Fermanagh, otherwise known as the lakeland county, is the most westerly county of Northern Ireland. Situated in the historic province of Ulster, and renowned for its inspiring landscapes and water-based activities, it is something of a hidden gem on the Emerald Isle.
Bordering Tyrone, Donegal, Cavan, Monaghan and Leitrim, Fermanagh mainly consists of lakelands, though there are hills and mountains around the rim, as well as limestone and sandstone scarps throughout. In the upland areas, you’ll find the Cuilcagh mountain range, the Sliabh Beagh Hills and the West Fermanagh Scarplands; whilst in the wetland areas, you’ll find rivers such as Arney, Sillees, Kesh and Cladagh, as well as lakes such as the all-encompassing Lough Erne.
Upper and Lower Lough Erne dominate the centre of Fermanagh, with the River Erne running throughout. In some areas, the lake can extend for up to 40 miles in length, whilst in other areas, the lough can act as a simple stepping-stone between lands. Due to the incredibly old sediments found in the lough – and the wider region more generally – Fermanagh is also home to some of the most extensive caving systems in the country, including the Marble Arch Caves, the Shannon Cave, and the Caves of Tullybrack and Belmore Hills.
The county capital is Enniskillen, the largest town in Fermanagh and the only Island Town in Ireland. It is situated in the middle of the county, nestled between Lower and Upper Lough Erne, and is over 400 years old. Enniskillen Castle itself dates back to 1439 and just scratches the surface of the town’s fascinating history.
A water-lover’s dream, and an often-overlooked part of the country; here’s an overview of what to see and do in the beautiful lakelands of Fermanagh, Northern Ireland.
To speak of Fermanagh without speaking of lakes is to have never spoke of Fermanagh at all. In fact, one third of the entire county is covered in water. From glistening lakes and weaving waterways to rivers and streams that bubble quietly with life; you’ll never be short of aquatic adventures to fill your time.
Take Lough Erne, for example. There are over 150 islands to explore here, along with the shorelines that stretch across great lengths of the county. And whilst Enniskillen is an excellent base from which to explore the lake, you’ll also find warm welcomes in villages such as Kesh, Carrybridge and Belleek, and resorts such as Rossharbour and Lusty Beg Island, to name a few. There are also caravan sites scattered around the lakes such as Edgewater, Clareview and Castle Archdale, as well as campsites at Crom and Share Discovery Village. There’s even a bothy out on Trannish island if you’re looking for a slightly wilder adventure out on the lakes.
Rich in history, Devenish Island is a must-see on your island-hopping adventure of Lough Erne. It’s an early monastic site dating back to the 6th century that was later raided and burned by Vikings, only to rise once more in the Middle Ages. What’s left now, however, are the ruins of St. Malaise’s Church, St. Mary’s Abbey and a poignant round tower. At once eerie and beautiful, it’s quite amazing to see these landmarks persist in spite of their turbulent histories.
White Island is another must-see island with a similar backstory. On the island are the ruins of a 12th century church, once raided by Vikings, and 8 carved stone figures dating back to the 6th century. With the exception of Boa Island, Inisherk at Crom, and Enniskillen, all islands are only accessible by boat, so you might want to factor in boat and canoe rentals ahead of your travels. Alternatively, you could try out one of the many boat tour and taxi services in the county such as Erne Water Taxi or Erne Tours.
Beyond Lough Erne, hugging the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, there are also the loughs of Macnean and Melvin. While much smaller in size, they are definitely worth a visit if you’re making your way round the whole county. Lower Macean, in particular, has quite the backdrop, and is situated right in the midst of the world-famous UNESCO Cuilcagh Lakelands Global Geopark.
Unsurprisingly, there are loads of water-based activities to get your teeth stuck into in Fermanagh. From hiring a boat and getting lost in the world of water sports, to following the Lough Erne canoe trail for days on end; it really is a water-lover’s paradise.
In particular, Castle Archdale Boat Hire & Watersports is a great place for water activities. You can rent boats, canoes, kayaks, katakanus (a catamaran and canoe combined), paddle boards and even hydrobikes. There’s also Erne Adventures, the Share Discovery Village (a great one for the kids), the Erne Paddlers, the Corralea Activity Centre and many more.
You might also opt for some land-based activities such as hiking the Cuilcagh Boardwalk Trail, otherwise known as Fermanagh’s stairway to heaven. The route crosses one of Northern Ireland’s largest blanket bogs via tracks, boardwalks and staircases. Crossing roughly 4 miles, the route takes around three and a half hours and culminates in a magnificent ascent of Cuilcagh Mountain.
Other excellent walking routes include the Rossergole Point Walk at Castle Caldwell Forest, the Magho Cliffs walk at Lough Navar Forest, the Blackslee Waterfall Walk, the Legacurragh Valley Trail, Topped Mountain, the Cladagh Glen Walk and many more.
Horse riding and pony trekking are also popular activities, along with mountain biking, rock climbing, fishing, golfing, wild swimming, and my personal favourite, caving. More specifically, caving in the Marble Arch Caves just outside of Enniskillen. Formed over 340 million years ago, these particular caves form part of the UNESCO Cuilcagh Lakelands Global Geopark and contain the most active river cave in the whole of the UK and Ireland. With unforgettable views of intricately formed stalagmites and stalactites, you don’t want to miss out on this experience.
