County Fermanagh perfectly marries understated elegance with adrenaline-pumping adventure writes Domhnall O’Donoghue.
Whatever you do, don’t touch the Belleek!” my mother would always shout anytime my siblings and I dared enter the guest bedroom growing up. There, her prized vase, cream with green flourishes around the base, took pride of place on the windowsill, carefully positioned to avoid any damaging sun rays while also grabbing the attention of visitors as they entered the room.
Some 25 years later, I find myself on a whistle-stop expedition of County Fermanagh and the first activity on the itinerary is a tour of the Belleek Pottery factory, and, needless to say, I’m immediately reminded of my mother’s previous hysteria! However, as I observe the detail and precision implemented by the talented team while they create the delicate ceramics, I finally understand why the matriarch was so enraptured with her vase.
My guide reveals that the original pieces are designed and handcrafted using skills “that have been passed down from generation to generation for over 160 years.” I’m also told that an impressive 100,000 pieces of pottery are produced annually with every single item passing through 16 pairs of hands to ensure that the world-renowned Belleek standard is met. If not, the scrap heap awaits!
Maura, one of the potters, who we meet as she makes dainty floral decorations that will eventually sit along the edges of a basket, jokes that there’s one downside to working for Belleek - her unique skills are often called upon by friends to make cakes for special occasions!
And speaking of special occasions, they are certainly catered for by Boatyard Distillery, which is my next stop. It’s located some 14 miles east along the stunning Lough Erne. In just three short years, this local business has developed a top-notch reputation amongst those hard-to-please gin and vodka connoisseurs. As the drinks flow, founder Joe McGirr describes the enterprise as a family affair, detailing everyone’s involvement in not only the day-to-day running of the business but also in the design of their inventively presented lakeside premises.
With a background in farming, Joe explains that while he has long since swapped dairy for alcohol production, his agricultural roots are very much evident in his new endeavors - for instance, their gin botanical, Sweet Gale, is foraged from the family bog.
“My grandad, Brian, was a plowing contractor and my father, Michael, was a dairy and beef farmer,” he explains. “It’s great to now be able to give something back to the land. All of our spent grain from our spirits go back to the land and the cows - and we claim the happiest cows in Ireland!”
Knee-deep in gin and tonic, it soon emerges that it’s not just the cattle who Boatyard Distillery keeps happy! Luckily, my lodgings for the evening are nearby - Enniskillen’s five-star Lough Erne Resort. Boasting spectacular views of the Fermanagh Lakelands, it quickly becomes apparent why this hotel was chosen to host the 2013 G8 Summit, welcoming guests including Barack Obama, François Hollande, Angela Merkel, David Cameron and Enda Kenny. I quickly discover that it’s not just political titans who receive star treatment - even mere mortals like yours truly.
After checking in, I resist the temptation to channel my inner Nick Faldo or Rory McIlroy on the two championship golf courses and, instead, abandon my bags in my bedroom before unwinding in the resort’s Thai spa, making use of the thermal suite and infinity pool, the perfect place to work up an appetite.
That evening, I dine in their Catalina restaurant and allow the charming Noel McMeel to wow me with his culinary expertise. Similar to the Boatyard’s Joe McGirr, McMeel - who won Best Chef in Ulster 2018 - grew up on a dairy farm and tells me that “my mother’s traditional home cooking has influenced my menus”. He’s constantly drawing upon the recipes he learned from her as a youngster.
A highlight is his delicious indigenous starter, which comprises of ingredients locally sourced, smoked Lough Neagh eel, comber potato purée, seared Irish scallop and Armagh brambly apple.
The next morning, I find myself going underground - and not just as a result of the excess weight I’m carrying following a large breakfast in the hotel! The Marble Arch Caves are one of Europe’s finest show caves, first explored in 1895 by Frenchman Edouard Alfred Martel, accompanied by Dublin-born scientist Lyster Jameson. The fearless pioneers were, understandably, amazed by what they uncovered. I venture into this fascinating, natural underworld of rivers, winding passages and lofty chambers, I, too, am rendered speechless.
