by Jamie Ball, The Telegraph, May 1, 2019
“It is so pleasant and fruitful a country that if I should make a full description thereof, it would be taken for a poetical fiction than a true and serious narration,” wrote Sir John Davies, Attorney-General of Queen Elizabeth I, of Ulster’s County Fermanagh in 1609.
“The fresh lake called Lough Erne, being more than 40 miles in length, and abounding fresh-water fish of all kinds, and containing a hundred dispersed islands, divides that country into two parts.”
Four centuries on and little has changed in this little liquid gem of Northern Ireland. No poetical fiction, the varicose, lake-drumlin double act of the border counties is still not one of the island’s chest-thumping trophy sites – though a mere afternoon here will have you wondering why.
Upper Lough Erne is the more southern, narrower lake, while the Lower Lough is vastly wider and longer. These twin lakes of Lough Erne cover one-third of Fermanagh, with Enniskillen – Ireland’s only island town – straddling the two.
Get out on the water
A short break is the perfect way to explore these picturesque lakelands, but make sure you get out on the water. Lower Lough Erne has an overflow of first-rate visitor attractions and facilities along its shores, with jetties banking some of its boundless islands. A small boat for up to six people can be hired from Manor Marine (£65 for four hours, £95 for eight hours; manormarine.com/day-boat-hire) with no prior experience required.
An even more memorable experience, however, is kayaking with Blue Green Yonder (from £20; bluegreenyonder.com). Head out on a single or multi-person canoe for the round tower and monastic ruins of Devenish Island, almost an hour’s paddle from Enniskillen. Founded by Saint Molaise in the 6th century, Devenish Island was plundered by the Vikings and later burnt to blazes before flourishing in the Middle Ages as a priory and parish church.
Alternatively, you can take the Fermanagh Paddle Tour to Inish Davar, further up the eastern lakeshore, and sample its spread of wild flowers and dappled tree cover awash with bird song.
While there may be a certain irony in travelling to one gorgeously green and blue parcel of the Emerald Isle to disappear, troll-like, underground for an hour or more, a visit to the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark really is worthwhile (adults £11, children £7.50; marblearchcavesgeopark.com).
The Unesco geopark guides visitors through a Tolkienesque underworld of rivers, waterfalls, twisting passages and stalactite-covered chambers. Exploration of the caves is by guided tours only so booking in advance is strongly advised.
Back on dry land
Ulster can be an odd fish; in places, neither neatly fitting the more-defined cultural or visual lexicon of Ireland or Britain. Which is all the more reason to visit. Take the landscape. While decidedly Irish, the typography of the province is idiosyncratically colonial.
For Fermanagh, there’s the offcuts of a fertile landscape that once upheld an ancient Gaelic civilisation and nobility, upon which was imprinted the stoic, ordered stamp that was the motif of the brutal colonial “cleansing” of the Elizabethan plantation (hence Sir John Davies’ visit in 1609).
The rich array of stately homes tucked within demesne landscapes, which filter out from the lakes’ fertile basins, embody that colonial watermark; places where don’t-mess-with-me walls, gates and lodges insulate softer woodlands, deer-riddled parklands and pastures all framed around lime avenues, yew walks, walled gardens, boat houses and elegant piles set to sparkling, mountain-clad backdrops.
Thankfully, many of these demesnes are in the far-sighted care of the National Trust, and one must-see is the Crom Estate aligning the east bank of the Upper Lough, south of Enniskillen (adults £5.85, children £2.93; nationaltrust.org.uk/crom). Kissing the serpentine weave of this more intimate lough, the 2,000-acre picturesque demesne of the Crom Estate packs in ancient woodland, tranquil islands, twee estate cottages and the crumbling Crom Castle.
Less than 10 miles west of the Upper Lough is Florence Court, another elegant demesne (adults £6.30, children £3.15; nationaltrust.org.uk/florence-court). One of Ulster's most renowned 18th-century houses, Florence Court is engulfed by humongous gardens, sweeping parkland and woodlands galore, sporting multi-mile walks to the gripping backdrop of the Cuilcagh Mountains; a scene, “should I make a full description thereof, it would be taken for a poetical fiction than a true and serious narration.”
Where to stay
Set on the eastern lakeshore of Lower Erne, the Manor Country House Hotel is about seven miles north of Enniskillen and lords over the lakeland splendour. It offers the worthy Belleek Restaurant serving fine traditional fare, a couple of homely bars and a pool (from £80 per night; manorhousecountryhotel.com).
For those looking for a bit of luxury, then Lough Erne Resort is a superb option about six miles northwest of Enniskillen. The seasonal food at The Catalina alone is worth the stay (from £115 per night, four-course dinner £48; lougherneresort.com).
Where to eat
Newly launched, the Enniskillen Taste Experience is a feast of food and drink showcasing the best of local produce and cuisine. A guided walking tour stopping at various locations through the town (from £45 per person; Saturdays; enniskillentasteexperience.com).
Tucked in the heart of Enniskillen, and beneath the old-world boozer of Blakes of the Hollow (a must for Game of Thrones fans), Café Merlot is a highly-recommended fine dining experience for lunch or dinner with excellent food, a relaxed atmosphere and genuinely warm welcome (mains from £13; cafemerlot.co.uk).
How to get there
Enniskillen is around a 90-minute drive from Belfast airport, and around two hours from Dublin airport.