TRAVEL GUIDE: Fermanagh
I’m just about 600 yards short of being a son of Fermanagh. My father was born and raised in the Cavan village of Blacklion, only a five minute stroll away from the county border. Even so, Fermanagh was for years my county of choice for short breaks until my dad died. And then Cavan started to tug at my heartstrings, luring me back time and time again.
But last weekend, I decided to rekindle my passion for my first love — Fermanagh, the county of the lakes, the legends and the Lusty man.
More of him later, but the first thing you notice now about Fermanagh is how it has dramatically upped its game in the standard and choice of hotels it has to offer.
Only last month, on a business trip to Enniskillen, I stayed at the classy extension to the Belmore Court and enjoyed a pint in the swish Westville Hotel which is on the other side of the road and not far away from the ever-reliable and popular Killyhevlin Hotel.
But last weekend, for the first time, I got to sample the sumptuous splendour of the Lough Erne golf resort, Northern Ireland’s first AA five star hotel. And it really was a template for perfection.
From the sublime surroundings to the subtle but stylish service which included informative and obliging concierges who will even drive guests around the sprawling grounds in a Mercedes once owned, apparently, by Bono.
My other half, who works as a trainer in the hospitality industry, wanted to bundle up all the staff to show her customer care students exactly how to get it right.
We were based in a lodge overlooking Castle Hume Lough and even a world-authority in nit-picking like me was unable to find fault.#
Head chef Noel McMeel probably thinks we're stalking him, having followed him from his eateries in Derry to Magherafelt to Castle Leslie and now Enniskillen, where there was proof that there's still nothing quite like a McMeel meal.
Just a few miles away in Blacklion, another king of the kitchen Neven Maguire reigns supreme and at certain times of the year he and Noel run a joint promotion which allows diners to enjoy dinners with them on successive nights.
The only problem with a weekend at the Lough Erne resort is the temptation not to venture outside into the real world to enjoy Fermanagh's host of other delights.
The golfing facilities designed by Nick Faldo, whose statue stood outside our lodge, are on a par with the best in the world but even for a non-swinger like me the resort has lots of alternatives, including stunning scenic walks with views of Castle Hume Lough and Lower Lough Erne plus an infinity pool and Thai spa.
Thankfully, however, we did take advantage of the unseasonal sunshine to re-visit old ‘friends’ like Lough Navar Forest and its magnificent Magho viewpoint.
Then there were the ‘new’ discoveries including Castle Caldwell and the historic secrets behind the remains of its overgrown walls. And best of all — the tiny but mystical Caldragh cemetery which inexplicably is home to Pagan stone carvings — the back-to-back Janus figures and that Lusty mana smaller but equally enigmatic sculpture that was transferred from Lustymore island in 1939.
I had only heard of Caldragh on Boa Island for the first time a couple of weeks earlier with a chance reading of an article about visitors coming from the States just to see the pre-Christian figures which inspired Seamus Heaney to write the poem January God.
More history is on offer at Enniskillen Castle which is home to two museums. One is the County Museum and the other traces the history of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.
Mind you, there probably aren't enough hours in the day to tour them both and then to explore Enniskillen's shops including the colourful cluster of arts and craft stalls at the Buttermarket.
This is also where I found one of the world's finest vegetable soups. The cooks at Rebecca's restaurant must have caught sight of my mother's recipe as, just like her, they plonked a huge potato in the middle of their bounteous broth.
At night we were spoilt for choice in Enniskllen — stay in the drinker's dream destination, Blakes of the Hollow, or go to the magical Ardhowen theatre?
In the end, I couldn't resist the chance to see one of my favourite plays, All My Sons by the mercurial Arthur Miller.
The Pomeroy Players were presenting the play in the Enniskillen amateur drama festival and while the audience weren't expecting the Royal Shakespeare Company, they did get a compelling performance from Mairead Eastwood in one of the lead roles.
Of course, even with the glorious weather, last weekend was still a little bit early in the year for all the jewels in Fermanagh’s crown to be open and sparkling.
So we’ve already pencilled in another Fermanagh fling. And, truthfully, any return to Enniskillen is a welcome opportunity to plunder one of the finest food emporiums I know — O’Doherty’s award-winning butcher’s shop, whose black bacon is additive-free and addictive. Which, come to think of it, is a wee bit like Fermanagh itself...