on the Planet for 2017’. But how do you experience Donegal without missing the real Donegal?
The answer to this is quite simple, and it’s aptly named ‘Experience Donegal‘.
Offering all-inclusive sightseeing and walking tour holidays as well as the option of day trips. Experience Donegal’s perfectly produced packages include return flights from Dublin or Glasgow, transfers, accommodation, all meals, all drinks, evening entertainment and travel insurance … what isn’t included are your walking boots – but that’s understandable.
Experience Donegal Holiday Packages include three days, six days or 10 days walking tours. Packages can be adapted to suit you or your groups needs, and discounts are available if you don’t want to go ‘all inclusive’.
Created and owned by Collette Connolly, Collette is confident when she says ‘This is no ordinary walking holiday! It’s The All-Inclusive Trip of a Lifetime’. And if you’re not sold yet on the benefits of booking an all-inclusive Experience Donegal Package Holiday to experience Donegal (just think of the time and effort saved on planning, booking and scheduling, and the disappointment saved when you realised you missed a hidden gem or two) … then let this Q&A session with the inspiring and entrepreneurial creator of Experience Donegal convince you …
Q&A with Collette Connolly of Experience Donegal
So the first question Collette is why Ireland, but more importantly why Donegal … what’s your connection?
Hi Edwina, my connection with Ireland and Donegal in particular goes back many years, long before I was born in fact. My nana Teresa who was born and raised here in Donegal left like so many did at the age of sixteen to go find work in Scotland, and like so many others too she met her future husband Denis who was also a Donegal man. They married and had a family in Glasgow returning throughout the year back to Donegal to visit my nana’s mother Magie who still lived in their family home in Dungloe.
So every year my mum and her siblings went on the long boat journey, (into Derry at that time) to come back and spend the summer and other holidays here in Ireland. That tradition continued as I made my very first trip to Ireland with my nana when I was four year’s old. Which is a very funny tale in itself.
I don’t remember much but we took, can you believe, a plane for the very first time. Now it wasn’t a plane as we would enjoy today, it was a small six person aircraft, where the pilot sat just in front of you with big headphones on and the luggage piled and wobbled just behind. It was a bumpy flight and we weren’t that high off the ground, I knew this due to the odd seagull passing by the window. However the part that amuses us the most from the journey was the fact that my nana was cursing my poor aunt the whole journey, my aunt had asked for my nana to bring over a singer sewing machine, a prized commodity at that time, however due to the turbulent journey my nana had it in her head that this sewing machine was so heavy it was going to bring down the plane. Luckily we made it in one piece, sewing machine and all to enjoy many more annual trips to my nana’s home town over the coming years.
Growing up I always felt lucky that I was going to Ireland to spend my summers here, like I had two lives, one in Scotland and one here, I had made good friends in Ireland over the years, spending six weeks in the summer outside in the fresh air, climbing the mountains, going to the beach, picking mussels, horse riding and well, just having a great summer. While all my friends back in Scotland took trips to Europe I went to Ireland. It was all I knew, it just seemed normal to me but now I can see how truly lucky I was. I love Scotland and it has a special place in my heart of course but Ireland is home and has been since I moved here permanently in 2007. I now live in my nana’s old house in the mountains with views over a beautiful lake. There is a wonderful community spirit and friendliness here that there really is no other place I would rather be.
They say ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ so do you think your passion for Donegal was ignited because you got to see it with fresh eyes each summer as a child?
That’s an interesting thought, might well be. In Scotland I had school and would spend time with my friends after school, but it’s different to spending all the long summer days out in the beautiful landscape of Donegal. I have such wonderful memories as a child of seeing the first lambs in spring, playing on the hay bail’s in summer and even being told off for throwing stones in the lake (less we might kill the fish). There was also something else about coming here, there was a real warmth to the people, everyone talked with each other, they said hi in the street to you, in the stores, in the pubs. There was also a relaxed way of life here that was very different from Scotland. People would stop their cars in the middle of the road to chat with each other, there was no urgency to get anywhere, to be anywhere. This was like a breath of fresh air for a kid growing up in the West Coast of Scotland. So yes, I guess you could say my heart pined a little to return to the magical place.
What made you take the leap to move to Donegal?
I left home when I was sixteen, I always had a sense of adventure and a desire to see the world, perhaps my childhood visits to Donegal were part of that. As a child I was able to immerse myself in a different culture and see there was so much more out there than my home town near Glasgow. So as a young teenager I was ready to go out and see as much as I could, my first stop was New Zealand. I think I wanted to go as far away as possible to see what was on the other side of the planet if you like. New Zealand is a beautiful country, much like home in a way, with mountain ranges, lakes and beaches, just warmer! I then went to Australia and lived and worked there for a couple of years as a waitress and chef. I learned a great deal about good food and good wine and would definitely say this is where my passion for culinary delights began. I moved back to Scotland in 2001 and worked in the care profession for some years. Then I went to the Isle of Wight and Brighton and worked as an outdoor instructor. I returned home again in 2007 and it was then I decided to move to Ireland.
