Monday, November 20, 2017
Text Size

Family-friendly Fermanagh

I FELL in love with Fermanagh all over again when we spent an utterly delightful recent family holiday at Belle Isle Estate in dry spring weather.

Well, it was MOSTLY dry, So-called climate change has not yet disproved the following adage which still has a ring of eternal truth: "For six months of the year the lakes are in Fermanagh and for the other six, Fermanagh is in the lakes…"

Weather was really important when I first started to discover our most westerly county back in the early Sixties when I was a student. In those dreary times, there wasn't much to see or do on wet days; good food was limited to two or three hotels like Mahon's, the Manor House and Killyhevlin (all still wonderful); activities and visitor attractions were few and very far between so we just HAD to spend a lot of time in pubs like Blake's of the Hollow!

Nowadays, as Fermanagh is being transformed into a world-class, all-weather green playground, it does not really matter if the sun is always shining. In fact, one week proved to be far too short a time for me to introduce our Edinburgh-based family to all my Fermanagh Favourites.

Make a point of going to the spacious Enniskillen Tourist Information Centre on Wellington Road near the Lakeland Forum, now open seven days a week. Manager Charlotte Wilson's award-winning staff are extraordinarily helpful and got me a wi-fi connection for my laptop, as well as doing all the form-filling for angling licences and permits.

Tel: (028) 6632 3110_Fax: (028) 6632 5511_ Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

If you pick up the newly branded 'Find Fermanagh' Things to Do Guide, I should warn you that Attractions etc are unhelpfully listed in alphabetical order instead of by popularity and also include write-ups on faraway places like the St Patrick's Centre in Downpatrick, for heavens sake, which will really confuse the foreigners it is meant to assist! Their website is a little better -, although I do not know why 'Find Fermanagh' is a better branding than the long-established 'Fermanagh Lakelands'. I wonder how much the re-branding exercise cost?

Sensitive tourism development at its best

BELLE Isle Estate, just south of Lisbellaw on the scenic shores of Upper Lough Erne, is an excellent exemplar of Fermanagh tourism enterprise at its very best.

Since the Duke of Abercorn bought the island for his young son Lord Nicholas Hamilton back in the early 1990's, its 17th Century castle, courtyard, coach house and farm buildings have been slowly and sensitively transformed - largely due to the efforts of tireless Land Agent Charles Plunket and his charming wife Fiona - into what I regard as one of the most sustainable developments of self-catering accommodation in Ireland.

Don't take my word for it; the Plunkets have shelves groaning with major Tourism Awards and filing cabinets brimming with cuttings of adulatory reviews which have appeared in all the best international newspapers and magazines - including, of course, Northern Ireland Travel News.

Yes, I have written in praise of Belle Isle before, when we stayed in one of the smaller cottages a couple of years ago.

This time we booked Bridge House, which has been recently upgraded to include two fully ensuite bedrooms, making it perfect for the needs of a pair of senior Trews - John and Karen - plus our daughter Suzanne, her Wexford-born husband Henry and our one and only grandson, Simon (8).

What a superb base! The two-storey house was formerly the home of the ferryman who operated a chain ferry there before the bridge was built in the 19th Century. The place is full of character, with nice period features like a log-burning stove and comfy sitting area. Both bedrooms would sleep a total of 5/6 - having separate bathrooms is a big bonus.

I also appreciated extras like the outhouse for angling equipment (including bait fridge to keep our worms and pike deadbait from getting mixed up with the family pizzas and local Tickety-Moo ice cream in the fridge/freezer of the well-equipped kitchen).

Most of all we loved the verandah overlooking a picturesque stretch of the River Erne with the Estate's fleet of hire boats boats posing on the lower garden area. By day, this walled terrace is the delightful venue for alfresco meals; by night, it's the place to sip a glass or two while watching the bats fluttering by.

Ask Andrea for all you need to know

FOR RATES and availability of the dozen or so accommodation options - from booking the splendid Belle Isle Castle for a small wedding or corporate event, to reserving an apartment for a romantic weekend - you can easily check out the excellently comprehensive website

Better still, telephone my new friend, the Estate's receptionist Andrea Law at (028) 6638 7231 or email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Andrea knows EVERYTHING you are ever likely to need - from children's playgrounds, what DVDs are available, how to hire one of the boats and fit a life-jacket (none fitted me perfectly, I wonder why) etc etc.

