Come for the landscapes, stay for the culture – Enniskillen and Lough Erne serve up an endless array of great things to see and do, from gracious mansions to compelling museums
A sumptuous landscape of plush, moss-cloaked forests and radiant green fields; dark, silky waters dotted with mysterious islands and edged with slender reeds; and a hinterland richly decorated with crumbling castles and lavish mansions… Enniskillen and Lough Erne are a magnetic fusion of history, beauty and elegance, all centred around lustrous waters that are crisscrossed by cruisers, kayakers and boats in the summer months, and shrouded in low-hanging mists in winter. Whether you want to escape into the sedate, liquid beauty of Upper and Lower Lough Erne; repose over a slow lunch at a beautiful waterside restaurant; or explore the hulking stone ruins of a dramatic 17th century castle, this part of the island has you covered.
Established in 1857, Belleek Pottery stands proud at the scenic entrance to the small village of Belleek, overlooking the River Erne. Pottery may no longer be made on site here, but the vast building has been transformed to house a cheery tea room, a huge shop and a little museum detailing the history of some of the company's finest pieces. Don't miss the pottery tour – it's only 30 minutes but it gives a great personal insight into the craft behind this famous brand, including the highly skilled and incredibly intricate basket-making.
Nestled in lush West Fermanagh parkland and framed by the Cuilcagh and Benauglin mountains, this graceful 18th century mansion makes quite a statement. After all, it was built for love – Sir John Cole named it after his beloved wife Florence. Tour the house and you'll see some of the best examples of Rococo plasterwork in Ireland, or wander the gardens to enjoy everything from stunning ornamental plants, to the Cole family's pet cemetery,
Wander along Down Street towards the River Erne and you'll come to The Buttermarket, Enniskillen's arty hub. Housed in chunky stone buildings that date from the early 19th century, you'll find tiny shops selling everything from pottery, to jewellery to photography. It's also a good spot for a coffee or a laid-back lunch.
Stand at the ruins of the Old Castle in Crom and a scene of pastoral beauty unfolds all around you, from the glassy waters to the old yew trees to Crichton Tower on an island in the lake. It's an exceptionally scenic place – a landscape graced with islands, woodland and historic ruins including a boathouse and summerhouse. Whether you wish to take afternoon tea in the visitor centre or wander one of the walking trails, Crom's sedate elegance and languid beauty is hard to resist.
It's not hard to see what drew St Molaise to Devenish Island in the 6th century – the cloud-flecked skies, emerald green hills and glittering navy-coloured waters here have an instantly soothing effect. But this magnetic island estate hasn't always been the picture of tranquillity - it was first raided by Vikings in 837 and burned down in 1157 and 1360. Today, though, it looks a picture of peace and is one of the most beautiful monastic sites on the island of Ireland with its 12th century round tower and intricately decorated abbey ruins. The island can be accessed by kayak/canoe or private boat, and there are regular ferry sailings from Enniskillen and Trory Point.
You can't miss this vast stone bulwark that sits overlooking the River Erne. Built over 600 years ago by the ruling Gaelic family of the Maguires, this impressive construction is a mix of imposing barracks, romantic-looking turrets and medieval castle keep. Step inside and wander through excellent exhibitions covering Fermanagh's captivating prehistory and natural history at the Fermanagh County Museum. But keep some time, too, for the Inniskillings Museum here, a fascinating look at the history of Enniskillen's two military regiments with brilliant displays within the Castle Keep and in the old cavalry stables.
Linked to the mainland by land bridge, Boa Island sits near the northern tip of Lower Lough Erne. There's not a lot going on here – it's quiet and rural – but while driving along the main road look out for a sign for Caldragh Cemetery. Drive down the little lane here past lugubrious cows who lift their heads in curiosity, and you'll get to a little gate with a sign saying "Janus Figure". The tiny graveyard itself, with crooked old stones pushing through the dark green grass, dates from the early Christian period, but look a little closer and you'll notice two anthopormorphic stone figures, one of which has two faces (the Janus figure). No one quite knows the origin of these statues but the Janus figure, in particular, is thought to represent a Celtic god.
