“This is where I go to clear my head,” says Elaine Alexander. She and I are paddling an open canoe on Upper Lough Erne. The landscape around us is peppered with poetically-named islands — Inisliroo, Trannish, Rabbit Island and Inisfendra — but also with wild and contrary weather. So when a belly of black cloud bears down, we lose little time in steering towards shelter; slinking between water-lodged tree trunks to a little enclave hidden in the reeds. As I pack my camera into a waterproof bag, the surrounding foliage keeps the wind to a whisper. I’m beginning to see what Elaine means.
“When you paddle on your own, it’s tranquil,” she tells me. “Four or five times now I’ve spotted a head in the water and wondered what it is. I’ve paddled over, and found deer swimming between the islands. That makes a trip.”
Small and plainly-spoken, with ruddy cheeks that shrug off a scythe-like wind, Elaine has kayaked around Ireland (“Kerry was the hardest”) but she enjoys these little interludes just as much — exploring the spots bigger boats can’t reach. Setting out from the Share Discovery Village, which rents kayaks and other craft near Lisnaskea, she gives me a tiny taste of the 31-mile Lough Erne Canoe Trail — the islands, the wildlife, the camping possibilities.
Shortly afterwards, we pull up at the wooded island of Inis Rath. After stowing our canoe, we walk up a mulchy path leading to a big yellow house. By the door, shelves are stacked with muddy pairs of Crocs. A young man answers — the smudge of paint above his nose identifying him as a member of the island’s Hare Krishna community. He introduces himself as Max from Lithuania, and invites us in to see a temple in the front room.
Inside, a life-size mannequin of His Divine Grace AC Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada sits in the bay window, wearing a beanie hat. As we chat, a colleague of Max’s enters the room, rings a bell, lights a few sticks of incense and pulls a set of curtains back to reveal two further icons. Max drops to his knees. He talks non-stop about his religion, about the search for enlightenment that took him to Fermanagh. In the end, Max says, it all boils down to one mantra: “Simple living; high thinking.”
In Inis Rath — otherwise known as Hare Krishna Island — his words ring deliciously clear. Back on the mainland, they have the ring of a bumper sticker. But they stick in my mind. And they’re still with me weeks later. Elaine and Max were worlds apart, but both of their philosophies are pure Fermanagh.
Caves & cooking
One third of this county is covered in water, with 434 miles of rivers, canals and lakes combining to turn one of Northern Ireland’s off-radar nooks into a weekend playground. In Fermanagh, you can fish for winter roach and pike. You can walk, cycle or play golf along the lakeshores. You can join a cruise from Enniskillen, chugging out to the 12th-century round tower and ruined Augustinian priory on Devenish Island. You can explore mountain tombs and prehistoric monuments, or get stuck into cafes and cookery schools.
It’s not just the water that clears my head, either. The more I drive, following the highways and byways of this undulating countryside, the more open I become to unplanned stops. Between Florence Court and Belcoo, I pull in to watch a pheasant by the roadside. It’s not alone; herons preen; sheep munch; a hare bops along, flashing its fluffy bottom to all and sundry.
My next stop on this surprising self-drive is the Marble Arch Caves. At the heart of a UNESCO Global Geopark, the caves here were formed by rivers running off Cuilcagh Mountain — the soft-syllabled Owenbrean, Sruh Croppa and Aghinrawn (among others) gradually carving out channels in the porous limestone. Before they were explored by French caver Édouard-Alfred Martel, locals believed they were riddled with ghosts. Some still do.
The tour begins with a descent into a sinkhole. It’s been raining and water levels in the caves are too high for the planned subterranean boat ride. Instead, we’ve a guided walk through chambers and passageways dating back millions of years. A visitor centre explains the geology, but it’s the clammy, eerie underground atmosphere — enhanced by the stalactites and stalagmites — that leaves the lasting impression. I’m starting to get under Fermanagh’s skin.
Afterwards, I ask the way to the nearby viewing point at Marlbank, with its sweeping Lough MacNean vistas. “You’ll know it by the wheelie bin next to the interpretive sign,” is the prosaic reply — but I arrive just before sunset and catch the last rays blasted out over honey-coloured reeds. At another viewing point, in Lough Navar Forest, I’m told black shapes visible in the water belong to World War II Allied seaplanes. I can’t see them, but am smitten with the notion.
One of those planes — a Catalina — has lent its name to the fine dining restaurant at the Lough Erne Resort. This was where President Obama and other world leaders gathered for the 2013 G8 Summit (it’s a five-star, with a Thai Spa and Nick Faldo-designed golf course), but I prefer the smaller moments here — like executive head chef Noel McMeel’s painterly arrangement of baked mullet and braised endive in a palette of orange on black slate.
