There’s much more to Northern Ireland than basalt rocks, no matter how famous they might be. Sasha Arms gives the causeway a giant elbow and opts for a spot of “aquaplaning” instead…
Ask any traveller heading to Northern Ireland where they plan to visit and the Giant’s Causeway will be the standard answer. Sure, you don’t get to see thousands of natural hexagonal columns crawling with coachloads of tourists every day, but is this all Northern Ireland has to offer visitors? The unfortunate truth is that not many visitors veer far away from the country’s northern coast, with those travelling to the southern tracts of Northern Ireland few and far between. This region of the country certainly has a lot to offer, but for the adventurous it has to be seaplanes that top the list.
Lough Erne, covering an area of 55 square miles (that’s twice the size of Loch Lomond or Loch Ness in Scotland), is described by The Amphibious Flying Club as being “the most beautiful runway in the world”. Flying out of the miniscule St Angelo Airport in Enniskillen – which consists of a handful of offices and the all-important in-house greasy spoon – The Amphibious Flying Club offers visitors the chance to be taken on a flight on a four-seater Cessna aircraft.
Steve Powell, owner of The Amphibious Flying Club, and his wife Tracie upped sticks from their Midlands home several years ago so that Steve could follow his dream of running a flying school and pleasure flight business in stunning surroundings. They haven’t looked back since, and while Steve spends most of his days in the air over Lough Erne, Tracie is in charge of the office and expanding the business. Next on the agenda? To be the first flying school to have a ramp that will allow the seaplane to launch directly onto the water.
Personally, I found the thought of the whole thing abominably nerve-wracking. So much so that I would have been happy to carry on chatting to Tracie while someone else took the flight for me. A vision of me inside a toy-sized plane, being ragged around in the wind and driving rain filled me with something close to horror. But ever the stubborn and intrepid journalist, I opted to smile stiffly, allow someone to put my life jacket on and follow instructions to climb up the side of the plane and fold myself into the midget-sized co-pilot seat. Steve chatted to me easily via my pilot headphones, as if he was taking me for a spin in his car. The taxi to the runway was certainly the peak of my fear, which I attempted to quash by taking photos furiously. It turns out that most were of mine or Steve’s knees.
In reality, the fear was totally irrational. I only realised we had taken off when I spotted the airport building getting smaller. We could have actually been in a bubble, drifting up into the air. The liquid smooth flight was made better by the striking views, despite the treacherous weather. I even surprised myself by embracing the suggestion that we land on the lake. Let’s face it, it’s not very often that you’ll get the opportunity to sit in a plane’s co-pilot seat, land in a ‘covert’ location on the water then pretend you are making a 24-esque Jack Bauer style getaway when you take off again. Oh, was that just me? (Blushing face).
From plane to boat and boat to plane, takeoffs and landings are a total non event in the seaplane, such is the unobtrusive, drifting nature of the flight. While I went on a 20-minute trip, passengers can make their trip completely bespoke. If you want to make more of a day of it, or simply travel in style, there are a number of spots in the local area where you can be dropped off and picked up at again later. For a start, there are more than 150 islands on Lough Erne. Devenish Island is one of the bigger ones, and has ruins of a monastic settlement and what is widely considered to be one of the best surviving examples of a medieval round tower. If you’d prefer to make a real occasion of it, you can also be dropped off at the five star Lough Erne golf resort for a slap up lunch. The Amphibious Flying Club has also recently received its Air Operators Certificate, meaning it can now operate commercial flights. So why not take the fancy way home? It’s an upgrade from Ryanair, to say the least.
If you’re really getting into the thought of this seaplane malarkey, then there will be no better time to take a trip over to Northern Ireland than this September. The Fermanagh Seaplane Festival is going on from 23rd to 25th September 2011. The event will see seaplanes return to Fermanagh’s original Catalina base, used during the Second World War. On the first day of the event, a number of seaplanes will land in Enniskillen town centre, while the following two days will be full of seaplane flights and demonstrations.
If you do make it to the Giant’s Causeway after zipping around in a seaplane the day before, you’ll be feeling very smug indeed. Especially when you get asked by another American tourist to take another photo of them next to another rock. The Giant’s Causeway is cool, but seaplanes are definitely cooler.
A 20 minute flight costs £110 and the plane has space for 3 passengers. www.the-amphib-flyingclub.co.uk