Finn Lough – The Element Trail
Lough Erne is full of activity – walking, hiking, kayaking, even swimming in the warmer months – but if you're looking for the ultimate in relaxation, then make your way to Finn Lough Resort where you'll find a Scandinavian-style spa experience called The Element Trail. Hidden in the forest on the edge of the lough, beautifully constructed wooden cabins offer a luxurious and intimate retreat, with a strong connection to nature – think stunning lake views, leafy trails and total peace and quiet. The two-hour experience includes a floatation tank, sauna, aromatic steam room and outdoor hot tub. Book ahead.
Headhunters Barber Shop and Railway Museum
This gloriously bonkers barber-meets-museum is a labour of love for the owners, who have carefully and painstakingly collected artefacts from the area's once booming railways. Yes, people will be having their hair cut while you wander around but just go with the flow – within the cabinets and displays, you'll find everything from beautiful first-class leather tickets to photos, posters, old luggage and brochures. It's one of a kind.
Follow the signs off the Lough Shore Road, which skirts the edge of Lower Lough Erne, and you'll be off into the stunning County Fermanagh countryside past green fields, sheep and shaggy cows… Keep going and you'll eventually end up at Monea Castle, which looms over the surrounding landscape and is one of the largest and best-preserved Plantation castles on the island of Ireland. Built in 1618, the ruins today present a daunting sight with their crumbling towers and turrets that echoes a style popular to the western lowlands of Scotland.
A real pleasure of driving the Lough Shore Road around Lower Lough Erne are the surprises along the way – one of which is Tully Castle, nestled in a beautiful rural location amongst the Fermanagh hills. Built for a Scottish planter called John Hume in 1619, the castle was abandoned after it was set on fire by Rory Maguire, chieftain of County Fermanagh's dominant Gaelic clan, as part of the Irish Rebellion of 1641. Around 60 women and children who had sheltered within it were massacred in the blaze, and today the castle stands as a grisly reminder of its tragic past.
Lough Navar Forest Drive
Like a gentle rollercoaster escape into nature, the Lough Navar Forest Drive is a complete delight from start to finish. The narrow, single-direction road winds and weaves for 10km through this exceptionally beautiful forest, with wonderful stop-offs and viewpoints along the way. The star of the show has got to be the Magho Viewpoint, where Lough Erne and the Fermanagh landscape stretches out endlessly before you. Don't miss it.
Anchoring the Enniskillen cultural scene, the Ardhowen Theatre is a much-loved contemporary arts venue with a delightful location overlooking the River Erne. The glass-fronted exterior gives way to a buzzing modern space that includes a theatre, lecture theatre, art gallery, museum, dance studio, bar and café, and you'll find a lively line-up with everything from music, to theatre, comedy and dance.
Marble Arch Caves
Underneath the lush County Fermanagh countryside lies a mysterious subterranean world, long believed by suspicious locals to be home to fairies. The Marble Arch Caves are among the finest show caves in Europe, an intriguing collection of winding passages and echoing chambers, carved out of the limestone over millennia by the rivers flowing down from nearby Cuilcagh Mountain. Step onto one of the shallow-bottomed tour boats and your guide will point out some of the caves' most intriguing features, such as cave curtains draped from the roof, and creamy stalactites and stalagmites that take a century to grow just one millimetre.
A mansion in a meadow – that was what architect James Wyatt wanted to create for the Earls of Belmore. And so Castle Coole was built – one of Ireland's great neo-classical houses, set amidst 1,200 acres of woodland on the outskirts of Enniskillen. A tour of the house gives a fascinating insight into daily life for both the family and their servants. Stroll through beautifully restored reception rooms and look up to see the ornate plasterwork in the oval ballroom. Marvel at the State Bedroom, lavishly decorated in gilt and red velvet in anticipation of a visit by King George IV, and wander through the dark, underground servants' tunnel that leads you from the house to the Grand Yard.