What would take you all the way up to Fermanagh, the sceptics asked? Ask me again when I get back, I replied. So here it is; three days in Fermanagh from Lough Erne to the Cuilcagh Mountain, historic castles, fascinating caves and a paradise for water sports and wildlife. What did I tell the sceptics on my return? Three days in Fermanagh is simply not enough time.
What to visit
With two opinionated, easily bored young ladies- my daughters of seven and eight- on a trip that took in a lot of historical buildings, it surprised me that out of everything we did, the “castles” came out on top.
Absorb: Castle Coole
Our guide Jennifer saw the pen and notebook in my hand and asked apprehensively, “Are you taking notes? Better watch what I say?” And a few times as we toured this neo-classical property, just outside Enniskillen, she did say, “I am not 100% on that” and laugh. But there was no need as her knowledge of the house (the actual castle was an older structure long gone) and the people that lived there was expansive. She also succeeded in making the tour really interesting for children by including them and encouraging them to ask questions. Raine McKeever picked Castle Coole and the travel scrapbook of Lady Winifred Lowry-Corry, which sits in the needlework room, and paints a vivid picture of her life, as her favourite part of the trip.
Access to the whole property for a family is £26.25 and £10 for the grounds only.
See www.nationaltrust.org.uk/castle-coole for more.
Walk: Florence Court
Another imposing residence, Florence Court, was formerly the home of the Earls of Enniskillen (Cole Family). Due to time constraints, we didn’t do the tour in the house, which was an error as they have a tour specifically for children that introduces them to Victorian toys and stories as well as the Earl’s fossil collection – next time!
However, we did take in the Blue Walk, which was picked by the younger daughter as her favourite thing. This walk around the grounds takes you past the walled garden, sawmill, ice-house and the Florence Court Yew – reputedly the “parent” of all Irish yew trees. There is also a red walk and a bridle path. Bikes can be rented if preferred.
Access to the whole property for a family is £28.75 and £17.50 for the grounds only.
Experience: Marble Arch Caves
We have visited caves across the country but the Marble Arch Caves – a UNESCO Global Geopark – are the largest. There is a lot to see in the Cuilcagh Mountain Park overground across 2,500 hectares – including the famous “Stairway To Heaven” – ever before you enter the caves, so give yourself plenty of time to explore this area. The cave tour brings you through a fascinating underworld of rivers, passages and chambers, which house an impressive collection of cave formations. Although purely a novelty factor, entry to the caves pre-COVID was by boat. This was something we had not experienced in other caves and it would definitely have added to the experience, so it was disappointing that has not reopened.
Family (two adults, two children) £30
On the water: Erne Water Taxi
Although there is plenty of competition for the title of Ireland’s wateriest county, the Lakelands of Fermanagh are second to none in terms of water-based activities.
We were delighted to have chosen the water experience that we did – a tour of Lower Lough Erne with the Erne Water Taxi company. Chauffeur, guide and owner, Barry Flanagan was waiting in the distinctive yellow boat near Enniskillen Castle (free parking) on the most beautiful day of our trip. We choose the Devenish Island tour, which is 90 minutes and gives you 30 minutes to explore the sixth century monastic site.
We learned a huge amount about the history of the area, the island town of Enniskillen and the fauna and flora. Pointing out cattle grazing on one of the Islands, Barry explained to the children about island farming and how the animals were once swam between the islands for grazing, but now they have their very own ferry.
This private guided tour is £120. The boat accommodates eight. www.ernewatertaxi.com/
Reflect: Enniskillen Castle
Having seen its imposing structure from the water, after our boat trip, I took in Enniskillen Castle. Built almost 600 years ago by the ruling Maguires, it guarded one of the few passes into Ulster and has been strategically important throughout its history.
Today, the historic site houses two museums, Fermanagh County Museum and The Inniskillings Museum. Just a note that there is a huge amount to read and see across the exhibits and younger children might lose interest before adults with an affinity for history.
Adults £5, children £3.50.
