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Dive in, it’s lovely in Northern Ireland

The forest spa at Finn Lough

By Sarah Marshall

Despite being one of the most in demand items of 2020, more coveted than a Gucci handbag – and at times just as overpriced, it’s still hard to get excited about hand sanitiser. But the Boatyard Distillery in County Fermanagh has done it’s best to beautify the cleaning product becoming as much of a holiday staple as a bucket and spade.

Like many producers of spirits, they switched to creating the product early in the pandemic, taking the noble decision to supply hospitals and care homes in Enniskillen with 10,000 litres free of charge.

“We had to take on extra staff; students, family friends who were stuck with nothing to do,” says founder Joe McGirr, exemplifying the kind of wartime zeal that’s welded communities at a time when they’ve been forced to physically function apart.

But now, Joe and his team are looking forward to resuming production of their award-winning gin and vodka.

Bars, restaurants, hotels and attractions have reopened in Northern Ireland and the Boatyard’s gleaming copper stills are once again welcoming public tours.

When I arrive at the marina on the banks of Lough Erne, visitor ‘bubbles’ are huddled around wooden sherry barrels (used as casks to age the Boatyard’s Old Tom Gin), spread comfortably throughout the room.

Of course, tours have been tweaked in line with new regulations: numbers have been reduced from 25 to eight; surfaces are cleaned between sessions; and there’s no more touching and sniffing of botanicals. But enthusiasm and dry humour counter any sterility, meaning safety has not been at the expense of fun.

Scents of Italian juniper berries, Amalfi lemons and peppery sweet gale (foraged from the less sexy surrounds of Irish bogs) fill the air, along with a sense of optimism. Although delayed by the pandemic, there are plans to convert a waterside warehouse into a glass-fronted tasting area and cocktail bar, serviced by a water taxi dropping guests at the jetty.

At the Finn Lough resort, a 25-minute drive away a collection of standalone suites and lodges spread along the water, and bubble domes occupying their own forest niche, are a natural fit for a remote, secluded retreat.

A bubble dome at Finn Lough

A transparent, plastic igloo erected by air pressure, my bubble dome is irresistibly cosy; a mood shaped by a bathtub, four-poster bed and Otis Redding spinning on a portable turntable.

Not that it really matters. Simply being in the forest is enough for me.

Dinner is another novelty. Aside from the immense delight of not having to cook or wash up, it feels special to dine in the company of others, listening to the hushed voices of strangers and the clatter of cutlery.

We eat at a table set in the library, below the gaze of a grandfather clock, but there are plans to open a new restaurant area and lough-side cabin with a firepit.

Connected by a woodland trail, Finn Lough’s forest spa’s five sensory areas include a floatation room, saunas and a hot tub. The two-hour journey (aided by rubber slippers and a warm robe) is limited to two people at a time, making Finn Lough one of the few properties eligible to reopen its spa.

A ladder leads from the steaming Finnish sauna into Lough Erne. The first few steps are undeniably difficult and clunky, but grappling slippery stones with bare feet delivers a reassuring sense of connectivity. Digging my toes into soft soil, I watch a flotilla of elegant swans slice through the mist, like ghost ships gliding without any course. Perhaps it’s simply down to the invigorating cold air, but every nerve in my body is alert, finally stirred from a long, deep sleep.

A short drive from Finn Loch, the Marble Arch Caves Geopark is a highlight attraction in Fermanagh. Operating with smaller groups, tours of the limestone caves have reopened, and a new guided interpretation above ground is being offered.

Guide Ian shares a 16-year passion for plants as we weave through a lost world of ancient ferns, wet ash woodland and tea-stained waterfalls tumbling over bedding planes carved by the ice age. Similar temperate rainforests can be found in Greenland, he says, and once covered most of Ireland.

The environment is spectacular, but Ian’s knowledge unlocks a magical dimension: I nibble wood sorel sweeter than an apple sherbet; giggle at the phallic appearance of Lords-and-

ladies plants; and marvel at high calcite tufa rock, able to petrify every living thing in its path.

From fascinating plants to chef-cooked meals, as doors slowly open and we start to explore, every detail of rediscovery is a joy.

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