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, in Northern Ireland, has done its best to beautify the cleaning product set to become 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. But now, founder Joe McGirr and his team are looking forward to resuming production of their award-winning gin and vodka 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.
When we enter the gin production parlour, where shiny, bulbous machinery could be a fit for Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
Scents of Italian juniper berries, Amalfi lemons and peppery sweet gale (foraged from the less sexy surrounds of Irish bogs) fill the air.
The Finn Lough resort is a 25-minute drive away. With a collection of standalone suites and lodges spread along the water, and bubble domes occupying their own forest niche, it’s a natural fit for a remote, secluded retreat.
Complying with the new normal has demanded some compromises, admits co-owner Gillian Beare, but hospitality and service remains the same.
A transparent, plastic igloo erected by air pressure, my bubble dome is irresistibly cosy; a mood shaped by a bathtub and four-poster bed.
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.
Gillian laments it was necessary to swap fine-dining tasting menus for a stripped-back selection of pizzas, burgers and tasting bowls. Nevertheless, every dish is freshly prepared and homemade.
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.
The greatest post-lockdown treat, however, is delivered by Finn Lough’s forest spa. Connected by a woodland trail, 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 this 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 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 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.
A short drive away, the Marble Arch Caves Geopark is a highlight attraction. 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 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.
Ian hopes lockdown will have given people a renewed appreciation for the wild world. Absence does, after all, make the heart grow fonder.
For now, one thing’s for certain: from fascinating plants to chef-cooked meals, as doors slowly open and we start to explore, every detail of rediscovery is a joy.
Although delayed by the pandemic, there are plans to convert a waterside warehouse on the banks of Lough Erne into a glass-fronted tasting area and cocktail bar, serviced by a water taxi dropping guests at the jetty.
Stay in a bubble dome from £245 per night based on two people sharing, including breakfast.
Stays in the catered suites start from £120 per night.
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