Fermanagh is Ireland’s lakeland paradise – the largest navigable and most eye-catching inland waterway in Europe – its centre of attraction the magnificent 300 square mile island-studded Lough Erne. These waterways, full of pleasure, peace and tranquillity have always had a glowing reputation among international cruising and angling enthusiasts, but Fermanagh’s many and subtle delights are now tempting even those with non-watery pursuits on their mind.
This is also a land of impressive and quirky choices of place to rest your head – castles, stately homes, lakeside cottages, B&Bs, your own island, modern hotels, cabin cruisers and riverboats – all complementing the stunning natural beauty and fascinating Irish heritage.
For those of a foodie disposition, for example, the tagline ‘restaurant with rooms’ is bound to intrigue. Cue the Watermill Restaurant with Rooms at Lisnaskea, which combines traditional charm with modern ‘French with an Irish twist’ cuisine in a fabulous waterside setting. With a quaint and undulating thatched roof, this restaurant cum fishing lodge looks like it’s been transplanted from the set of Lord of the Rings.
Run by French-born Pascal Brissaud, who fell in love with the lakelands on a fishing holiday, the Watermill boasts a sumptuous menu showcasing the finest local produce. While you’re enjoying local beef, lobster and vegetables grown in the kitchen garden, you can cast your eye over the superb views of Lough Erne – and stay in one of the spacious en-suite rooms. Self catering cottages are also available and, following Pascal’s passion, angling holidays are a speciality.
Stay on your own island
On the other side of the county, the 75 acre Lusty Beg Island offers a very different leisure and pleasure experience. You can only get on and off Lusty Beg via your own boat or by a small ferry laid on by the proprietors. Call in if you are out and about on the lakes to enjoy a pint of perfectly poured Guinness in the bar while waiting to be seated at the Island Restaurant, or book ahead and stay as long as you please in one of the three and four-star guest lodges or one of the 40 en-suite B&B rooms.
For deluxe accommodation and fine dining in a more urban environment, Fermanagh’s largest town, Enniskillen has plenty for all tastes and budgets. Perched on an island between Upper Lough Erne and Lower Lough Erne, and built around a fifteenth-century stone castle, Enniskillen is a bustling market town with an array of traditional Irish pubs, eateries and hotels. The Westville is the town’s most recently opened four-star boutique hotel. It’s a stone´s throw from all Enniskillen has to offer, shops, crafts, leisure facilities, National Trust properties, golf courses, Enniskillen Castle and of course the lakes.
About eight miles from Enniskillen, Florence Court, a Georgian mansion and former seat of the Earls of Enniskillen is worth at least a day’s visit – and uniquely, you can now stay longer and enjoy the ambience of a past era in its Men’s Way four-star apartment, recently made available by the National Trust, which owns and runs the house. The apartment once served as living quarters for the mansion’s male servants. Situated in Florence Court’s Laundry Yard it has hardly been touched by the twentieth century, never mind the twenty-first. Renovated to modern standards, while retaining its old world charm, it can accommodate up to four. The exceptionally pretty Rose Cottage, situated within Florence Court’s idyllic walled garden also offers self-catering stays for up to four. The welcoming eighteenth-century house meanwhile offers experiences for all the family in a peaceful setting with backdrops of dramatic mountains and forests. There are tours, glorious walks and stunning vistas all around.
Book the West Wing
Or how about hiring the West Wing of your own castle for a memorable five-star, spoil-yourself self-catering stay in the lakelands? Crom Castle is a tranquil nineteenth-century Victorian castle set within a 1,900-acre estate. Privately owned by the Crichton family, Earls of Erne, they let the superior accommodation of their castle’s West Wing suite. It can take parties of up to 12 at a time and it has a reputation for radiating a welcoming atmosphere where guests can feel that they are staying in someone’s home.
Six TV-free bedrooms are all decorated in a different style and there are magnificent views of the lakes from the drawing room. There’s also a rowing boat for messing about on the water. You might bump into visitors strolling through the grounds – the National Trust owns them – but the castle and the land immediately surrounding it (tennis court included) are still private. When the estate closes to the public at 6.00pm you have the run of one of the most beautiful corners of Ireland.
Out and about in Fermanagh
A tour of Fermanagh’s many National Trust properties gives a marvellous insight into the county’s past. One property, located just outside Enniskillen, is the eighteenth-century Castle Coole. Set in a wooded landscape park, it’s regarded as one of Ireland´s finest neo-classical houses. Highlights of a tour include its luxurious Regency décor and the State Bedroom, originally prepared for a visit from King George IV. Visitors can also enjoy walks in the grounds and see the Grand Yard, the Servants´ Tunnel, the recently restored Ice House, dairy, stables, laundry house and display room, which includes the Belmore Private Coach.
No trip to Fermanagh would be complete without paying a visit to the famed UNESCO-recognised Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark where stalactites shimmer above subterranean rivers. Located amid the rugged uplands and rolling lowlands of counties Fermanagh and Cavan, the geopark boasts some of Ireland’s finest geological wonders and allows curious visitors to explore 650 million years of natural history.
The caves are widely regarded as a world-class natural attraction. Guided tours take you on an exploration of this magnificent underworld, first by boat past soaring rocky walls along a subterranean river and, later, walking past bewitching arrays of glistening stalactites, stalagmites and flowstones. Tours take approximately 75 minutes and there is a souvenir shop, restaurant, exhibition area and an audio visual theatre.
More adventures are available for anyone who wants a bird’s eye view of the county’s lakelands. Lakeland Seaplane tours offer a range of bespoke tours, picking guests up at major airports or local lakeside jetties and flying them to their chosen destination. The luxury five-star Loch Erne Resort, home of a Nick Faldo-designed 18-hole golf course, also runs a number of seaplane and helicopter tours, from a half-hour spin round the lakes to full day excursions to other iconic Irish destinations such as the Giant’s Causeway.
Another Fermanagh attraction with a global reputation is Belleek Pottery. Founded in 1857 and rated as one of Ireland’s top five visitor attractions, the pottery overlooks the River Erne and gives a fascinating insight into the art of the master craftsman who make the world-famous Belleek fine china.
The pottery recently welcomed home its first ever visitor book, presumed lost, but which turned up in Tipperary. Dating from October 1868 it shows that among the early visitors to the pottery was the 5th Earl Spencer, the great grand uncle of the late Princess Diana. The current Earl Spencer, brother of Princess Diana and uncle to recently married Prince William, has written a letter congratulating the pottery on the return of the book and confirming his relative’s visit. His letter is displayed alongside the visitor’s book at the pottery.
There’s plenty more to be found in Fermanagh simply by grabbing a map and setting off on foot, cycle or boat. Boats provide one of the best ways to explore the area and there are boats of all descriptions, including modern, well-equipped cabin cruisers, available to hire from various operators. Well facilitated moorings are dotted conveniently throughout the waterways. You can moor overnight and frequently get that unique Fermanagh experience – the run of a whole island to yourself.