The exciting tour includes a boat ride through huge caverns, reminding me, once more, of my childhood days and those many occasions when I dreamed of being Indiana Jones or a character in The Goonies.
Indeed, my school days are again recalled - notably geography class - as we navigate the stalactites and stalagmites, and I laugh on hearing several of the nicknames given by locals to some of the subterranean features including “the elephant”, “the porridge” and the “singing frog and his microphone”!
Outside, I acclimatize to the natural daylight by exploring nearby Cladagh Glen, which surrounds the caves - its cascading waterfall being especially Instagram-friendly. For those looking for a hike that’s a little more demanding on the trotters, try the isolated but beautiful Cuilcagh Legnabrocky Trail - the starting point is just a short drive from Marble Arch Caves. If you persevere to the end, you’ll be greeted by the now-famous wooden boardwalk, known locally as the Stairway to Heaven, which assists walkers to the summit of the mountain.
Fermanagh’s natural landscape is also well showcased in the grounds of the stunning Georgian Florence Court. The exquisite property is the ideal location for history lovers and, particularly, nature enthusiasts thanks to the lush woodlands and pretty gardens, which are largely maintained by green-fingered volunteers.
Currently, under the control of the National Trust, Florence Court was built in the 18th century by the Cole family - powerful yet romantic landowners given the fact that Sir John Cole named the property after his wife, Florence Bourchier Wray. In a fitting tribute to its amorous origins, there’s a wedding taking place during my visit so, instead, so I take myself to another estate also brilliantly preserved by the Trust - Castle Coole, one of Ireland’s finest examples of Neo-classical houses.
Recognizable from the recent film version of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, starring Jessica Chastain and our own Colin Farrell, the palace was built by the first Earl of Belmore, a politician who, by all accounts, was not particularly skilled when it came to managing money as the construction went over budget - several times over - resulting in long-lasting familial bankruptcy that only ended when the estate was eventually taken over by the Trust in the 20th century.
On the 90-minute tour, my senses are treated to a feast of magnificent décor and furniture, including ornate plasterwork ceilings by Joseph Rose, the drawing-room piano - said to be priceless - and the extravagant State bed, which was originally commissioned, in 1821, by the second Earl of Belmore for the visit of George IV. How galling for all involved that the ill-mannered monarch never arrived in the end, although it might be of some consolation that the ornate decoration has stayed in perfect condition as a result.
In desperate need of nourishment following such an active day indoors, outdoors - and underground - I make my way to the four-star Killyhevlin Lakeside Hotel, which commands stunning views of Lough Erne. Kove, its fine-dining restaurant, is said to be one of Enniskillen’s best restaurants - a claim that certainly has merit if my delicious four-course meal and excellent service are anything to go by. As I allow the spiced duck fillet to digest, I become mesmerized by the boats crisscrossing the lake outside as the sunset looms in the horizon.
The next day, I receive an opportunity to venture out onto the water courtesy of Erne Boat Hire, a family-run business located on the Regal Pass Jetty, in Enniskillen. Their “wee red boats” are purpose-built for the rental market and extremely easy to operate. Plans to visit the popular monastic site of Devenish Island are scrapped on account of some menacing clouds hovering above; instead, the delightful Mark Pancott, the company’s founder, takes me on a jaunt around the island of Enniskillen.
Mark recounts the “extraordinary support” the business has received from Waterways Ireland while we indulge in a spot of birdwatching and enjoy great views of some of the town’s main landmarks, such as the castle.
But it’s another castle that marks the end of my visit to beautiful Fermanagh - Lisbellaw’s Belle Isle Castle. Originally built as a house in the early 17th century, the picture-book property has since been fully refurbished and is now available to rent out for private functions, such as corporate events or weddings. In fact, when I visit, the property has just hosted an 80th birthday celebration and I learn that after the candles on the cake were extinguished the night before, guests took part in an entertaining murder mystery.
One thing’s for certain, you don’t need to have the mental dexterity of Poirot or Ms Marple to deduce that magical County Fermanagh has an embarrassment of riches at its disposal - both natural and manmade - and a visit should be high on everyone’s travel itinerary.
(Just be sure not to break your Belleek vase on your journey home!)