AS anyone who has attempted negotiating aeroplane travel with young children will testify, the hassle of flying abroad for a family holiday can often outweigh the perceived harmony.
With a 15-month-old afflicted by niggliness when she can’t escape for a crawl and a five-and-a-half-year-old destined for relentless “are-we-there-yet?” boredom if strapped in to a plane seat for the best part of three hours, a decision was taken by the powers-that-be in our household that all trips in 2017 would be confined to mainland Britain.
Until, that is, the possibility of ferrying to Northern Ireland was brought to our attention. A channel hop to the Emerald Isle may lack the obvious allure of Lake Garda or the Algarve – last year’s destinations – but, in the search for a change of scenery which didn’t involve planes, trains or a seemingly endless drive, the prospect of sailing from Cairnryan (just north of Stranraer) to Larne (just north of Belfast) with P&O Ferries swiftly began to float our boat.
Although we embarked on the trip with no notable knowledge of the Northern Irish landscape beyond the capital city or with no previous experience of holidaying with our car aboard a ferry, our decision paid off in the form of a genuinely relaxing weekend break in a beautiful, bustle-free part of the UK.
From the moment we arrived at Cairnryan port, following a glorious drive down Scotland’s scenic south-west coast, the ferry experience was smooth. After pitching up an hour before departure, we were able to get out of the car for a while to stretch the legs, grab a coffee and a snack from the departure lounge, let the kids blow off steam in the soft play area and by walking them to the water’s edge. It was all far more relaxed than an hour or two in an airport.
We returned to the car around half an hour before sailing time, took advantage of the speedy boarding offer, and drove into the parking deck. In an obvious but welcome boost, there is no luggage limit beyond what can fit in your vehicle, and there is never any need for trailing bags and cases around with this method of travel as everything can remain tucked away in the car until your accommodation is reached. All we needed from the car was the buggy to wheel the youngest around the main deck, with plenty space to walk about and keep the kids occupied.
There are plenty of bars, restaurants and shops available, although we opted to upgrade to the Club Lounge (£12 per adult), which is a quieter room offering maximum comfort plus free wine, tea, coffee, soft drinks and various snacks. Meals can be ordered to your table here via the ever-helpful hostesses.
We were able to keep the children occupied by taking them to the kids’ room, with a movie entertaining the eldest, while the youngest revelled in having her own floor space in which to get off the leash. The outside deck space afforded fine views, particularly when leaving or arriving at both ports, as well as a chance to savour some fresh sea air.
After a pleasant two-hour sailing, the disembarkation process was smooth. It is literally a case of taking an elevator back down to your car, driving off the front of the boat and then on to your destination, which in our case was the village of Fivemiletown in County Tyrone.
The roads were relatively quiet and easy to negotiate, with the hour-and-a-bit drive inland taking us through some gorgeous, lush, green countryside. Breathtaking scenery would be a regular theme of our relaxing stint in Northern Ireland. After checking into the Valley Hotel – a welcoming, family-run, three-star hotel offering a spacious family room, a restaurant of which the quality and heartiness of its meals are renowned locally and a sumptuous, freshly-prepared breakfast – we set off to the nearby Blessingbourne Country Estate to spend some time outdoors in the most heavenly environment imaginable.
Nestled amid woodlands, lakes and wildlife on the edge of the Clogher Valley, Blessingbourne is a 550-acre estate billed on its website as “one of North West Ireland’s most tranquil and unique destinations, brimming with character”. A few minutes after arriving, it is clear we can’t argue with this assertion. Owners Colleen and Nicholas Lowry, who live in Blessingbourne House – the lakeside focal point of the estate – are incredibly welcoming and have created a homely and relaxed ambience for guests at their award-winning self-catering apartments. Prince Charles and Camilla can be counted among the estate’s most illustrious visitors to an estate which specialises in family breaks, romantic breaks and groups and also provides pet-friendly accommodation. On-site activities include mountain bike trails, a bespoke walking trail, a working farm featuring cows, horses, ponies, peacocks, chickens and goats, and 18-acre coarse fishing on private lakes as well as a child-friendly environment. Our few hours on the estate were so enjoyable, we returned for a brief stop-off a couple of days later on our way back to the ferry port.
In between times, we spent the Saturday morning at Marble Arch Caves, which is a series of natural limestone caves located near the village of Florencecourt in County Fermanagh. An enthusiastic and knowledgeable tour guide led us through the natural underworld of rivers, waterfalls, winding passages and lofty chambers while stunningly beautiful cave formations glistened all around. After lunch at the on-site café, we drove to the nearby island town of Enniskillen to board the 56-seat water bus MV Kestrel – run by Erne Tours – and enjoy some of County Fermanagh’s Lough Erne waterway and its historic islands such as the ancient monastic site at Devenish Island.
With the sun beating down and an on-board bar to take advantage of, this was a pleasant way to spend a Saturday afternoon before heading for dinner at the decadent Watermill Lodge at Kilmore Quay, an eaterie voted best restaurant in Fermanagh for the past five years. This delicious meal (goat’s cheese tart to start and seabass for main) in the most idyllic lakeside setting was one of several delights in a short and enjoyable break in the Emerald Isle.
Anthony Brown was a guest of P&O Ferries. P&O are currently running two offers. Children aged under 16 travel free (this applies for single and return journeys of any duration on the Larne/Cairnryan route) on bookings made by August 16th, 2017 for travel until December 15, 2017.
Summer Surprise Offer: Passengers who book by June 26, 2017 will be given one of three surprises to enjoy. The prizes, which will be gifted at random when booking, include free upgrade to priority boarding; a £15 voucher for the food court; or free upgrade to a flexi ticket (you can choose which direction you’d prefer extra flexibility). Return travel must be completed by September 30, 2017. Visit www.poferries.com for further details.
Source : HeraldScotland