Saturday, August 8th, 10am
It's the week Derry said goodbye to the titan that was John Hume, and there are pictures of the great man taped up inside many shop windows. The foggy rain that hung around the city for days before and after his funeral has lifted. It's already hot as I drive out from Derry, heading towards the north Antrim coast.
The Wild Atlantic Way is now a well-established coastal drive south of the Border. The symbols of little blue wavy lines are familiar to drivers from Cork to Donegal.
Northern Ireland has its equivalent in the Causeway Coastal Route; a branded signposted ocean drive since 2011. The road signs are brown. Similarly to the Wild Atlantic Way, they guide drivers to glorious routes and destinations; along the north Antrim coast and the wild and gorgeous Glens of Antrim.
I start following the brown signs some distance from Derry. The road goes through the village of Castlerock and past the beautiful Mussenden Temple, perched high on a cliff, with the ruined Hezlett House nearby.
In Coleraine I am stuck in traffic for close to half an hour. This an August Saturday when the Orange Order parades in various locations in Northern Ireland. I don't see the parade, but can hear the persistent thumping of drums and blowing of whistles further up the town. I'd already passed four drummers outside a small rural church, but this is a much larger affair.
The “Royal” is the best-known golf club in Northern Ireland, located just outside Portrush, and an anchor tourist attraction. Last year it hosted the 148th Open Championship, which hadn’t been held there since 1951. It maintains royal links: in the entrance lobby is a sign that marks the reopening of the clubhouse on May 14th, 1999, by the Duke of York, Prince Andrew; now ignominiously retired from all royal duties.
John Lawler (handicap seven) is the current general manager at the club. He took over in October, and it has been a challenging first year in the job. The club closed on March 23rd, and reopened on May 18th, although shower facilities remain closed.
“The agm always takes place in April,” he says. They had it virtually this year, and he was told by a colleague that it was the first time since 1888 that the meeting had not taken place with everyone in the same room.
We’re talking in the Dunluce bar, which overlooks the scenic links. We’re the only people there. “This would usually be full at this time,” he says.
'Every day we'd be looking at between 60-70 visitors... That's all gone. Tour operators started calling us in mid-March to cancel'
Their dining room, usual capacity 140, has gone down to 48. Time slots are one hour per table to facilitate as many of their 1,400 members who chose to come along as possible. (An annual subscription costs £1,280.) “Everyone has to book now.” A table that can accommodate six is now set for four; and a table for four set for two.
Their putting green outside has had a change of use into outdoor seating. Northern Ireland regulations allow customers to be served alcohol at outside tables without needing to also order food, unlike current regulations in the Republic.
"Normally at this time of year we see a huge number of overseas visitors," Lawler says. "Every day we'd be looking at between 60-70 visitors. They stay in Belfast and get driven up here by coach. It's usually a two-hour window. They'd have some refreshments before or after and maybe buy something in the shop. That's all gone. Tour operators started calling us in mid-March to cancel."
Visitors travelling independently can pay £240 to play a round of golf and use the clubhouse facilities. They are currently offering special open-day packages, to fill the vacancies left by international tourists, and they are all now sold out. “We’re hearing a lot of accents from Cork and Dublin,” he says.
Before I leave Lawler tells me I am welcome to leave my car in their carpark for as long as I like. “It’s difficult getting parking in town,” he warns.
As it happens I am running a little late for the next interview, and so I don’t leave my car at the golf club, from where it’s a 20-minute walk to town. Foolishly I ignore the wise advice of the local, and drive into Portrush centre at lunchtime on a hot sunny Saturday in August.
It is absolutely crammed: cars, people carrying surfboards, families with buggies, motorbikers, more cars, camper vans, yet more cars. Let’s just say that after driving round the entire town (which is on a one-way system) twice looking for parking, far, far longer than 20 minutes have passed.
Natasha Garrott is the general manager of the town’s biggest hotel, the 69-room Portrush Atlantic. It’s on Main Street, and is one of six hotels in the town. She laughs when I mention how busy Portrush seems to me. This, apparently, is nothing. She’s been in the job over four years, and has seen it even busier on other August Saturdays.
Tonight the hotel is fully booked. It’s £175 for a double, with breakfast, and there are mostly families in residence. While the usual stay is two nights, at the moment it’s three.
This hotel closed on March 23rd. When they reopened on July 3rd they were initially offering breakfast in a bag, served to the room. “Now we have four sittings for breakfast, starting at 7.30am and going through to 10.30am. It’s all table service, and you must book your slot.”
'We have got a lot more domestic tourists this year; a lot more southern Ireland families with us, but we are very much missing the Americans, Canadians and European travellers'
Have people been keeping to their assigned slots, given that 7.30am might seem a little early for people on holiday to want to eat breakfast?
“I promise you, they are turning up,” she says. “Yes, the later slots are the most popular, but when it comes to breakfast people do not want to miss it. It’s the highlight of their stay.
