An annual charity walking event in Donegal is fast becoming one of the best ways to explore one of Ireland's most beautiful counties.
The Donegal Camino, a seven-day walking event held at the start of September every year, raised more than €75,000 for Cancer Care West in 2021 and 2022 and is going from strength to strength.
Founded by Donegal native Peggy Stringer in 2020, the Camino highlights the very best of what Donegal has to offer, showcasing the stunning locations littered throughout the county and the togetherness of the people who inhabit it.
Although travelers from all over Ireland and the rest of the world are invited - and indeed welcomed - to take part in the Camino, this is very much a Donegal event. It seems the whole county gets behind the Camino each year, with local businesses and celebrities all doing their part to make sure the event gets the exposure it deserves.
Each year. the Camino begins on the majestic Inishowen Peninsula in Northwest Donegal and weaves its way down through the county before a grand finale at the stunning Sliabh Liag sea cliffs - the tallest sea cliffs in Europe.
In between, the Camino varies each year but always features a mixture of moderately strenuous loop walks. hill walks, and island excursions.
This year's Camino began on Sunday, September 3 with a 16km loop walk around the magnificent Malin Head - Ireland's most northerly point.
Led by award-winning Donegal walking guide John McGroary, the walk began at the stunning Hell's Hole, where parts of the recent "Star Wars" trilogy were filmed, before weaving its way through the peninsula, stopping at scenic locations such as Bamba's Crown and the Malin Coast Guard Station before finishing at a viewpoint overlooking the spectacular Five Fingers Strand.
The following day, more than 50 walkers climbed Knockalla in glorious sunshine and were rewarded with spectacular panoramic views of Lough Swilly and Mulroy Bay.
Punctuated with regular nuggets of information from McGroary and his fellow guides, the hike also allowed walkers to take in the breathtaking views of Portsalon Beach and Ballymastoker Bay.
The Camino continued throughout the week with a loop walk of Horn Head before a sunrise climb to the top of Errigal - Donegal's highest peak - rewarding participants with a stunning vista of the Donegal countryside.
The week concluded with a visit to Tory Island on Thursday and a walk through the seaside area of Maghery in south Donegal on Friday before finishing with the customary climb up the "Pilgrim's Path" to the summit of Sliabh Liag, with walkers faced with the daunting challenge of traversing the iconic "One Man's Pass".
The walks and the spectacular scenery are reason enough to travel north for the Camino. but they make up a small part of the week-long event.
In reality, what sets the Camino apart are the people that one meets along the way.
Every walk lasts roughly six hours and features crowds of between 50 and 80 walkers, meaning it is virtually impossible not to meet new people along the way.
Without the songs and stories along the way, the walks would be just that - walks, albeit stunning walks set against jaw-dropping backdrops.
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Every night, people taking part in the Camino gather in a local family-owned Donegal restaurant for a night of fine food, conversation, and music, giving people a chance to further get to know each other whilst also promoting local businesses.
Glasgow musician Seamus O'Sullivan regularly provided first-class accordion performances as people sat down for dinner in local restaurants such as the Bridge Bar in Ramelton or Lizzie's Diner in Dunfanaghy.
Everyone participating in the Camino has their own personal reasons for doing so; some have lost a family member to cancer and are taking on the Camino as a sort of personal pilgrimage; others see it as an opportunity to explore Donegal, a county often overlooked by Irish and international tourists.
However, everyone participating in the Camino - whether it is for just one day or the full seven-day event - is doing so to raise money and awareness for Cancer Care West, a charity doing noble work in Ireland's northwest.
Annette Hassett, operations manager for Cancer Care West, completed all seven hikes and described the Camino as a "vital" fundraiser for the charity.
"We don't receive any funding for our work in Donegal, so this helps us keep the doors open," Hassett told IrishCentral.
"Last year, between our two support centers in Galway and Letterkenny, we helped over 3,000 people."
Hassett said she was "emotional" to see so many people come out in support of Cancer Care West on the opening day of the Camino and believes the event will help ensure cancer patients and their relatives will continue to get access to vital support.
"Like everybody else, we were decimated during the pandemic, but we found new ways to help people."
Hassett said the charity provides face-to-face counseling for cancer patients and their relatives, adding that the charity has now added Zoom sessions and webinars since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Deirdre McGlone, who helped launch the Camino alongside Peggy Stringer and "Mr. Donegal" Noel Cunningham, told IrishCentral that the support of local businesses and communities has been "marvelous".
"We had no idea that it would become this popular and I'd say we're only at the beginning of something very special for Donegal.
McGlone added that Camino has the potential to highlight the best of what Donegal has to offer and hopes that the event can help boost tourism during the rest of the year when the Camino is not taking place.
"It's really a case of showcasing the beauty of Donegal but also the great hotels and bars and music culture of the county. It shows Donegal as a beautiful package with a ribbon on it and I think more and more people are realizing that they don't necessarily have to go abroad for a hiking holiday.
"I've been involved in tourism for over 35 years and I've always felt that Donegal needs a little bit more support in terms of the brand. We've made great progress in recent years and it really is a hidden gem because it's not overly touristy."
McGlone is not wrong. Donegal boasts some of the most stunning scenery on the island of Ireland and offers tourists an opportunity to take in magnificent vistas without being overwhelmed by large crowds.
The Camino offers the perfect opportunity to see some of the most impressive sights in Donegal while supporting a worthy cause, but it also provides a blueprint for people who cannot travel to Donegal in the first week of September.
Each walk has been meticulously planned and provides walkers with unrivaled views of the Irish countryside and coastline.
Donegal Airport, which is served by twice-daily Aer Lingus flights from Dublin Airport, also allows international tourists to fly to Ireland's northwest via a layover in Dublin all while taking in the most scenic landing in the world.
From the Inishowen Peninsula in the north to Sliabh Liag in the south, Donegal is an ideal location for anyone searching for an active holiday in Ireland and the Camino is doing its level best to highlight that, all while raising vital funds for Cancer Care West.
Click here to donate to the Donegal Camino's Cancer Care West campaign.