While the counties of Northern Ireland - Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, London/Derry and Tyrone - were part of the ancient kingdom of Ulster, today only three Ulster counties remain within the Republic of Ireland. While they share a similar accent with Northern Ireland, the Ulster speech is softer and slower than the more famous Belfast brogue. The pace is mellower, too.
The terrain of Cavan and Monaghan is very differant from Donegal. Cavan and Monaghan straddle the Irish midlands. Monaghan's gentle green hills that make excellent terrain for horseriding roll westward towards the drumlins and 365 lakes of Cavan. Cavan is long and horizontal and sprawls; in West Cavan rugged mountains rise culminating in the limestone Cavan Burren that is tucked like a chick under Fermanagh's arm.
Donegal is the second largest county in Ireland and has just as varied a terrain. What is unmistakable is it's long coastline that ducks and dives in and out of the land. The Wild Atlantic Way is a coastal delight and large tourist draw.
But here are four distinctive favorites that this part of Ireland has going for it.
1) Woodlands Ireland is reputed to be much deforested, but still there are some wonderful forest parks to explore in each of the counties. Kingscourt's demesne does not differentiate county boundaries and some entrances are via Monaghan and other from Cavan. In the far west of County Cavan, the Cavan Burren Park is part of the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark. While it may be more famous for its megaliths and geology, the forest offers a bounty of bilberries and mushrooms in season, as well as interesting glacial erratics and neolithic rock art carvings. Donegal boasts a Forest in Glenveigh National Foest, with acres of trails to explore on foot or electric bike. The Castle is open to the public and the gardens are interesting in that they are nurtured on wild moorland. They also have a large collection of trees native to the southern hemisphere.
2) Inishowen Donegal has more than one peninsula but Inishowen has a romance all its own.It is also the largest in the whole of Ireland. Malin Head is the most northerly point in Ireland. The beaches of Doagh Isle, which is not an island at all, include massive cave like rocks. The traditional music of Buncrana is renowned nationally and internationally. If you want to get a flavor of the magical draw of the place try Joseph O'Connor's novel "Inishowen."
3)Foodie Heaven This is a bit of a secret, but with such high quality local ingredients, this part of Ireland has a very well-stocked pantry of fine food. There are local cheese makers in Cavan, beekeepers, jam and jelly makers. The Atlantic fish stock is celebrated in festivals in Killybegs, Donegal. One of Ireland's famed television chefs, Nevan Maguire, has his restaurant, MacNean House, and the MacNean Cookery School in West Cavan. Artisan and organic fare is readily available. You will not go hungry!
4) Surfer Paradise Donegal, in particular, Bundoran, has some of the best surfing in Ireland. Along with some north Sligo beaches just across the countyline, you have some of the best surfing beaches in Ireland. Donegal Bay has world class waves. But the chilly Atlantic does require you to pack a wetsuit. Donegal now has a burgeoning surf tourist base.
Whether it is lakes or rugged Atlantic coastline, woods or low-key county towns, the Ulster counties of the Republic of Ireland have much to offer and surprise a visitor to Ireland.