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A luxury lockdown bubble in Fermanagh

Northern Ireland tourism is open for business as Sarah Marshall discovers on a tour of a gin distillery, a forest retreat and the astonishing Marble Arch caves

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Sarah in the hot tub at Finn Lough

Sarah in the hot tub at Finn Lough

Press Association Images

Sarah in the hot tub at Finn Lough

Despite being one of the most in demand items of 2020, more coveted than a Gucci handbag - and at times just as overpriced, it’s still hard to get excited about hand sanitiser. But the Boatyard Distillery in County Fermanagh has done it’s best to beautify the cleaning product set to become as much of a holiday staple as a bucket and spade.

Like many producers of spirits, they switched to creating the product early in the pandemic, taking the noble decision to supply hospitals and care homes in Enniskillen with 10,000 litres free of charge.

“We had to take on extra staff; students, family friends who were stuck with nothing to do,” says founder Joe McGirr, exemplifying the kind of wartime zeal that’s welded communities at a time when they’ve been forced to physically function apart.

At one point, sanitiser became the Boatyard’s mainstay; they’ve bottled 83,000 litres to date. But now, Joe and his team are looking forward to resuming production of their award-winning gin and vodka, supplying supermarket chains like Waitrose, right through to swanky hotels such as London’s Savoy.

On July 3, bars, restaurants, hotels and attractions reopened in Northern Ireland, and after more than 100 days of rumbling behind closed doors, the Boatyard’s gleaming copper stills are once again welcoming public tours.

When I arrive at the marina on the banks of Lough Erne, visitor ‘bubbles’ are huddled around wooden sherry barrels (used as casks to age the Boatyard’s Old Tom Gin), spread comfortably throughout the room.

Of course, tours have been tweaked in line with new regulations: numbers have been reduced from 25 to eight; surfaces are cleaned between sessions; and there’s no more touching and sniffing of botanicals. But enthusiasm and dry humour counter any sterility, meaning safety has not been at the expense of fun.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to contain yourself from hugging me,” jests our jovial, teddy bear of a compere, Stanley. And when we’re allowed to enter the prized gin production parlour, where shiny, bulbous machinery could be a fit for Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, he reassures us there’s so much alcohol in the atmosphere, any traces of Covid would be obliterated. “Spray tonic and you could inhale a cocktail,” he boasts.

Scents of Italian juniper berries, Amalfi lemons and peppery sweet gale (foraged from the less sexy surrounds of Irish bogs) fill the air, along with a sense of optimism. Although delayed by the pandemic, there are plans to convert a waterside warehouse into a glass-fronted tasting area and cocktail bar, serviced by a water taxi dropping guests at the jetty - once the vessel has been given a ‘social distancing-friendly’ refit.

Inevitably, business has suffered during the last three month’s hiatus, but Joe agrees the only option to look is ahead. Presented with a view of emerald hills seeping into smooth, cloud-reflecting waters, that’s not too hard to do.

A similar scene greets me at the Finn Lough resort, a 25-minute drive away. With a collection of standalone suites and lodges spread along the water, and bubble domes occupying their own forest niche, it’s a natural fit for a remote, secluded retreat.

Complying with the new normal has demanded some compromises, admits co-owner Gillian Beare. High touch points, such as cushions and bed throws, have been removed from rooms; crockery is wrapped in tissue paper (a laudable alternative to pernicious plastics); and meals are more regimented - breakfast is ordered from a menu online and delivered to rooms in a wicker hamper.

Hospitality and service, however, remains the same. If anything, staff are more attentive than ever - albeit from a distance.

A transparent, plastic igloo erected by air pressure, my bubble dome is irresistibly cosy; a mood shaped by a bathtub, four-poster bed and Otis Redding spinning on a portable turntable.

Not that it really matters. Simply being in the forest is enough for me.

Since the beginning of lockdown in March, a whole season has passed: birds have nested and chicks fledged; blossom has unfurled on branches and cascaded like confetti. Whether living in town or country, we’ve all become more finely attuned to nature. But only now, swallowed by a tangled canopy of crisp leaves glistening with raindrops, do I realise how much I’ve missed trees.

Dinner is another novelty. Aside from the immense delight of not having to cook or wash up, it feels special to dine in the company of others, listening to the hushed voices of strangers and the clatter of cutlery.

Gillian laments it was necessary to swap fine-dining tasting menus for a stripped back selection of pizzas, burgers and tasting bowls. Nethertheless, every dish is freshly prepared and homemade.

We eat at a table set in the library, below the gaze of a grandfather clock, but there are plans to open a new restaurant area and lough-side cabin with a firepit.

The greatest post-lockdown treat, however, is delivered by Finn Lough’s forest spa. Connected by a woodland trail, five sensory areas include a floatation room, saunas and a hot tub. The two-hour journey (aided by rubber slippers and a warm robe) is limited to two people at a time, making Finn Lough one of the few properties eligible to reopen its spa.

A ladder leads from the steaming Finnish sauna into Lough Erne. The first few steps are undeniably difficult and clunky, but grappling slippery stones with bare feet delivers a reassuring sense of connectivity. Digging my toes into soft soil, I watch a flotilla of elegant swans slice through the mist, like ghost ships gliding without any course. Perhaps it’s simply down to the invigorating cold air, but every nerve in my body is alert, finally stirred from a long, deep sleep.

A short drive from Finn Loch, the Marble Arch Caves Geopark is a highlight attraction in Fermanagh. Operating with smaller groups, tours of the limestone caves have reopened, and a new guided interpretation above ground is being offered.

Guide Ian shares a 16-year passion for plants as we weave through a lost world of ancient ferns, wet ash woodland and tea-stained waterfalls tumbling over bedding planes carved by the ice age. Similar temperate rainforests can be found in Greenland, he says, and once covered most of Ireland.

The environment is spectacular, but Ian’s knowledge unlocks a magical dimension: I nibble wood sorel sweeter than an apple sherbet; giggle at the phallic appearance of Lords-and-ladies plants; and marvel at high calcite tufa rock, able to petrify every living thing in its path.

Ian hopes lockdown will have given people a renewed respect and appreciation for the wild world. Absence does, after all, make the heart grow fonder.

For now, one thing’s for certain: from fascinating plants to chef-cooked meals, as doors slowly open and we start to explore, every detail of rediscovery is a joy.

Belfast Telegraph