Where to eat
Small as it is, Five Mile Town has a hotel – The Valley Hotel – and we ate in its Loco Bar & Grill, which has a lovely easy vibe for a family. By that I mean it is not so quite that kids’ voices are interrupting the diners at other tables, but not so loud that you can’t have a conversation.
The menu features an eclectic mix of options to the point where I had to ask: “What is this?” I opted, after deliberation and said questions, for the Beef ‘n’ Bird, which is fillet steak and bang bang chicken topped with tobacco onions and peppered cream (£19.95). Richie had a fillet (£24.95) and both were excellent. Although normally I get an adult meal and two plates for the children, they got a pizza and chips from the kids’ menu here (£5.50) and after a day of junk going around the castles, did well to get through it. It would be remiss to not mention that there was also one Pornstar Martini, which was enjoyed immensely. The hotel are to be commended on their staff as this was the best meal we had in Fermanagh.
We did have a few disappointing dining experiences – perhaps because of choosing poorly – but the advice is, particularly in Enniskillen, if there is a queue then it’s worth queuing. If a cafe is empty when others are full, there is a good reason. Outside the towns, The National Trust properties came up trumps again with reliable good-quality food in the cafes at their venues.
I asked pretty much everyone I met in Fermanagh for a Fermanagh tip, but ever before departure, as a colleague from the county, our Irish Horse Editor Helen Sharp was first on my list.
Stay: at the Glamping pods on Crom
“On Crom Estate you have to go to Inisherk island over the bridge by the castle and boathouse – it’s a nature reserve too, really gorgeous for a walk”. She promised me a guided tour, which I didn’t get to take her up on, the error of which I only fully realised when I asked our Erne water taxi guide Barry Flanagan for his recommendation and he said, “Of the three National Trust properties, it has to be Crom”. Glamping pods located close to the campsite facilities can fit families of two adults and up to three children.
If you are looking for a getaway and there are 16 of you, then Ashbrooke House could be your self-catering perfection. According to Helen, they can offer a private chef and with prior arrangement, they can set up a host of outdoor activities for your group.
Get outside: James McCloy
When I asked the Lowry’s Of Blessingbourne (see P5-6) for their tips, they said that they love Glenshane Country Farm, which is Jamese McCloy’s Sheepdogs at Work experience. It’s actually in Derry, but Colleen- who is from Tyrone herself- is very generous with sharing the Northern Irish tourism around, so we put it in.
Culture: Ulster American Folk Park
If it’s history you are looking for, then Nick Lowry recommends immersing yourself in the Irish emigrant journey to America. In this park you can wander through the thatched cottages and log cabins and meet their costumed inhabitants who will tell you the stories of their time. You can also experience first-hand the conditions they faced on the emigrant ships to America by boarding a full-scale ship yourself.
Adventure: Todds Leap
According to Colleen, not quite Fermanagh but worth the spin, is Todds Leap Activity Centre in Tyrone. There is archery, blindfold driving, swings, off-road driving, an ethical zoo and much more.
Eat: Tickety Moo Ice Cream
An ice cream parlour with a difference as visitors can watch its herd of award-winning pedigree Jersey cows being milked before their visit to the ice cream parlour. Recommended high and low and I didn’t get to go, so I looked up their Facebook page and thought this review summed up the sentiments I was hearing: “Amazing flavour and [so] many to pick from. Short distance from Enniskillen. Great that was able to see cows getting milked. Great customer service”.
View: Lough Navar Forest Park
Solo travelling after a couple of days, I asked what can I do by myself for myself? Lough Navar forest park lookout was a popular response as you can drive (or walk) to the viewpoint. Once landed there is ample parking and a cliff walk. The felling policy here might seem a juxtaposition in a forest park, but along with Carrigan, Big Dog, Conagher and Ballintempo forests, the total forest area covers over 8,500 hectares, the largest continuous forest in Northern Ireland. At the Aghameelan viewpoint the panoramic view of Fermanagh and Cavan is spectacular.