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The vast, varied waters of County Fermanagh

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Boa Island
White Island
Lough Navar Forest
Castle Archdale Park
Crom Estate
Fermanagh is the only one of Northern Ireland's 6 counties that doesn't come in contact with Lough Neagh. It makes up for that by including the country's second and third largest lakes: Upper and Lower Erne. They're so long that, together, they almost chop the entire county in half. A short river connects the two, where the town of Enniskillen sits.

Enniskillen Castle.
Photo Northern Ireland Tourist Board
Naturally, the Upper Erne is the higher of the two, while the Lower Erne is closer to the sea. However, on a map they seem upside down, as the Lower Lough is further to the north. Both are really just broad sections of the River Erne. As it makes its journey to the Atlantic Ocean, it changes wildly in size and shape. The Lower Lough becomes very wide and deep, with vast expanses of open water. The Upper Lough, on the other hand, is a congested maze of tiny islands.

Lower Lough Erne.
Photo Kenneth Allen
Some of these lumps of land became peninsulas, after the water level was lowered by drainage schemes in the 1880s. Nevertheless, they're usually still referred to as islands, to avoid confusion. Sometimes they come up for sale - but before you reach for your credit card, take note of the price tag. A small one called Inishturk was sold in 2007 for nearly £700,000.

Lusty Beg Ferry, taking vehicles to Lusty Beg Island in Lower Lough Erne.
Photo Kenneth Allen
Altogether there are well over a hundred islands, plus all sorts of coves and inlets, giving canoeists plenty of fascinating nooks and crannies to explore. The calm bays offer perfect conditions for waterskiing and wakeboarding - so much so that they regularly host important competitions. A similarly prestigious contest is the Lough Erne Regatta, Ireland's oldest series of sailing races. They've been held every year since the early 19th century, out on the ocean-like waves of the Lower Lough.

Canoeing on Upper Lough Erne.
Photo stevecadman
Despite all the organised events, there's still plenty of space for quiet, casual cruising. There are no commercial craft to contend with, so sometimes it feels like you've got the whole lake to yourself. A morning's fishing, followed by a slow pub lunch at one of the surrounding towns, is regarded by many as the perfect weekend.

Boating on Lough Erne.
Photo Kenneth Allen
While investigating the lake, it's best to keep a close eye on your map. One, because it's easy to get lost, and two, because you'll want to hunt out the interesting islands hidden amongst the labyrinthine waterways. The largest, with a length of 5 miles, is Boa Island. It's also the easiest to find, as both ends are connected to the mainland via bridges. Its name comes from an old Celtic goddess of war, who could take the form of a crow or wolf. These old religions are remembered at the eerie Caldragh Graveyard, with two ancient, creepy stone figures.

Stone Figure on Boa Island.
Photo Northern Ireland Tourist Board
There are some similar monuments on the nearby White Island: 8 in total, each with a different expression. The figures are carved into the ruined walls of White Island Church, which was built way back in the 12th century. However, the carvings are believed to be several hundred years older than that, and no-one knows who their maker might have been.

The White Island Figures.
Photo Northern Ireland Tourist Board
The Christians left many of their own relics here, most notably on Devenish Island. Its round tower rises up 30 metres in the air, offering a wonderful vantage point. From the top, monks could easily spot approaching attackers, giving them plenty of time to hide their valuables.

The Round Tower.
Photo Überraschungsbilder
Travellers on the water's surface have to share space with its many feathered residents, such as swans and terns. There are dozens of species, making this a popular spot for birdwatchers. Take care though, as sometimes the creatures get a little too friendly, following your boat with loud squawks and madly flapping wings.

Lough Navar Forest

This huge forest clings to the western shore of Lower Lough Erne. The best view is from the top of the Magho cliffs, over 300 metres above sea level. You can see for miles, over the lake's islands and across to County Donegal in Ireland. On clear days you can catch sight of Slieve League, 36 miles away. This panorama is the reward for conquering a 370-step, 700 foot staircase. Alternatively, you can use the one-way, 7-mile driving route. It's been specifically designed for camera-toting tourists, so its length is scattered with viewpoints, picnic areas and parking. If you intend to both arrive and leave the forest on foot, you can use the Ulster Way. It passes through Lough Navar as part of its loop around the country. There are plenty of other walking routes too. Just be aware that you might be sharing them with wild deer and goats.

Photo Northen Ireland Tourist Board

Castle Archdale Park

This 230-acre section of parkland was originally the estate of Archdale Manor House, an 18th century building. Nowadays, only its courtyards are still standing, so the grounds ended up outlasting their house! The biggest remaining building contains a museum called the Archdale Centre. Many of the exhibits focus on World War II. The manor is on the eastern bank of Lough Erne, so it became an important base for seaplanes. Other remainders from that conflict are scattered throughout Castle Archdale, including ammunition dumps and trenches. Thankfully, these sad memories have since been overrun by prettier sights, like wildflower meadows and butterfly gardens. A protected enclosure hosts herds of red deer. On the shore, boats are available to rent. It's not far to the ancient monasteries on islands like Devenish.

Photo Northen Ireland Tourist Board

Crom Estate

This spot, on the banks of the Upper Lough Erne, is undeniably picturesque. It's no surprise to find that, in years gone by, Northern Ireland's upper classes built expensive mansions here. The most recent 19th century property is a private residence, but you are allowed to see the ruins of an older, 17th century house. More importantly, most of the grounds are open to the public. The only restricted areas are around a few of the trees. These are among the oldest in Europe, and they're so frail that the slightest touch could have a devastating effect! Designated nature trails offer safe routes through the 2000-acre estate's best bits - either through the woods, or along the Erne's shore. Take one of the regular guided tours to learn about all the rare species of plants and animals that live here. Alternatively, get more information at the Visitor Centre. They'll tell you how to rent a boat and explore the Lough's scattered islands. Afterwards, you can restore your energy in the tea room, while children use the playground to burn theirs.

Photo Northen Ireland Tourist Board
Visitor Information
Enniskillen Castle is open Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm (from 2pm on Saturdays and Mondays) Closed Sundays (except in July & August). Entry costs around £4 per adult, £3 children. Enniskillen Castle, Castle Barracks, Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, BT74 7HL. Tel: 028 66 325000
Lough Erne Boat Tours - Contact the Fermanaugh Tourist Information Centre for more information. Tel: 028 6632 3110
Lough Navar Forest Park is opened from 10am until sunset. There is a fee for the forest drive. It's signposted from the A46, 5 miles north-west of Derrygonnelly. Tel: 028 8167 0666
Castle Archdale Country Park is open 9am - 9pm (earlier in winter). Admission is free. It's located just outside the village of Lisnarick, about 10 miles north-west of Enniskillen. NI Environment Agency: 028 6862 1588.
The Crom Estate is open daily from 10am until 6pm (later in summer). Admission is around £4 for adults and £2 for children. It's located 3 miles west of Newtownbutler on the Newtownbutler to Crom road. National Trust: 028 6773 8118.

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