In her bustling office you will get to meet the other guests. Many of the English families in our week were holders of property bonds which allow them to try out various self-catering holiday options throughout the UK and abroad. They were all very impressed by Belle Isle. The family from Ilkley praised its wonderful location for scenic motoring through the Lakelands to see the Atlantic rollers at Rossknowlagh Strand.

Not so long ago, the only English accents in Fermanagh (apart from the soldiers') were those of intrepid Midlands anglers who would not let a mere sideshow like The Troubles interfere with them catching 250lb of coarse fish every day!

Alas, our own fishing luck was out this visit, so I shall draw a veil over the menfolk's attempts to catch even 25 ruddy ounces of fish in a week, though Simon's newly-acquired casting skills will last him a lifetime.

The Moore the merrier as Liz cooks up a great day

OUR WOMENFOLK Karen and Suzanne, fared much better than us luckless anglers by spending their time productively at the famous Belle Isle School of Cookery and then showing off their new culinary prowess in the kitchen of Bridge House.

Under the inspirational leadership of Chef/Manager Liz Moore - now more famous than ever thanks to her highly-praised performance on the most recent Great British Menu series on BBC-TV - they adored the one-day course on Dinner Parties.

"Liz is a natural teacher - a great enthusiast for great natural food and it rubs off," said our daughter Suzy who has attended Nick Nairn courses in Scotland at more than twice Belle Isle's £120 daily rate. "We were given professional tips and advice which I will use forever, and the lunch was superb.Also, who would have thought to use wild garlic from the side of the road as a subtle flavouring for rustic bread"

Classes are deliberately kept to 12 members, so that Liz and her assistants can maximise their help. Most one-day students are decent domestic cooks who have been given the courses as presents; longer courses - including the one-month diploma course at £2,500 - are aimed at those intending to cook professionally.

One of my personal benefits of the course has been the rekindling of Karen's enthusiasm for good cooking which has led to some lovely meals back home. One of the new 'Liz Dishes' that have replaced Nigella's and Delia's recipes in her repertoire, is Pork Scallopine in a Lemon Sauce.

This comprises medallions of pork fillet bashed into see-through plate-sized circles between clingfilm, then pan-fried and finished in the oven covered by the lemon, white wine and parsley sauce. Absolutely delish - thank you, Liz, from the bottom of my stomach!

Have a look at the huge variety of courses available for 2008/9 on the website; or call Andrea at the main number above.

Just a few Fermanagh Favourites

ON THE subject of food, let me commend the Carvery Lunch at the Killyhelvin Hotel. As Sunday at the Killy is a very-popular local post-worship tradition and tables are at a premium, it took all my persuasive powers to get genial General Manager David Morrison to swop us to a table with a panoramic view of the river.

An even nicer view is to be enjoyed every lunchtime from the Restaurant of the Ardhowen Theatre on the Dublin Road. Wow! The vista over the Waterways Ireland marina up the Erne is surely the finest from any eaterie in the Lakelands. I note that the annual Ardhowen Jazz & Blues Festival is due June 5-7 this year, so I cannot think of a nicer place to enjoy my favourite styles of music.

We ventured across the Border into Ballinamore, Co Leitrim so as I could show Henry where I once caught a legendary pike while on a Riversdale Barge Holiday along the Shannon-Erne Waterway.

As there seemed to be a lot more restaurants in town since I was last there, I called into the library to ask where the Parish Priest usually eats (always a good tip in any part of the world except Israel). That's how we came to enjoy a real country lunch in the peaty atmosphere of Smyth's Pub. More elegant dining is available at night in the Restaurant next door, but I was delighted by the pub's traditional open fire and the unique presence of a Ferguson Tractor jutting into the front bar.

Contact Details

  • NI Travel News
  • Unit 1, Windsor Business Park
  • Belfast
  • BT9 7DW
  • 028 9066 6151