ENNISKILLEN, Northern Ireland — “Pity about this weather you’re having,” the police officer joked, as she halted me at a checkpoint along Belleek Road. It was amid cloud-blotted skies and mercurial flashes of sun that I was en route to County Fermanagh’s Lough Erne Resort; my first visit to Northern Ireland’s remotest county coinciding with its staging of the 39th G8 Summit. “At least it’s indicative of what it’s usually like,” she added, scanning the contents of my car before yielding me on toward the country’s tightest security hot spot.
President Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and the leaders of Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, and Russia will meet here June 17-18.
Winding up the driveway of the host venue for the event, the five-star resort was quick to surprise. The main hotel is a Provençal-inspired château, buttressed by a terrace of turreted rental lodges, all within the backdrop of a Nick Faldo-designed golf course. “The whole team is really excited about the G8,” said Adrian McNally, the resort’s operations manager, upon my check-in. “But if we could just get a picture of President Obama swinging a club here,” he added, “now that would be our dream.”
Complementing the fairways and French facade was an interior of gentrified Anglo-Irish touches: roaring fires in the lobby, a lavish library to while away a morning with local literature, and a pleasing garden room for afternoon tea. Affable concierge Neil Mangan-Fry ushered me to my lake-view room: a classic manor affair with lustrous touches including mahogany furnishings, Irish linen, and an impressive claw-foot bathtub. A pair of binoculars was at hand to observe the mallards and grebes nesting in the wheaten rushes of the lough below. Tranquillity seemed to echo with the lake’s every ripple.
While Lough Erne may be best known for fishing, to cast a more historical eye on the region, I began my local exploration at Devenish Island, one of Ireland’s finest early Christian monastic settlements. I reached the site aboard the MV Kestrel waterbus, joined by a class from Holy Trinity, a local Catholic primary school. “We’re actually meeting up with pupils from the local Protestant school on the island,” teacher Katrina Cathcart, explained, referring to Northern Ireland’s new wave of cross-community integration projects. It was Northern Ireland’s status as a beacon for peace, coupled with Fermanagh’s protest-deterring seclusion, that is said to have decided Cameron when choosing this G8 center stage.
As the pupils disembarked to discover the island, I wandered across moss-marbled Celtic crosses and ancient abbey ruins toward Devenish’s 6th-century round tower. Through dampened darkness, I tentatively clambered up a ladder to the upper conical chamber, where beyond narrow slit windows, Fermanagh’s verdant countryside undulated in the mists. Perched aloft with this panorama, it wasn’t difficult to appreciate the county’s serene, secluded appeal for early settlers — as well as for the prime minister.
Back at the resort’s Blaney Bar the main chatter was about Lough Erne’s G8 banquet. “We’re serving a map of Ireland menu,” said head chef Noel McMeel. “Our aim is to showcase Ireland’s excellent fish, meats, and dairy produce.” Details of the menu remained tightly guarded, though McMeel did divulge one exclusive: “For breakfast we’re serving boxty,” he whispered, referring to Ireland’s traditional potato pancake. My own breakfast was more a case of colonial over customary however. I opted for kedgeree: an Anglo-Indian invention of fragrant curried rice, flaked smoked Irish salmon, and parsley topped with a poached egg. The dish was as delicious as it was curious.
Down the road in Enniskillen, meanwhile, the finishing touches were being made for the town’s spruce-up. Centered around a pretty marina, medieval castle, and the wonderfully artisanal Buttermarket of wood-turners, jewelers, and artists, Enniskillen has seen $450,000 invested in its G8 airbrush.
The town is also a gateway for boating across Lough Erne and so I ventured out on a cabin-cruiser with local outfitter Carrickcraft. To a lulling lap across the lakelands, my six-berth Waterford vessel serenely tacked into the wilds of Lough Erne, which spans nine miles at its widest juncture. Amid the warren of 154 islands, I dropped anchor at the tiny islet of InishDavar, which lay shadowed by a thick canopy of stately oak and willows. Beyond lay an island forest floor, snow-dropped with wild garlic and carpeted with a royal flush of bluebell blooms. It was in this most secret of Irish gardens that I realized Fermanagh’s uncharted lakelands may be about to get current.