Garrott is surprised at how busy they are, given the circumstances. “We have got a lot more domestic tourists this year; a lot more southern Ireland families with us, but we are very much missing the Americans, Canadians and European travellers.”
People travelling from Britain into Northern Ireland do not have to self-isolate on arrival, unlike those travelling into the State. There is a ferry service at Larne, and an airport in Belfast.
Has she been seeing a lot more tourists from Britain this summer? She shakes her head. “No more than 3 per cent of our whole business. I am surprised that we are not seeing more from the ‘mainland’, shall we call it.”
Wearing of masks indoors in public areas and on shops is due to become mandatory two days later. “I think that will be a struggle to enforce,” Garrott says. “People will have to wear masks when they check in. We will have spare ones at reception, but it will be very challenging for all the businesses here.”
Portrush is essentially a small peninsula, with large beaches on both sides – the West Strand and East Strand – a lovely harbour and several small sandy coves.
The Arcadia cove has a beautiful old building beside it; a former dancehall, now a cafe. There are original sand pits and paddling pools for children, and a small cove where people swim year-round on Sunday mornings.
The town has been developed in a higgledy-piggledy fashion, but some of the original tall Victorian houses still survive on both sea fronts. It’s a longtime traditional seaside resort. There’s Barry’s Amusement Park (still partially closed) near West Strand, and a number of amusement arcades within the town itself.
At Wilma’s Sweets and Fancy Goods you can buy sticks of rock in non-traditional flavours: vindaloo, Jägerbomb, gin and tonic, Prosecco and sambuca. There are also three sugar mice in pink and white with tails “please do not eat the cotton tails” for £1.99. Bags of the seaweed snack dulse are £1.25.
At the Big Red Game Centre amusement arcade I see the first masks of the day being worn inside. It’s very busy inside, with children running hither and thither. At the prize shop, among the prizes on offer are an Alexa for 4,750 credits, 2,100 for a 40-piece cutlery set, and 220 for an alarm clock.
Kelly’s Resort is a vast complex on the edge of Portrush, opposite the golf club. Within it is the 23-room Golflinks Hotel, a holiday camp with 650 units – the biggest one in the town – and Northern Ireland’s destination nightclub Lush. There is also a huge carpark, part of which has been turned into an temporary outdoor marquee bar.
There’s lots of picnic table seating and lighting in the open-sided marquee to accommodate the many drinkers who can’t socially distance inside the Golflinks Hotel bar.
Madison Davidson is the general manager of the hotel, which is also full tonight. Cost for a double with breakfast is between £120-£200, depending on the room type.
People also buy the holiday camp mobile units privately, and then pay annual site fees. Davidson says there has been very high occupancy all summer from the people in Northern Ireland who own these units.
The initiative launched recently in Britain and Northern Ireland, Eat Out to Help Out, has been running since August 3rd, and will continue until August 31st. Diners in Britain and Northern Ireland who eat out on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday in a restaurant that has registered with the scheme receive a 50 per cent discount on food or non-alcoholic drinks. There is a maximum discount of £10 per diner, and it is taken off the bill on site: ie, diners don’t have to go through any process of claiming the money back afterwards.
'It's like someone has flicked a switch in our industry, and the lights have gone off. Our income has gone to zero'
“That has been so helpful to us,” Davidson says, citing a huge take-up from their customers on the scheme. They have gone from typically serving 150 covers a day to between 300 and 400 on the Eat Out nights. At the weekend, like now, they’re serving between 200-250 covers each evening due to the fact there are so many people on-site in the holiday camp units.
At the rear of the Kelly’s complex is a huge warehouse-type building. This is where the purpose-built Stubborn Stag and Lush nightclubs are located. The Stubborn Stag, a smaller venue for live music, has a sign up outside stating, “No smoking. No team shirts.”
Colin Hamilton is the venue’s nightclub promoter. “The Stag is more of a laid-back venue with live music for the 25- to 40-year-olds,” he says. Lush is the anchor venue, marketed to 18- to 25-year-olds. It can accommodate up to 2,000 people, and regularly would during weekends in any other August. It was built in 1996.
“People come to Lush in buses from Belfast, Derry, even Donegal,” he says. They are usually at full capacity this time of year.
Nightclubs remain closed throughout the island of Ireland at present. “It’s like someone has flicked a switch in our industry, and the lights have gone off. Our income has gone to zero.”
The last event Lush ran in March, before lockdown, attracted 1,500 people. “It was £15 a person to get in.” That’s £22,500. “So you have an idea of how much we’re losing out on.”
I book into my hotel, the Adelphi on Main Street, and go in search of vittles. There's a tapas bar, Ocho, directly opposite the hotel I'm staying in. I go across to see if they have room for me, but it's closed on the day I visit.
