Travel: Mullans Bay offers a taste of the quiet life on Lower Lough Erne

We need a holiday now more than ever but seeking new experiences must be weighed against Covid safety. Fergal Hallahan thinks Mullans Bay in Co Fermanagh has the balance right

Mullans Bay, its lakeside lodges in the foreground, looking towards Lusty Beg Island and, on the far shore of Lough Erne, Lough Navar Forest viewpoint

NEVER has the phrase ‘get away from it all’ held such weight; usually ‘it all’ encompasses the routine of work, home and school life – ample excuse for a break, in the normal scheme of things – now it also covers the virus, the news and, sadly, other people.

Meanwhile, ‘away’, if you want to do right by that notional granny we’re supposed to be bearing in mind, can’t in conscience imply abroad.

All of which has made taking a holiday both imperative and, well, tricky. But not impossible…

My wife’s mum (speaking of grans) having been born and reared there, Fermanagh hasn’t been entirely unknown territory to me, yet it has usually been a passing-through place on the way to Donegal from Belfast. A pitstop at the Killyhevlin, then on to the west proper, the twisty, hilly road alongside Lough Erne in honesty a hindrance despite the scenery.

However, an invitation in October to spend a weekend at a particular location changed my perception – to the extent, I might as well tell you now, that we have since returned and will, I have no doubt, be back again.

The accommodation itself had a lot to do with it, for two reasons. Firstly, the adjectives spread-out, self-contained and self-catering come into their own in the context of a pandemic holiday, ticking very important boxes regarding Covid safety. Secondly, in this case they describe a destination that’s perfectly suited to its environs; space and quiet are conducive to fully appreciating the loveliness of this part of the world.

Mullans Bay has direct access to Lough Erne and a private jetty

It’s hard to say in a word what exactly Mullans Bay is – ‘resort’ sounds too, well, ‘resorty’ for the set-up: two large five-bedroom houses and an apartment plus six recently built self-contained lodges, all set in 36 acres of privately owned land, right on the shore of Lower Lough Erne, amid woods, bogs and farmland.

In fact Mullans Bay is on Boa Island, which stretches along much of the length of the lough’s northernmost extremity and which is connected to the mainland by bridges at either end.

It manages to successfully marry rustic – which, let’s face it, you want on a trip to the countryside – and, to our tremendous relief, an uncompromising, wholehearted embrace of mod cons. Hands up who’s ever rented a holiday home in Ireland and wondered if they’d missed a bit in the fine print about time-travelling to the 1950s?

On first arrival, owner Adrian – it’s a family business that's friendly and yet runs like clockwork – met us at the key-coded gate in a liveried van to lead us along well-surfaced lanes to our home for the coming days, a Scandinavian-style wood-clad chalet looking out over the water.

One of the lakeside lodges at Mullans Bay, with adjoining private hot-tub overlooking Lough Erne

It was clear from entering our two-bedroom (both ensuite) ‘lodge’ that taste and quality were high on the priority list here: no pound-shop utensils in the drawers of this slick kitchen – drawers that glide softly shut, naturally – with its white marble worktops and discreet-yet-not-too-hard-to-find built-in appliances.

I could go all-out OCD about the kitchen but I’ll spare you; turn around in your mind’s eye when you arrive of a winter's evening and there, lining almost the full width of one wall of the open-plan kitchen, dining and living-room space (well-apportioned, they’d say in the estate agent’s brochure), is floor-to-ceiling glass through which you see the rising moon, its reflection on the dark silvery water, scudding clouds, stars, the silhouettes of trees on a far shore and the twinkling lights of – could it be? – a ferry moving slowly to and fro. That, I think, reader, is when my heart truly opened to Fermanagh.

An early morning exploratory walk with our 11-year-old daughter along the paths through the property confirmed that, yes, what we’d seen in the distance was the small ferryboat to Lusty Beg Island, a short distance to the east of us.

Marble Arch Caves, among Ireland's foremost natural wonders

Rising to the south west, across a wider expanse of the lough, are the brooding cliffs at Lough Navar Forest, the rim of Lower Lough Erne. The dramatic look of them poses invitation and challenge, which we donned our walking boots to take up after breakfast, to be rewarded with astonishing views, on a crisp clear day, as far as the Atlantic, of Donegal, Leitrim and Sligo in between, and of the lough in all its majesty.

Pack your own walking boots and rain gear – we were relatively lucky weather-wise both times we visited Mullans Bay – and even with indoor amenities closed you won’t be stuck for things to do in Fermanagh. A family pilgrimage to my in-laws’ now-gone home place combined with visiting a couple of the favoured haunts of young naturalist Dara McAnulty, whose widely acclaimed book was a hit chez nous last year, brought us on walks to Big Dog Forest, in what’s as near to the middle of nowhere as any other contender in Ireland, and to the surprisingly busy Cuilcagh mountain boardwalk on the Cavan border.

The boardwalk at Cuilcagh mountain

After just shy of a quarter of a century living in the north, I finally made it to Marble Arch Caves and it’s something I can’t recommend highly enough. There were no underground boat trips at the time we visited due to Covid restrictions and the tour guide’s visor made it sometimes hard to hear her above the river’s gushing din but that took little away from the experience of what is undoubtedly one of Ireland’s foremost natural wonders. Its small visitor’s centre impressed too.

Closer to ‘home’ – Big Dog, Ciuilcagh and Marble Arch Caves are all a 45-to-60-minute drive from Mullans Bay, the starting point for the Lough Navar Forest viewpoint climb a 20-minute drive – lie Castle Caldwell and Castle Archdale, six and 10 miles away respectively. The former is a forest with lovely loughshore walks centred on the ruins of a 17th century estate house, the latter a wartime RAF flying boat base that’s now a country park offering water sports and a caravan site.

Mullans Bay can put guests in contact with a very accomplished local caterer, whose services we availed of both times we visited – with restaurants closed, why not? And though the overall pricing is a little more than some might be used to paying for a self-catering staycation, in my estimation Mullans Bay is worth every penny.

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