24 things I found out on an active outdoors trip to Northern Ireland
I was invited to take a P&O ferry from Cairnryan in Scotland to Larne in Northern Ireland to enjoy three days of activities, including the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark, a hike up Cuilcagh Mountain, caving and mountain biking. It was a fun trip and here are some of the things I discovered (in no particular order).
(I do not have to write nice things about anything on the trip so it’s not a promo style article. However, I did enjoy a lot of it.)
1 While I have travelled to Northern Ireland before via plane and Stena Line I had not taken the P&O ferry. It turned out to be a good choice. The staff are super friendly and the Club Lounge (free drinks, snacks, wifi) is a great bonus.
2 County Fermanagh is not a place I’d been to before nor thought about going to. However, it’s an attractive location with beautiful countryside and lots of activities. It took about two hours to drive to from Larne ferry terminal. The G-Force was quite grumpy about the drive at the start but he ended up enjoying the weekend away!
3 County Fermanagh is one of six counties in Northern Ireland and lies on the border with the Republic of Ireland. It seems to jut out on several sides into the republic so we ended up driving into other counties of the republic without even realising it.
4 The dividing line runs down the middle of of a loch, Upper Lough MacNean.
5 On this note, the border is not enforced so you do not appear to need a passport or anything but I did end up being charged by my mobile phone company on a Eurotraveller rate of £3 per day because I had data roaming on. That was very annoying. I suggest you switch off data roaming to avoid this.
6 The main town is Enniskillen, which I confess I have long associated with the 1980s troubles in Northern Ireland. I can recall seeing it on the news are great deal as a child. It turns out the town is lovely,with pretty parks and a beautiful river.
7 Marble Arch Caves in the Global Geopark in County Fermanagh is a great place to visit for a half day. The visitor centre offers an interesting display that reveals the geology of the area.
You can visit the caves themselves (more of a show-cave than the caves I visited with Corralea Activity centre) and take a walk through the valley nearby.
A short walk from the centre reveals the superb geological feature of Marble Arch itself. Weather and water have eroded the limestone to create an arch.
8 There are an impressive 200 caves in the geopark.
9 The cave we went off to explore with Corralea Activity Centre turned out to be located in the Republic of Ireland. We didn’t realise until later. This is because the geopark lies mainly in County Farmangh but also crosses the border into County Caven.
10 The county is mostly created on limestone. This gives a different countryside look to the views I am more familiar with in Scotland.
11 I had assumed the weather and conditions in Northern Ireland would be very similar to the west coast of Scotland. I think it’s actually even wetter than Scotland’s west coast because the countryside seems much greener and more vibrant. I enjoyed the vibrant greens although i would definitely have welcomed more sunshine.
However, amazingly, I didn’t see any midges. It was warm and wet and usually I’d expect to be surrounded by midges but not in Count Fermanagh. Apparently they are a menace in some areas in June and July but seem to disappear in August. That is a big selling point for visiting Northern Ireland in later summer.
12 Cuilcagh is a mountain on the border between County Fermanagh and County Cavan. With a height of 665m, it is the highest point in both counties and the 165th highest on the island of Ireland.
You can follow a very well signposted trail to the top of the mountain, which is 7.4km each way.
The trail to the summit of Cuilcagh crosses a number of habitats, first limestone, then blanket bog and finally the rocky summit.
The 265 hectare site contains internationally important areas of pristine blanket bog, which are home to several rare or endangered species of plants and birds.
After a wide track for a couple of kilometres, the path leads to an impressively long stretch of board walk. The board walk extends across the countryside and rises in a series of long decks and flights of steps.
I can’t decide what I think about this. On the one hand it saves the fragile environment from being trampled over and it allows people to climb a mountain when they might not normally feel experienced or able to.
However, the board walk contrasts sharply with the natural environment and looks a bit ugly in my opinion. It might also encourage people who are not able to cope with a wild and rugged outdoors to progress to the rocky top. There is at least another 1km to navigate through bogs and rocks to reach the summit trig.
Still, it gets more people into the outdoors and it saves the environment form being damaged. It’s a very fine piece of carpentry, too.
And we did enjoy the novelty of walking most of the way up a mountain on an even boardwalk!
14 A lough is a loch, or a lake. The main lough system in County Fermangh, including Upper and Lower Lough MacNean, was created when a huge Ice Age glacier retreated and left behind many moraines that formed myriad islands, now mostly clad in trees.
15 Only half way through the weekend did we realise the Atlantic sea and coast were just 20 minutes from our accommodation, Finn Lough Resort, in Northern Ireland. The tourist maps do not always tie up the attractions of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
When we took the time to look at a map on-line rather than the tourist maps we saw how close the coast was to our west
16 The Full Irish is delicious alternative to the full Scottish. We enjoyed two great breakfasts at Finn Lough Resort, near Enniskillen. They set us up for a day of outdoors activity.
17 An evening meal at Finn Lough restaurant is not cheap but it is delicious and beautifully presented.
18 A pint of Guinness does indeed taste better in Northern Ireland.
19 In car sat nav does not appear to be too good in Northern Ireland, or maybe this was just our experience in County Fermanagh. We had a frustrating day trying to reach the caving when the sat nav took us on small roads instead of major roads. While this is fine if you want to take in the views, it wasn’t so good when trying to get to the caving centre on time.
20 If you have a spare couple of hours en route to Belfast or Larne you could easily head to Blessingbourne Estate and enjoy a walk or mountain biking on a gem of a network of blue and red trails.
The trails have been created in a series of loops and are fun for a couple of hours of riding. You do not need to be particularly skilled for most of the riding and there are plenty of chicken runs where the routes become trickier.
The routes are located amid very pretty countryside and woodlands and someone has spent a lot of time coming up with great names for the loops.
It is also surprising what can be created with very little hills!
My top tip, however, is to take your own mountain bike rather than hire. The Scott bikes for hire would be fine if they were properly maintained. The tyres were also inflated far too hard for the conditions.
21 We loved the town names of Belcoo and Belleek. Bel or bell means “small”, while bally means “place of” in Irish Gaelic.
22 We were surprised to hear many people speaking Irish Gaelic.
23 Belleek is a pretty town. The unpromising exterior of the Black Cat Cove pub led to a large and welcoming interior where we enjoyed meals of fish and chips.
I travelled with P&O Ferries: From Scotland to Northern Ireland on the Cairnryan to Larneferry. The G-Force and I enjoyed the courtesy hospitality of the Club Lounge. We took our car and then drove from Larne to our accommodation Finn Lough Resort. We stayed for two nights in a beautiful apartment and enjoyed a Full Irish breakfast each morning in the dining room/restaurant.
This blog is in collaboration with P&O Ferries.