Belfast Telegraph

County Fermanagh – the jewel in Northern Ireland’s crown

By Ursula Pakenham

In today’s hectic world it’s not always easy to take time out and coordinate weekends away as a family, yet it’s so important to do just that - making memories together…and that’s exactly what we did during a wonderful weekend visit in County Fermanagh.

As a full time mum of three and chief holiday planner (yes, I am that person who is busy researching the next holiday the minute we touch down from our latest trip), I was only too happy when my husband suggested we should go on a little weekend getaway from the hustle and bustle of life in Belfast. If, like us, you seem to spend your time ferrying children from after school activities and sports training, trying to find the perfect work-life balance, then maybe it is time to get away from it all and Fermanagh is the perfect place to do just that. Within easy reach of Belfast, you can be amidst forests, fields and the serenity of the waterways, exploring the sights and sounds of this best-kept secret in just under two hours.

There are many accommodation choices available on Lough Erne, but we decided on the Killyhevlin hotel as a family of five we wanted something close to the town centre. The hotel is a four minute drive from Enniskillen town, which is a hive of activity as people go about their business. There were many visitors to the area and with so much to do there it was not an easy task when choosing our weekend of activities.

We booked into our lodge, which was situated right on the lough. A beautiful outdoor balcony enabled us to enjoy a glass or two of wine and chat, while the children excitedly explored the surrounding area - with only intermittent use of devices I hasten to add. The speedy wifi came in handy for a quick check of social media, just to be sure our teenagers didn’t fear they were missing out on the city life they had left behind.

With two en suite bedrooms, the lodge was modern, bright and airy and felt like a home away from home. It soon became clear why this accommodation appeals to families and larger groups that require more than just a room. There was plenty of space for everyone to relax and unwind.

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Dinner at the Kove restaurant was superb. Piping hot food that wouldn’t go amiss in a fine dining setting. However, if you’d rather have pub grub, that's on offer too at the relaxed grill bar. After dinner we made our way back to the lodge to get a good night’s sleep and dream about what the rest of our weekend would bring.

In the morning, it was wonderful to wake up to bird song as well as the watching the cattle come to drink by the waters edge on the other side of the lake. Not something us city folk are used to.

Our first stop took us to Enniskillen town and a tour around the castle and its museum. The castle was built by the Lord of Fermanagh, Hugh Maguire and it was under his possession until 1607, when the Plantation of Ulster began. The tour of the castle and museum is self-guided so you can go at your own pace. It truly was a historical step back in time. Our children really enjoyed learning about the early settlers, the plantation families, as well as the military history with many artifacts on display. We were lucky to be in town during the weekend of the continental market. The castle provided the perfect back-drop to many stalls offering delicacies from all over the world.

After lunch and with tummies full we made our way to the Castle Archdale country park where we met up with Donna and Jonathan who run the activity centre there. Whether you wish to hire a boat, kayak or do some cycling, they will take care of it for you.

We hired a Canadian canoe and were set to work as we powered our way to the first of many islands on Lough Erne. White Island is home to an old church ruin that dates back to the 9th century. Our next stop took us to Davy’s Island and it was here that the children got back to nature by making fire using flint and cotton wool and they successfully made their very own campfire. Who knew you could have so much fun with cotton wool and Vaseline?

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Once the marshmallows were roasted we made s’mores, washed down with hot chocolate. Donna, our guide, was very knowledgeable and provided lots of information about area and the ruins too.

Upon our return and with the weather on our side, we decided to cycle the trails around the park. It’s easy to hire the bicycles and helmets and there’s a range of sizes for all – so there’s really no excuse for anyone to miss out!

Castle Archdale is a must. The pathways through the woodland are so pretty with plenty of wildlife along the way. The children enjoyed the hilly trails, which were safe and well sign posted too. What better way to work up an appetite for dinner?

In the late afternoon we met up with Barry who runs Erne Water Taxi. The water taxi can accommodate up to eight passengers and it really is a fantastic way to see the waterways of Enniskillen and Lough Erne. Barry also knows a thing or two about this marvelous part of the world. Our children especially loved it when Barry opened up the boat and their squeals of delight could be heard as we took off in Miami Vice style.

Barry is just one of a range of providers offering 'immersive' type experiences at the Enniskillen Blueway Water Activity Zone – set in Enniskillen town, it’s such an easy way for all the family to get on the water and try canoe and kayak trips, stand-up paddle boarding or even captain your very own “little red boat” around the island town.

But with the cobwebs well and truly blown it was time to check in to our accommodation. This time we decided to try Rossharbor Resort, near Belleek. It’s a stunning drive 30 minutes out of Enniskillen along the Lough.

Rossharbour resort sits on the Lough with cottages and glamping pods and they also cater for weddings. The views are spectacular with lots of little sauna pods and hot tubs throughout the resort. There is a bar for the grown ups as well as a games room to entertain the younger guests. Our cottage was a four bedroom (all en suite) containing everything that a family needs. The hot tub went down a treat after such a busy day of activities and helped the aching muscles ready for the next day of fun.

In just under 45 minutes from Rossharbour resort lies the Cuilcagh mountain park and Marble Arch caves and it was here that we had planned to spend our second day in this beautiful County.

The Cuilcagh Mountain Park is also known as the Stairway to Heaven - and for very good reason, because at 3,500 feet above sea level you really do feel like you’re up in the clouds. The walk is suitable for people of all ages, walking shoes are advantageous but trainers will also do. Simply put, the views are breathtaking, the air is clean and it does your soul good. The boardwalk steps are safe, there are plenty of resting points along the way and despite the odd hill and “are we there yet?” from our teenage daughter we enjoyed it immensely. There’s even a 'Congratulations, you have made it' board at the top which we found very amusing.

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One to add to the bucket list is Marble Arch Caves. It is, without a shadow of doubt, one of the best show caves we have ever been to. This UNESCO heritage site was first explored by Martel and Jameson in 1895. They bravely discovered the underground river and passageways using candles and a little canvas boat. Marble Arch caves has visitors from every part of the world eager to explore its depths. If you don’t know your stalactites from your stalagmites, don’t worry, the tour guide explains everything in great detail and you can ask as many questions as you need to.

There’s even a little boat trip underground that people of all ages will enjoy. The tour lasts for approximately one hour and is suitable for all fitness levels. The guide took great pleasure in telling us there is a 154 stair climb at the end. No one is under pressure to complete it in record-breaking time, unless of course, you have 3 very competitive children! Don’t forget to the look out for the old man and the elephant formations too! Below ground it can be chilly so be sure to bring a sweater and your camera, as photography is permitted.

If time allows, it is also possible to take a walk around the Geopark and enjoy the warmer temperatures after your visit to the caves.

County Fermanagh has a special place in our hearts and it wasn’t easy to leave. We’ve had lots of laughs and enjoyed every minute… and it will come as no surprise that the chief holiday coordinator has already started making plans to return there again very soon.

To find out more about what Ireland’s waterways have to offer and to be in with a chance of winning a five-day activity break for six people, check out the Head into the Blue website.

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