Whilst the great outdoors is the key selling point of this beautiful county, there’s also plenty to offer in terms of indoor activities too. Stately homes and castles in particular are a popular tourist attraction in the region. Overflowing with beauty and history, firstly there’s Florence Court, an 18th century home set amongst a sustainable estate and some truly stunning gardens.
Secondly, there’s Castle Coole, an 18th century mansion and landscape park with a rather fascinating history. And lastly, there’s Crom. All kept by the National Trust, Crom Castle is the oldest of the three, dating back almost 800 years. It sits amongst a 200-acre estate and is made up of islands, ancient woodlands and a whole wealth of wildlife.
If, however, you reach the end of the day and find yourself craving a pint of the good stuff; look no further than Blake’s Of The Hollow in Enniskillen. Dating back to 1887, Blake’s is a preserved Victorian Bar known for its traditional Irish heritage – it is one of Fermanagh’s oldest pubs – and excellent Guinness. It is also a popular tourist attraction amongst Game Of Thrones fans for its door carved from the Dark Hedges, as seen in the hit HBO series. Live music is also played every Friday so make sure you don’t miss out.
Another must-see is the Boatyard Distillery 15 minutes outside of Enniskillen on the shores of Lough Erne. Home to Northern Ireland’s famous Boatyard Double Gin, the distillery offers interactive tours including a tasting of the spirits range, cocktail sampling, and a behind-the-scenes tour of the whole operation. At the end of the tour, you’ll even get the chance to label your very own 70cl bottle of Boatyard Gin to take home with you.
Drinks aside, Fermanagh is also home to some of the best restaurants Northern Ireland has to offer. From the Watermill Lodge and the Lough Erne Resort’s fine dining experience, to 28 At The Hollow (underneath Blake’s) and the picturesque Lust Beg Island Restaurant. Whether it’s pub grub or Irish delicacies you’re after, there’s plenty to choose from here.
Though known for its lakelands, Fermanagh actually has a great variety of landscapes. As well as loughs, rivers and other wetlands, there are mountains and valleys, forests and meadows, bogs and heaths, grasslands and woodlands, cliffs and scarps, and much more. Incidentally, this is also what makes Fermanagh such a brimming hub of wildlife.
Starting with birds, species you could come across include curlew, lapwing, redshank, Sandwich terns or snipe. You might also spot a white-tailed eagle, Canada geese, little grebe, European shag or grey herons. If you’re really lucky, you might even come across Northern Ireland’s national bird – the Eurasian oystercatcher – though it is mostly found by the coast.
Irish hares are also pretty common, as well as hedgehogs, stoats, pine martens, otters, red squirrels, fallow deer, and bats such as the Brandt’s bat, the serotine, the whiskered bat, Natterer’s bat and more.
Due to roughly 30% of the county being covered in lakes and waterways, fish are also plentiful throughout the region. Species include bream, roach, perch, rudd and brown trout, as well as Northern Ireland’s national fish, the northern pike. You’ll never be far away from a fishery either, though Lough Erne itself boasts some of the finest coarse fishing waters in Europe.
How to get there
If you’re coming via plane, the easiest way to get to Fermanagh is probably via Belfast. You can fly in to either Belfast City Airport or Belfast International Airport and hop on a coach westward to the lakes. If you’re heading for Enniskillen, for example, this bus journey should only take roughly two hours and twenty minutes.
Alternatively, you could fly into the City of Derry Airport and make your way down from the north. And if you’re renting a car, why not take the scenic route to Fermanagh via Donegal? Here’s a handy guide on what to visit as you’re driving through.
There are also multiple ferry options from mainland Britain across the Irish Sea, including ports from north Wales, Liverpool and the south west of Scotland. These ferries will arrive at the ports of Dublin, Belfast and Larne respectively, and you can travel on them via car, motorcycle, bicycle or on foot.
Now if it’s an endurance challenge you’re after, you could also hike to Fermanagh via the Ulster Way, Ireland’s longest hiking trail. Starting in Belfast, you follow the coastline via Portavogie and Newcastle, and then amble on through Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon, towards Fermanagh by way of the south Tyrone border. This way you’ll get to experience four different Northern Irish counties before you’ve even set foot in Fermanagh.
When to go
While undeniably a rainy part of the world, this oceanic climate is what creates the luscious greenery Fermanagh is known for. Not a bad payoff if you ask me. This also makes those sunnier days all the more spectacular, leaving you with no excuse but to get outside and explore the region.
With this in mind, April through to October are probably the best months to visit if you’re looking to avoid the colder weather, with the main tourist season running from June to September. Going during the tourist months will ensure that most businesses and activity centres will be open, however, there is still plenty to do in the chillier months too – think wistful wintry walks, roaring pub fires, tours of age-old Celtic castles, and more.
Whatever the time of year, it’s not the kind of place that gets overcrowded either, so if you’re really looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life, Fermanagh could be the place for you.
Jazz Noble is a London and Northern Ireland-based writer with a passion for hiking, cycling and the outdoor world.