Travel: Scaling the heights in fabulous Fermanagh
John Manley is lured to Fermanagh with the promise of panoramic upland views and world class hospitality
STERLING'S near parity with the euro means I've adopted a new approach to mini breaks. No longer do I blinkeredly insist that we escape south of the border and instead I'm content to get better value for money at a destination somewhere within the ‘occupied six'.
Overcoming long-held prejudices in the face of economic necessity has resulted in some very pleasant surprises. While I never doubted Fermanagh's beauty (I like lakes, hills and woodland), the standard of the county's hospitality has surpassed all expectations.
We were drawn to the north's most westerly county by Cuilcagh mountain, a destination whose popularity has surged since the installation three years ago of a stepped boardwalk leading to the 665 m (2181 ft) summit.
While this ‘stairway to heaven' has made the final 1.5km of the trek to Ireland's 165th highest peak less of a slog, ease of access wasn't the rationale behind it. Rather, the 450-step wooden structure is designed to protect the ecologically important hilltop blanket bog from erosion.
From the summit on a clear day it's aid you can see much of the Fermanagh lakelands and beyond.
Our upland ramble's prep began with lunch at Café Merlot in Enniskillen. With only a discreet sign on Church Street to alert you to its presence, this is clearly an eatery whose success is founded on solid reputation rather than seduction.
The restaurant is located behind – or is it beneath? – Blakes of the Hollow, in the cellar that reputedly once housed this famous pub's beer barrels. The beautiful vaulted ceilings give the space a medieval feel but with a warm, welcoming atmosphere. We shared specials of seafood linguini and a lamb hotpot, the latter especially welcome with snow beginning to fall outside.
After lunch there was a clear temptation to abort the walk and spend the afternoon right where we were, as that appeared to be what many other Café Merlot diners planned. However, with a meal booked later at the hotel, it was essential that we burned calories with a brisk afternoon walk, even if conditions were far from perfect.
On weekends for much of the year the car park at the base of the Legnagbrocky Trail (£5 charge) is rammed. When we arrive on a Friday in January there's only one other car and six inches of snow on the ground. We're 20 minutes drive south west of Enniskillen, not far from the entrance to the Marble Arch Caves.
If we reach our destination 7.5 km away we'll be within a stone's throw of the Cavan border but we're on the trail no more than 10 minutes when it starts snowing again, turning increasingly horizontal as we gain altitude and become more exposed.
Half way along the trail but still out of sight of the boardwalk and knee-deep in snow, we stop to chat with a Cuilcagh veteran who's own decision to turn back convinces us it's not worth persevering.
Within 90 minutes we're checked into our spacious room at the Westville Hotel in Enniskillen and soothing chilled bones in a deep hot bath.
The hotel is located on the edge of the town centre within easy walking distance of pubs and cafés and attractions like Enniskillen Castle and the rather novel Headhunters Railway Museum & Barber Shop on Darling Street.
The latter boasts an extensive collection of Irish railway memorabilia, which ostensibly sounds only for the anoraks but turns out to have much broader appeal. The castle has recently undergone a £3.5 million refurbishment, making its varied history even more accessible.
While it was disappointing that we failed to get to the top of Cuilcagh, the upside is it gives us a good excuse to get back to Fermanagh soon for a second attempt.
:: Prices for the Westville hotel start at £80 per room for a classic double room including bed and breakfast and from £145 for dinner, bed & breakfast. For accommodation, special offers, events and what to see & do in the area visit www.fermanaghlakelands.com