The Lough of luxury: Christmas cosiness with Fermanagh's finest
Gillian Tsoi checks out of reality and into Lough Erne Resort in Fermanagh, where Christmas is in full swing
Last weekend was a particularly damp and drizzly one when I visited Lough Erne Resort in Fermanagh.
The first storm of the season, Storm Atiyah, was brewing, but the blustery weather outside only made the Northern Ireland hotel seem even more cosy - and more Christmassy.
Stepping out of the rain and into the resort, its classic olde-world atmosphere was immediately comforting, and after check-in, we counted no less than seven twinkling Christmas trees on our way from reception to the lift. An open fire blazed in the hallway, festive garland adorning its mantelpiece, and even though this is a five-star hotel, there's a real homely feel to the place.
Yes, Christmas had well and truly arrived at Lough Erne Resort, which is nestled on a 600-acre peninsula. We settled into our room, styled opulently with a country-estate feel, and took in its views over the Fermanagh lakelands, which were especially eerie in the night's harsh winter weather.
The hotel has three eateries: the Blarney Bar, the Lough Bar and Grill, and the 3 AA rosette Catalina Restaurant, where we dined on a Friday night.
There were a few empty tables when we visited, which made for a slight lack of atmosphere, but this was no reflection on the quality of food served up by executive chef Noel McMeel, who has previously been named 'Best Chef in Fermanagh' by the Restaurants Association of Ireland.
Our meal began with an amuse bouche of cured salmon with squid-ink cracker and beetroot gel, which whetted our appetite nicely before our waitress presented us with a tray of rustic breads to choose from - a home-made soda bread, a curry-infused creation, and a treacle brown bread - with accompanying rock salt, basil oil and Abernethy Butter (made in Dromara in Co Down).
For starters, I chose the 'Smoked Lough Neagh Eel with Comber Potato Puree and Armagh Brambly Apple', which was served with a perfectly cooked, plump seared Irish scallop. The delicate flavour of the melt-in-your-mouth seafood was complemented deliciously by the tart, crunchy apple and creamy potato puree.
Next, there was a light main course: seared Irish fillet of halibut with caramelised parsnip puree and caviar. I happily cleared my plate, while my dining companion raved about her 'Thornhill Roast Duck Breast with Mandarin Orange Jelly and Toasted Hazelnut'. "I don't want this to finish," she said, savouring the last of her dish.
I took a risk for dessert and ordered something I'd never eaten before: soufflé. That night's menu offered a blackberry version, served with vanilla ice cream and pouring custard. And the risk paid off: if you can imagine eating a sweet, berry-flavoured cloud, it would probably taste something like this.
Lough Erne Resort is famed for its two championship courses, including the top-100 (UK and Ireland) Faldo Course, designed by Sir Nick. And its Faldo Academy boasts a "state-of-the-art practice and tuition facility with video analysis and golf clinics available".
Non-golfers like me can still enjoy the course's beautiful vista over the waters by following the scenic pathway around the hotel estate and along the lake.
The Stairway to Heaven
Fermanagh has its fair share of landmarks to explore, including the Cliffs of Magho and the Marble Arch Caves (currently closed, but reopening for the new season in March).
Perhaps the county's most popular attraction is the Stairway to Heaven. Located about 25 minutes from Lough Erne, it forms part of the Cuilcagh Legnabrocky Trail. With magnificent views over the rugged landscape, the stairway has become a regular on Instagram. The walk takes two-and-a-half to three hours from the car park to the top, and the difficulty level is medium.
However, on the wild and windy morning we walked it, the mist was so heavy, we could only see a few metres ahead.
Windswept after our hike, we returned to the warmth of Lough Erne Resort, where I was booked into the Thai Spa for a Body Bliss treatment - and my friendly masseuse, Khorjai, ensured the massage lived up to its name. After working her magic on my weary muscles, she tells me that she flew here from Phetchaburi in central Thailand after successfully applying for a job online.
Post-pampering, there was fresh fruit and green tea in the Thai-style relaxation room, and guests can also chill out in the spa's sauna, steam room or rainbow shower, where essential oil-infused water flows from the rainforest shower head.
Adjoining the spa (whose corridors are lined with some lovely Thai murals), is a leisure centre with pool and Jacuzzi, and there's also a well-equipped gym, where Barack Obama reportedly worked out during his stay.
The hotel, located just outside the town of Enniskillen, is only two hours' drive from Dublin. A short journey to make for a luxurious slice of heaven...
And speaking of heaven, I'll definitely be making a return trip in more favourable conditions to tackle that wooden stairway!
Lough Erne Resort has a Christmas Movie Marathon package, including an overnight stay, a selection of Christmas movies, mini snacks, breakfast and use of the infinity pool, from £225pps. Booking, available until December 23, is subject to availability.
See lougherneresort.com for more.
NB: This feature originally appeared in The Herald.