When we chose to visit County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland, we were so focused on one particular hiking trail that we didn’t even care to find out what else was around us. Good for us, we found several strangers on the way eager to introduce us to our surroundings. If you ever need to ask for directions in Enniskillen, make sure you have ten minutes to spare: chances are your attempt to correct one wrong turn will be waylaid by a cheerful, curious face in the mood for a chat.
Enniskillen is a prime spot for aquatic sports, fishing and boating, along with friendly chit-chat. Lough Erne, its surrounding water body, may or may not be a river: it is almost impossible to distinguish between the lakes and widened sections of the River Erne. It gives you the sense of an amniotic landscape: an area still deliberating its final form, between land and water.
Fermanagh itself is a place of early Christian settlements, nature reserves, castles, secret swimming spots and hiking trails. The Cuilcagh Legnabrocky trail, advertised for its long boardwalk over a bog, is a moderate hike up to the summit with limitless views of the surroundings and the magnificent Lough Atona. The Marble Arch Caves Geopark, which hosts this walk, is also home to a grand underground cave-river system.
Enter here a marvellous underworld of rivers; palatial, gleaming rooms; a magical spool of winding passages and lanes. Stalactites and stalagmites at various levels of growth, brimming miniature rim pools and bubbling cascades of creamy calcite coat walls, all stand silent with the soundtrack of a river in the background. Just above the ground are wildflower meadows and the Marble Arch National Nature Reserve.
Water is an essential feature of life here. Back in Enniskillen, we were heavily urged to take a ferry to Devenish Island, a sixth century monastic site on Lough Erne. A 40-minute boat ride (it had a bar) later, we were ushered on to this tiny island, which still holds a tiny church -- walls only -- and a round tower from the 12th century. In the distance, cows stared at us from beyond an electric fence, pulpy mouths moving in tandem.
The island also has a graveyard full of beautiful monuments to death, including a very unusual carved stone cross from the 15th century. This is one of the most important of Lough Erne’s many ancient island church settlements – dioramas of the wet, washed-out and lonely lives thousands of monks must have sought and found. (No beer on a motor boat for them.)
On our way back to town, the sun was low and long; wispy Virga clouds created smoke screens across the sky. On the water, rowboats appeared, scurrying in a long line like multi-limbed water beetles.
A very enthusiastic and proud Enniskillen native told us about the quirkiest museum I have ever had the pleasure to find. We would not otherwise have found the utterly delightful Headhunters Barber Shop cum Railway Museum -- the world’s only such two-for-one, and where you can still get a haircut.
Enniskillen used to have a railway station back when trains were the preferred mode of travel. After its closure in 1957, the two Johnston brothers bought over most of the signs and knickknacks and created this mini sanctuary for a shutdown station in their barber shop: it recreates railway travel through Fermanagh and the border counties.
At the end, Nigel Johnston, who walked us through the three packed rooms, quaint beyond belief, showed me a “what if” photo of a railway station if trains still ran through Enniskillen. He stamped our tourist postcards with an old railway stamp on our way out. In the most life-affirming way possible, this little corner of local history and chronicle has, over the years, been adopted by hundreds of railway fans around Ireland, who send the Johnstons lovingly salvaged items from a life which once had trains. It’s the kind of secret best whispered to a stranger looking for a parking spot.
Dollakis: Cozy Greek restaurant, delightfully surprising in its wide vegetarian options.
Rebecca’s Café at the Butter Market: This market square is full of boutiques and shops run by local artists. The best part is this glass-fronted café in the sunny yard.
The Happiness Trap: The only vegetable outsiders associate with Ireland is tragedy potatoes. This vegetarian café turns that around: it’s a great spot for a coffee, snack and people-watching on main street.
Charlie’s Bar: Dependable beer and snacks, but do avoid the wine, which doesn’t look like anyone has ordered it since Charlie’s opened.
Grannie Annie’s: Good beer and cider on tap, and passable bar food, plus a lively crowd and big TV screens for people who like to yell at sports.
If budgets aren’t a concern, look to the Killyhevlin Lakeside Hotel a kilometre from Enniskillen: sprawling estate on the shore of the Fermanagh Lakeland, and self-catering lodges for longer stays if you want to work on that novel.
More convenient, modern and boutique-y: The Enniskillen Hotel, with four stars and an excellent restaurant.
B-and-Bees: this apartment right next to the lake, please.
Padmaparna Ghosh is a New York-based freelance journalist.
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