Friday 20 September 2019

This is one of Ireland's best kept getaway secrets

Taking a boat on Ireland’s inland waterways was something we had always wanted to do. However, when I got the chance to cruise the Lough Erne in Co. Fermanagh, I never could have guessed what an incredible adventure awaited the family.

When it comes to holidays in Ireland, we automatically think of the coast, and we are blessed with extraordinary coastline and the Atlantic Ocean, however, some of the island’s most breath-taking scenery is found along our inland waterways. For so long I had wanted to discover the rivers and lakes of Ireland by boat but with a busy work and school schedule, it was something I kept putting off.

After a long, hard winter and with spring attempting to push through, we decided to try something different and set off for a weekend on Lough Erne.

Arriving in Belturbet in Co. Cavan, we picked up our boat from the Aghinver Boat Company, a 31-foot 4/6 berth cruiser with flybridge. The boat was in pristine condition and seemed almost new. There was ample space for my wife Sandra and I in the double bed at the stern and my children Zoe, 11, Aran, 8, in the two single beds at the bow. Although the couch in the main area of the boat folded out to a double bed, Rua, 3, the youngest, came into bed with the grown-ups (he was always going to end up there anyway).

The 31-foot 4/6 berth cruiser with flybridge from Aghinver Boat Company.

After half an hour orientation and instruction from Sean Grennan at Aghinver, off we set along the River Erne and out onto the expanse of Lough Erne. The boat is really very easy to drive, and I, with no previous sailing experience got the hang of it immediately. Navigation through the labyrinth of islands takes a little getting used to, but once you stay within the markers on the water you’re absolutely fine. Of course as soon as we hit the open water of the lake we got caught in torrential rain and hail and got completely lost. That’s all part of the adventure though and we found our way soon enough.

Our first stop-off was the fabulous Watermill restaurant at Kilmore Quay just meters from where we moored the boat on the shore of the upper lough. The restaurant, run by renowned chef Pascal Brissaud, is pretty close to a perfect dining experience. A warm, relaxed and welcoming atmosphere, with staff from France, the food is exquisite. Sometimes you have the pleasure to eat in an establishment where the care and attention to detail is evident in everything around you.

We were to push on to Naan Island and moor there for the night, but we were enjoying ourselves so much we decided to stay at the Watermill. As we made our way back to the boat we were treated to one of Lough Erne’s famous sunsets. The air was warm and the water still like glass, the North Star shone low in sky and a full moon rose amid the deep and delicate colours of dusk. It took our breath away.

One of the breathtaking sunsets

The next morning we woke early to a breezy, sunny day. We breakfasted on board on the move as we  made our way northward across the lough to Bellanaleck where we moored and took a taxi a short distance to the Marble Arch Caves. I’ve visited quite a few cave systems all over the world and can honestly say that the Fermanagh’s Marble Arch Caves is among the very best I’ve seen. It’s an extensive network of chambers, beautifully lit, with stalactites and otherworldly formations all linked by an underground river. Access to the caves is by boat which adds to the feeling of entering ‘the underworld’ on the tour.

Unfortunately, my youngest Rua, fell asleep in my arms during the tour and I had to carry him for the majority of the tour as well as up the 150 steps to see daylight, whereupon he promptly awoke. It didn’t take from a most extraordinary experience in the Marble Arch Caves. It’s not to be missed.

We’d worked up an appetite so we took a taxi back to Bellanaleck and had some lunch at the Sheelin Kitchen, a quaint café in a two-hundred-year-old thatched cottage. The children still had enough energy for an hour in the playground before we boarded our boat and set off northwards for Enniskillen.

Some of the spectators along the route

You can see you’re approaching the town of Enniskillen as the rural countryside slowly gives way to more settlement and bigger and plusher marinas. We went straight to Enniskillen Castle - an imposing 16th century fortress that now houses the Fermanagh County Museum. There you can find a fascinating collection relating to the turbulent history of Fermanagh. The Museum has curated an impressive collection of artefacts and an informative exhibition that had the whole family enthralled. The castle is the heart of this town and there’s an atmosphere of great and terrible history that seems to echo in its halls. Leaving the castle, we were caught in more heavy rain so we made a dash for the boat where we cooked our own meal on board. We spent the rest of the evening relaxing, a cup of tea, listening to jazz on BBC Radio 3 and the rain pelting against the window. I did my first crossword in months.

Again we woke to sunshine. It seems dawn is the best part of the day here and the hundreds of fishermen on the banks and on the water would agree. We took a slow start to the morning then set off south back towards Bellanaleck and on to the Crom Estate weaving through the islands of the Upper Lough Erne. By that time navigation and handling of the boat was second nature.

Waterside views

We docked at Crom Estate and immediately saw that we were in a very special place indeed. The wetlands that surround the area paint an evocative picture of the life of the gentry that ruled this estate through the centuries. The National Trust Visitors’ Centre tells you all you need to know about a turbulent history of conquest, through the Plantation to the aristocratic life of the Crichton family that made the estate their home. The Crom family estate is still sitting splendid on among the ancient oak and yew.

We walked the short distance down to the ruins of the old castle on the lake shore where the view left us speechless. The whole weekend we had encountered every kind of weather imaginable but when the sun came out, the beauty is stark and very much unique to this part of the world. The waterways of Ireland have their own unique history and their own special identity, it’s an as yet, still undiscovered world for the Irish tourist.

A calm start to the morning

Talking to Sean Grennan, of the Aghinver Boat Company, the majority of his customers are from Europe. Every year, the same tourists from Germany, France and Switzerland return to cruise Fermanagh’s waterways. The Irish have yet to really discover and appreciate this area and with the incredible work that Waterways Ireland do to maintain this incredible resource and make it accessible to all, for sure, they’ll only need to experience it once and they’ll come back again and again.

Leaving Crom Estate, we set out on the last leg of our journey, to return the boat to Belturbet. Sitting on the upper deck, with the family below, I can hear them singing as the boat chugs easily on its way downriver. All along the banks there are scenes of rural idyll. New born lambs bound in the fields, cattle lift their heads to watch us pass. The birdlife is everywhere, all around you –herons, brent geese, moorhens and coots and of course the swans who rule the lakes. We even saw a buzzard flash its wings across the bow of the boat. The waterways have their own pace of life and even a short weekend trip along them forces you to slow down.

We only scratched the surface of what you can experience in this part of Ireland. What an adventure it was. Now that we’ve seen it, we’re already planning our return trip to Ireland’s waterways.

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