Fermanagh isn’t exactly famous for its food, yet almost every town I visit offers up one or two gems — places like the Customs House Country Inn in Belcoo, or The Kissin Crust in Lisniskea, where I drop in for a quick bite and find myself chowing down on a hunk of chicken, leek and bacon pie followed by two scoops of Bailey’s trifle.
“My family has an island here,” chef, Joe Kelly tells me. I find him at the Belle Isle Cookery School, where he talks me through a pork fillet recipe in the shadow of an 18th-century castle. Joe waxes lyrical about Fermanagh’s lamb; about the snipe, woodcock and pheasant scurrying through its hills and hedgerows.
Where did he get that American accent, I wonder? “I was born in Enniskillen but grew up in Miami,” he laughs, tasting a spoonful of sauce. “My mother was recruited as a programmer by IBM in 1981 — during the Troubles — which seemed like a good time to leave. But my father had a pub in Enniskillen. I remember going in when I was eight years old. I was too young to pull pints, so I worked in the kitchen. I love it here.”
Enniskillen is Fermanagh’s main hub, and the historical seat of the Maguire chieftains. The town pinches Lough Erne in the middle, separating the upper and lower lakes (its castle was the perfect place to spot approaching troublemakers). A ramble beckons.
Surprisingly for a relatively small place, Enniskillen’s main street is a mile long. It changes name no less than six times as I mosey along, ducking off to visit lively bars like Blake’s of the Hollow, or crafts corners like The Buttermarket Craft & Design Courtyard. But my favourite stop is at Headhunters Barbers Shop, where my three-year-old gets a haircut. Set off Darling Street, it’s crammed with vintage tickets, signal lamps, cast-iron signs, a burgeoning model railway and even track-inspection bicycles from the golden age of Northern Ireland’s railways. Turns out, the place doubles as a railway museum.
“People laughed,” says Selwyn Johnston, as Sam’s locks are shorn. “They said we couldn’t have the two together, but it works — the barber shop keeps it all ticking over.”
This eccentricity, combined with the wilderness setting, is one of the things I’m coming to like most about the Fermanagh Lakelands. One moment, I’m kayaking through sheets of rain to meet a Lithuanian Hare Krishna; the next, I’m in the attic of a barbershop, watching grown men get excited about toy trains. And then there’s Florence Court.
“The name evokes a sort of romanticism, doesn’t it?” says Heather Hamilton. She’s a guide at the 18th-century National Trust property. Florence Court was home to the Earls of Enniskillen, she explains, showing me around its highlights — ranging from a Venetian window watching over the countryside to swirling stuccowork, including a ceiling frieze depicting Jupiter as a thunderbolt-hurling eagle. In one bedroom, we find an antique chamber pot from Belleek. At its bottom lurks the face of the Liberal prime minister William Gladston, giving a novelty indication of the earl’s political leanings.
My final stop is Crom Castle. This is another romantic pile, home to the Crichton family — the Earls of Erne — for centuries. You may recognise it from the BBC’s Blandings, starring Jennifer Saunders and Timothy Spall. “There’s nowhere like it in Ireland,” says Noel Johnston, the estate manager, whom I find reading the paper by a blazing fire in the west wing. The six classical bedrooms here can be booked from £2,500 for two nights. Splitting the cost between a group of family or friends, I couldn’t think of a better base in the lakelands.
Outside, Lough Erne is peaty, churning yellow and silver in a cruiser’s wake. Rushes flank the riverbanks, bending and whispering as coots and kayakers pass. My head is clear.
A host of airlines offer flights from all over the UK to Belfast International Airport, Belfast City Airport and City of Derry Airport. Enniskillen is also within a 2.5-hour drive from Dublin Airport. Stena Line and Irish Ferries also run regular ferry services between Liverpool and Belfast (1.5 hours from Enniskillen by car) and Holyhead and Dublin. stenaline.co.uk irishferries.com
Average flight time: 1h20m.
The best way to tour the Fermanagh Lakelands is by car. Rental firms are available at the airports listed above, or you can bring your own vehicle by ferry.
When to go
Summer offers the most reliable temperatures for watersports and activities with averages around 20C. Late spring and early autumn might nab you better rates however, though temperatures hover around 12C.
Share Discovery Village. sharevillage.org
Hare Krishna Island/Inis Rath. krishnaisland.com
Marble Arch Caves. marblearchcavesgeopark.com
Lough Erne Resort. lougherneresort.com
Belle Isle Cookery School. belle-isle.com
Headhunters Barbers Shop & Railway Museum. headhuntersmuseum.com
Florence Court. nationaltrust.org.uk
Crom Castle. cromcastle.com
How to do it
Fermanagh Lakelands features special offers on its website. Tour Ireland offers self-drive itineraries, including accommodation and car hire from £325 per person for five nights (flights extra). Itineraries can be set or bespoke. fermanaghlakelands.com tourireland.com
Published in the June 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)