So you want to visit Northern Ireland but you want to go somewhere a bit more off the beaten track and less been-there-done-that than the Causeway Coast (which is seriously stunning nonetheless) or Belfast city? Take a trip to “the forgotten county” of Fermanagh, site of this year’s G8 summit and a place that’s angling for top position as my favourite place in Northern Ireland.
Here are my top tips for things to do in Fermanagh:
1. Marble Arch Caves – top of my list of things to do in Fermanagh is Northern Ireland’s Geopark. What’s a Geopark I hear you ask? It’s a UNESCO-designated area of geological importance and Fermanagh has a spectacular one. Discovered in the 19th century but dating back a looong time before that, the Marble Arch Caves have been a popular tourist attraction ever since their discovery. Your visit starts at the mouth of the cave where you take a short boat journey further into a world of icicle-style stalactites and stalagmites. The tour guide will enthusiastically point out all sorts of natural rock formations, from paddy field style ones to a hidden Atlantis in the water to ones that look like something out of Ghostbusters. It’s hard to believe you’re so far under the ground and sometimes the walls look a bit Return to Oz but it’s gloriously eerie, a bit gothic and oh so fascinating. Ross Geller was right – GEOLOGY ROCKS! One tip: the caves are icy cold so don’t follow my lead by wearing ballet pumps on bare feet. Wrap up!
2. Happy Days Beckett Festival – For the uninitiated, Enniskillen town plays host to a festival dedicated to the life and works of Samuel Beckett each August. Last year I was lucky enough to be in town for the inaugural event and I am still thinking about Robert Wilson’s Krapp’s Last Tape (and shamelessly getting snapped with David Soul at the premiere). Anyway, this year I rolled into town to catch a few shows and performances – standouts being a display of Beckett’s writings and artefacts, including his Resistance card and a postcard from Nazi Germany, as well as A Still Life is a Real Life starring Winona Ryder and Teatro Plastico’s What Where. Even if you’re not a hardcore Beckett head, it’s a fantastic time to visit Enniskillen and the wider Fermanagh area because there’s such a buzz about the place and there’s exhibitions in the most unexpected places. You might even spot a celeb Beckett fan or two.
3. Visit a Big House – Fermanagh is blessed with many historic mansions which have been preserved in top nick by the good folk at the National Trust. If you want a peek inside, my picks for learning more about a grander way of life are Crom Castle and Castle Coole.
Let’s start with Crom Castle and Estate, which fans of BBC’s Blandings will instantly recognise. This expansive estate on Upper Lough Erne is still the residence of Lord and Lady Erne but also acts as an important nature reserve with many rare species living on site. Groups can pre-book tours of the estate and, if the Lord and Lady feel like it, might even get a tour of the impressive house. Or, if you can’t tear yourself away, the West Wing is now available to rent all year long. Far from feeling like a hotel, it offers a highly elegant home from home to explore Fermanagh.
Formerly the residence of the Earls of Belmore, the Neo-Classical masterpiece Castle Coole is an ode to symmetry. This Wyatt-designed property still packs the wow factor today and lavish doesn’t come close to describing it. Put it like this, one room has the same dimensions as a whole house today. One room. Think Greek-inspired coving, a bedroom with crimson wallpaper (don’t lick it – it contains arsenic), Hogarth prints on the wall, a painting so big it couldn’t fit in the doors and a saloon area that’s so ornate you might have a 19th century lady fainting session just looking at it. A visit to the depressing servants’ quarters is a reminder of the stark social class divide at the time. If you’re a history buff or want a snapshot of a grander way of life, this is it.
4. Cruise Lough Erne – Take a scenic cruise of Lough Erne, a lake dappled with over 100 islands, each with its own story to tell, from the comfort of the Lady of the Lake. This relaxing way to see the lough departs from a jetty about half a mile from the 4 star Manor House Hotel. This is a booze cruise sightseeing tour with a difference. On board you’re treated to a four course dining experience, running commentary pointing out highlights of the lake as well as live music. (The tunes are a bit of a country ‘n western cheesefest but I secretly loved it.) Rest assured, the boat is completely covered so you won’t be plagued by flies/rained on as you seamlessly cruise along but you can go up top or out the sides to take better snaps of the scenery, including the 5 star Lough Erne resort. FYI adrenaline junkies, you can also take a seaplane ride over the lough.
5. Belleek Pottery – one of Fermanagh’s top exports, Belleek parian china comes in all shapes, sizes and styles. The much loved pottery has changed over the years to reflect the fashion of the day and you can learn all about it from its roots in 1857 to its timeless style today at this museum dedicated to the designs. Explore Belleek village or bag one of the vases, frames or pretty knick knacks Belleek create today.
To see more of Fermanagh, click on the pics below:
For more information about things to see and do in Fermanagh go to www.discovernorthernireland.com.