Upon first glance, Bundoran looks like a typical town along the coast of Ireland. Colorful row houses line the main street. They face a waterfront promenade that follows the curve of the bay. Windswept beaches are flanked by rock formations, including natural bridges. They’re constantly pounded by breaking waves. High sea cliffs extend beyond the borders. Plus thick clouds and the constant threat of rain hover over the whole town.
But look closer. There’s usually something, make that a lot of somethings, bobbing in the gray water. They’re surfers donning black wetsuits and straddling brightly colored surfboards. Kids and beginners learn how to handle their boards on Main Beach in front of the promenade. Tullan Strand, to the north, is a consistent break in a gorgeous setting. The Peak, 150 yards offshore, is the most famous wave in the country. Inside Left, just off the Peak, is a low-tide wave where tricky manoeuvers are perfected. While experts head to PMPA and 3D to show off. You just found the surf capital of Ireland.
Bundoran is part of County Donegal. The northernmost part of Ireland is so isolated that it’s known as the Forgotten County. It borders Northern Ireland to the east and a little bit of County Leitrim to the south. Mountains—the Blue Stacks in the south and the Derryveaghs in the north—cover much of its land. Then the North Atlantic Ocean pounds its rugged coastline.
So County Donegal is an odd location for a seaside resort. But that’s exactly what Bundoran became when the railroad arrived in the 19th century. The new station connected Belfast and Dublin to the southernmost town in the county. Wealthy visitors, in search of golden-sand beaches, soon followed. Victorian houses and bathing boxes did, too. Cheery Bundoran thrived until the 1950s when the railroad shut down. A different type of traveler would soon set their sights on the town, though. Surfers officially took over when the European Surfing Championships were held here in 1985.
Bundoran has a casual vibe now. Surf shops, many offering lessons, line the promenade. Hostels, not grand hotels, are just steps from the beach. Bars, which double as post-surfing recovery spots, offer steaming bowls of seafood chowder, bottomless pints of Guinness, and surf cams directed at the big swells. Bundoran is very far from ordinary.