I had always had a great love of music, playing guitar and writing songs and when on a phone call with my cousin that year he persuaded me to come over to Galway to play music for a living. So I did, guitar in hand I took the leap as you say and have never looked back. I spent the next 3-4 years playing and performing in Galway, Kilkenny, Killarney, Cork, Dublin and more. It was a great time and I learned so much about music and honing my craft. Then in 2010 I moved back to Donegal to be closer to my nana, who was in her 80s at this point. She was a marvelous character and I am so glad I got to spend those last few years with her, listening to her great stories of the past. She was a wonderful mentor and forward thinking woman, and I feel so blessed, as without her, in so many ways, I wouldn’t be here today.
Where did the idea of ‘Experience Donegal’ come from?
Well it was quite a long time arriving to be fair. I decided a few years ago to become a host on Airbnb. I had travelled with friends to various places around Europe and we had used Airbnb on many occasions. It was a great concept and it really allowed you to see somewhere new from a local’s perspective. So I decided to use my spare room and host in the summer months. It was an amazing experience and I got to meet people from all around the world; Europe, America, South America, Asia, East Asia. I guess it was a way to meet all these wonderful cultures (I have now hosted 100+ guests) without having to leave Ireland! However, one thing I did notice time and again was that people only came to Donegal for a brief visit, an overnight stay in most cases and I felt it was such a shame that people weren’t getting to know this wonderful county, its landscape and its people. I wanted to create something a little different than the usual tour, I wanted to invite guests to live a kind of day in the life here, where they could enjoy those off the beaten track places, eat mussels straight out of the sea and get to experience the locals and the local musicians in some of my favourite venues that I love to play in. I wanted it to be more than a holiday. I wanted it to be like visiting an old friend in their home town where they take you out and show you all their favourite places. I also wanted it to be a kind of cultural exchange so people from lots of different countries could come and spend the weekend, week or more with each other in one of the many beautiful cottages here. Chatting in the evening together, sharing travel stories, making new friends really. So that’s where the idea came from. Just a desire to share with people this beautiful part of the world in a very unique way.
How have the ‘local’s’ received your new venture?
As I mentioned before there is a great community spirit and comradery here in Donegal. People are always wanting to help each other and work together to help promote the area. Everywhere I go people are always wanting to get involved or be part in some way with the experience. For example, I was looking into transport, you know to get guests from A to B, so I met up with a local guy who runs a bus service, we had a great chat about the things we do and want to do and he gave me great advice on places to go, that I hadn’t thought of as well as things he tried that didn’t work or did work. He even put me in touch with a local girl who started a similar venture a few years ago and who now helps small startup businesses get off the ground. That’s what it is like here, people just want to help, the feeling is, there is more than enough to go around and the more places people have on offer the more people will come. Everywhere I go to ask about my business, people are so excited and willing to get involved. I really couldn’t ask for better.
Who has been your biggest fan?
My biggest fan has always been my nana, unfortunately she passed away in January so it is a real shame she won’t get to see where it goes but I am sure she is looking down waiting to see what happens. She has always been my greatest advocate, she always had ideas on what I should be doing with my music and Airbnb and well, just my life in general, but that’s what nana’s are for. So I guess I want to give it my all for her and take all her great advice and put it into action and hopefully in a few years make her proud.
What part of the ‘Donegal Experience’ package do you think will have the biggest impact on your guests?
I hope to create something that is unique and will be special for each guest in their own way. If my travelling and hosting on Airbnb has taught me anything it’s that everyone is different and looking for different things. Some of my guests come and we play music to the early hours of the morning, some like to chat over an evening meal and a glass of wine by the fire, and one time I had a girl from Switzerland who came to look into her history and the place her Grandmother was from. So for three days we went on a scouting mission to find her ancestors.
We’ve met amazing people including: an author who had written a book about her family and other people who lived on a small island just off the coast. We then managed to get a local guy to take us out on his boat to the island where we got to walk around the old ruins and see where the people had lived. The whole experience was just fantastic and its shows you a great deal about the people here and how they love to help and get involved. The point is I guess is that each experience, I hope, will be unique for each guest, allowing their stay to evolve organically and therefore be special to them for that reason.
How would you describe your ideal guest?
Oh everyone is welcome, absolutely, everyone brings their own individuality to the mix. That’s what makes it so exciting and special. Guests always surprise you and you never know what to expect. You can’t pinpoint people, it just doesn’t work. You may get a young couple who want to just chill in the house for the evening or and older couple that want to go out and paint the town red. There is no ideal guest. That’s the beauty of doing something like this, you get to meet all sorts of people, characters, cultures. It really is the best job in the world. Sharing your little part of the world with people and learning about their little part of the world in exchange. I get to spend my days walking in the beautiful landscape of Donegal, spend the evenings enjoying a great meal with great company and then winding down with a few beers listening to the local talent by a cozy fire.
It’s not really a job, Is it?
For more info, to book a package or contact Collette visit: experiencedonegal.com
To connect with Experience Donegal follow them on Twitter
* All imagery courtesy of Experience Donegal.
I’ll be joining Collette in the coming months to ‘Experience Donegal’ and to say I’m looking forward to it is an understatement! So watch this space and future post!