The greening of Belle Isle

 

ETHICAL TRAVELLER:  CATHERINE MACKon responsible tourism

BELLE ISLE IS indeed a beautiful island, and one of many along the shores of Lower and Upper Lough Erne in Co Fermanagh. But this is the only one to boast a castle. And a green one at that. Over the past three years, the owner of the magnificent Belle Isle estate, the Duke of Abercorn, and its manager, Charles Plunket, have undertaken a sustainability makeover. They started by replacing the castle’s oil burning boiler with a state-of-the-art wood pellet burner, using locally sourced fuel. Seeing not only the cost but also the carbon benefits, they went on to replace all the lightbulbs – and then they saw the light.

Charles does admit, however, that this was one of the most challenging moments, saying: “I discovered, to my horror, that there were 553 light bulbs, of which only seven were low energy”. Although, I must confess to being slightly more in awe of the 950 paintings which light up every wall of this castle, with Charles able to name every piece in this exciting, eclectic private art collection.

Not only did Charles succeed in changing every lightbulb, but he is also now researching the installation of solar panels. This transformation in the way they think about their tourism product has become a labour of love for Charles, and he was recently rewarded with the EU Flower Ecolabel, a prestigious international accreditation, supported by Fáilte Ireland, for exemplary green practices.

Belle Isle estate caters for all sorts of guests. The castle is beyond most people’s weekend break budgets, for sure, although it sleeps 14 so you could share the costs, and you do need a big “cast” for what feels like the set of some period drama. The courtyard apartments and coach house were still bigger than my flat, and with their four-star self-catering rating, and design that stepped straight out of Tatlermagazine, I still felt as if I was lording it here.

Of course, it’s not Belle Isle’s green credentials which brings people here, but the gentle waters of Upper and Lower Lough Erne and their surrounding woodlands and walking trails, all exceptionally tranquil and unspoilt. Belle Isle’s contribution to the preservation of some of what is, undeniably, Fermanagh’s finest natural heritage is all part of their drive for sustainability, with the estate and farm a designated Area of Special Scientific Interest. Walking the hills and shores was like one big nature lesson, as I tried to identify the wide variety of old Irish trees, including huge horse chestnuts, beech, ash and yew. And the birdlife was so abundant that on my early morning walk, the dawn chorus didn’t ever seem to stop.

Hire a bike and go exploring the shores, as Belle Isle is on the northern tip of Upper Lough Erne, linked to the “mainland” by a tiny bridge. You can order hire bikes to be delivered to Belle Isle from wildflowercyclingholidays.com and head out on the Kingfisher Cycle Trail, which takes in all of the Lower Lough, and some of the Upper one. See sustrans.org for maps.

If you are travelling via Enniskillen, make sure you stop at O’Doherty’s butchers to stock up for dinner. He rears his pigs on their own deserted island on Lough Erne, and cures the bacon with no added water or phosphates. Between his award-winning burgers, wild venison steaks, and freshly picked wild mushrooms, you can stock up here for a week.

Or you can come to this beautiful island and just cook beautiful food, as it also has a cookery school on the grounds, teaching with a slow food ethos, and sourcing produce locally (irish-cookery-school.com). You can’t get much closer than their old walled garden, where Charles has planted a vast orchard.

  • See belleisle-estate.com. Apartments from £215 (three nights), coach house from £235 (three nights), castle £1,850 (three nights, low season), £2,150 (three nights, high season), up to £3,600 a week in high season
  • Read Catherine’s blog at ethicaltraveller.net or follow her at twitter.com/catherinemack