Fermanagh Lakelands, Northern Ireland - September 2016
Travel Bureau Destinations was recently invited to Northern Ireland to see some of the fantastic attractions on offer. What follows is our impression of all the wonderful places we visited…
Tourism Ireland kicked off the visit in style on board the HMS Caroline, in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter. We were received aboard the vessel with a warm welcome from the members of the crew who waited at the head of the gangplank and, with this one small detail, the sense of occasion struck and the tone was set for the rest of the evening.
The celebratory atmosphere was elevated even further as we were greeted with a champagne reception inside the ship and a traditional Irish band playing in the one corner of the large room. This room was previously open deck but the roof was added so that it could house the entry to HMS Caroline’s historic exhibition.
HMS Caroline is the sole survivor of the largest Naval engagement of the First World War, the Battle of Jutland. An impressive video, as moving as it is informative, which brings to life the ship’s incredible history, is projected on the wall of the ship. The quality of this dramatic production is a testament to the time and resources which have been invested to make HMS Caroline one of only two 5* tourist attractions in Northern Ireland – the other being the world-famous Titanic Belfast.
Leaving our flutes behind on the elegantly beribboned high tables, we moved off for our guided tour of the ship. What really amazed me as we walked through the ship, seeing the hammocks hung in the mess, food on the tables, books on the shelves, is how strongly you feel the echoes and impressions of the men who had to live and fight and survive on board this vessel. HMS Caroline, as well as being an attraction and an education, stands as a monument to all of the men who have fought aboard her and her like throughout British history.
As if we’d not been spoiled enough this evening, we were then treated to a delicious three course dinner served below decks. The evening was rounded off with a wonderful cabaret performance which had everyone swaying in their seats and even some up and dancing and singing along! Everyone left HMS Caroline in high spirits that evening, it was a perfect beginning to our visit to Northern Ireland.
The main portion of our trip took us away from Belfast and further west and inland to Fermanagh. The Fermanagh area is known as the Lakelands of Northern Ireland, and on our first morning there we got a spectacular view of what gives this region its name.
We drove from our hotel in Enniskillen to the Lough Navar Forest Viewpoint. The drive took us through the fairy tale landscape of Lough Navar Forest: everything green, mossy and mountainous in the distance while, closer to, the early morning sunlight filtered through the twisted trees, their branches hung with long strands of lichen, giving the air a hazy, dreamlike quality.
When we emerged from under the forest’s eaves, at the viewpoint above Lough Navar, the sense that the scenery around us was a thing of fantasy rather than reality increased tenfold: you could see the nearest treetops sway but further down the slope the hundreds of faraway trees looked like they had been painted on the side of the hill; you could make out the lines on the water from the wind but there was no sight of movement, like an artist’s impression of wind on water.
Rowan trees with ripe red berries framed the scene and the aroma of damp pine needles from the soft forest floor hung on the air, which was bright and cold and clear. The whole atmosphere was suffused with a beauty that seemed almost unreal in its natural perfection – I would go back to Fermanagh just for this, but the area has plenty more to recommend it.
After being dragged away from Lough Navar (almost literally in my case) we headed further west, dancing along the border with the Republic of Ireland, to the famous Belleek Pottery. The beautifully delicate porcelain produced at Belleek Pottery is renowned the world over for its high quality and unique iridescent sheen.
We were given a guided tour of the working factory floor and it was incredibly special to witness first-hand the level of artistry and skill that goes in to creating Belleek Pottery – from the intricate crafting of each individual flower…
… to the delicate hand painting of every Belleek product.
From Belleek we moved on to Florence Court, a beautiful 18th century house situated in lush grounds and surrounded by the characteristic mountainous and forested landscape of the Fermanagh area. We entered the property through a quaint courtyard which formerly housed the estate’s stables but is now home to Florence Court’s café, shop and beautiful roses.
Before our tour of the main house, we walked along the colonnade to the pavilion room where it is possible for guests to have a private afternoon tea surrounded by objects from the fossil collection of the Rt Hon William Willoughby Cole, 3rd Earl of Enniskillen and a keen palaeontologist in his time.
The interior of the house is full of remarkable objects whose fascinating histories were illuminated by the expert knowledge of our guide: particularly impressive was the ornate travelling chest in the entrance hall which once belonged to William of Orange and still bears his insignia. I also took great joy in admiring the beautifully intimate library where women would not have been allowed to enter during the days of the Earls.
Our next appointment took us away from the refined society of the 18th century aristocracy to the slightly more rugged exploration of the Marble Arch Caves. This attraction certainly isn’t for everyone, there are a lot of steps and once you’re all the way down in the caves, there’s only one way back up. Having said this, I absolutely loved the sense of adventure that accompanied this visit: passing by huge slabs of prehistoric rock in the ancient forest and delving into the deep to unearth the fascinating history of the intrepid explorers who first discovered this remarkable natural wonder.
The experience of the caves was completely different to anything I’d done before and the magic of sparkling stalactite formations, reflecting in the cavern’s black pools to create the illusion of a starlit underwater city, was simply breath-taking.
After our adventure in the Marble Arch Caves we headed back to Enniskillen for a guided tour of Lough Erne. You could say the weather we had for this excursion was just slightly less than perfect (read: torrential rain) but our boat trip on the lough was still thoroughly enjoyable. What made it so wasn’t the lovely scenery (which is indeed lovely) but the stories of the ship’s captain himself: he spoke of the Northern Ireland of his youth, a child’s view of division (or lack thereof) and the deeply symbolic visit of the Queen to Enniskillen in 2012.
He was not the only person we met on our trip who spoke movingly of the momentous achievement of having made “peace in our time” and the huge positive influence this is starting to show in Northern Ireland. Tourism has increased hugely in response to the destination being viewed as a safe place – a thing that would have been unthinkable during the troubles in the last decades of the 20th century.
On our final evening in Northern Ireland, we were wined and dined at the luxurious hospitality of the Manor House Country Hotel. As we arrived, the sun was setting over the lake on the shores of which the stylish hotel sits. The beauty of the Fermanagh scenery, illuminated by the last warm rays of the early Autumn light, was matched only by the sumptuous old-world interiors of the gorgeously designed Manor House.
We were welcomed to the hotel with a champagne reception in an opulent room just off the chandeliered entrance hall. Once we’d polished off a seemingly endless supply of irresistible canapés, we were led through the hotel to the lakeside restaurant where we enjoyed a stunning five-course, fine-dining meal that was both elegant and delicious.
We left Manor House absolutely full to the brim and completely satisfied – it was the perfect way to end our stay in Northern Ireland.