I walk in instead to Spinnaker’s, a few doors down, which advertises itself as the “oldest established eatery in Portrush”. I go right back to the 1970s and order a prawn cocktail for £6.95, which comes with the requisite Marie Rose sauce, and very un-1970s additions of a few rocket leaves and entire cherry tomatoes.
When paying I offer my contact details to the staff member as nobody has yet asked me for them. “Ah no, we don’t need anything at all,” he says, shrugging.
So, no tracing going on there even though it’s in the Northern Ireland regulations for all places that serve food and drinks.
It's only the next day, when I have left Portrush, that I discover from someone who lives in Ballycastle, a distance of 33km east, that the Ocho tapas bar is closed because a staff member tested positive for Covid-19 the previous week.
'Usually I notice the rental cars and their registrations, and you know they are international tourists. This year the registrations are all Dublin, Cork, Limerick'
Ocho posted this information on its Facebook page. “In line with PHA guidelines, we have undertaken contact tracing and testing in the kitchen area following confirmation that a young member of our dishwashing staff tested positive.”
When I hear this I am even more mystified as to why the staff at Spinnaker’s, literally a few doors away, were failing to implement customer tracing. It seems impossible that they didn’t know the reason their colleagues at Ocho tapas have temporarily closed.
Ocho reopened on Monday 10th, following a deep clean, and full contact tracing and testing that showed no infection beyond the one staff member.
For a town of its size Portrush has a remarkable number of antique and vintage shops. I count at least six. At The Vintage, decades-old branded soup plates from the town’s famous former hotel, the Eglinton, are on sale. The hotel is itself for sale now too.
At Causeway Collectables, where I buy a vintage My Goodness My Guinness mustard pot, complete with toucans, for £20, owner Richard Kennedy says it’s busier than last August.
“Usually I notice the rental cars and their registrations, and you know they are international tourists. This year the registrations are all Dublin, Cork, Limerick.”
Then he says that he is not looking forward to Monday; the day when mask wearing in shops becomes mandatory. “Is it because you think customers will be slow to comply?” I ask.
Kennedy gestures to the display case that has jewellery in it. “I’m afraid I’m going to be robbed,” he says. “People coming in here wearing masks and robbing. CCTV won’t recognise them. I’ve heard of it happened in other places.”
I walk around the town, looking at both beaches. They are still crowded, and there are still lots of people in the water. Nobody is wearing masks outdoors. Social distancing is patchy, but it’s impossible to tell if the people crowding together are families or not.
By the pier at West Strand there are piles of brightly coloured stones that members of the public have put there to thank NHS workers. Many of them have messages painted on them. “This too will pass.” Others simply have “NHS” painted on them, and decorated in all kinds of ways. “Please do no remove the rocks,” one stone reads.
I don’t have a reservation. I try the various Ramore restaurants on the West beach. The Basalt is full, so too is the Mermaid, the Wine Bar, and the Harbour Bistro. I get a table across the road at another of the complex’s restaurants, the Neptune & Prawn. Before I order a contact tracing sheet is brought for me to sign.
The town is buzzing. People are drinking outside, on terraces and makeshift outdoor areas. I hear live music somewhere, but can’t locate the source. Everyone is having a wild time.
I drive out along the Causeway Coast, past the ruins of Dunluce Castle, and turn into the Giant’s Causeway. This is Northern Ireland’s only Unesco World Heritage Site. The distinctive Heneghan-Peng designed visitors’ centre opened in 2012.
From there it’s a winding walk down to the distinctive hexagonal columns that rise up out of the ocean so dramatically. There is still a public right of way, and visitors can still walk to, and around, the site for free. Admission to the visitor experience, which includes parking, is £13 per adult.
I queue up to gain entrance to the centre. There’s a staff member reminding everyone to wear masks inside, and asking for details of where people are from and their phone numbers. The two families in front of me say respectively they are from Yorkshire and Wales.
The walk down to the edge of the Causeway is pretty crowded, so it must be mayhem when there are five times this number here
Esther Dobbin, tourism manager for both the Giant’s Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge (currently closed), is waiting for me in the cafe. “August is always our busiest month,” she says. Not this year.
Ticketed entrance to the Giant’s Causeway per day now has been capped at 935. The National Trust has chosen to operate under two-metre social distancing, although Northern Ireland regulations are one metre. By the end of today 869 people will have visited. On the equivalent Sunday last year (August 11th), their total number of visitors was 5,302. That’s a drop of roughly 83 per cent.
“Sometimes we could have 100 coaches booked in for the day,” she says. “These first two weeks in August are peak season.” Their visitors are usually almost entirely international; 80 per cent of them.
Dobbin is unsurprised to hear that Portrush is extremely busy. “It’s the same as far as Ballycastle. But it’s a different story down in the Antrim Glens. They’re not doing well there.”
The walk down to the edge of the Causeway is pretty crowded, so it must be mayhem when there are five times this number here.
I keep stopping on the drive east to Ballycastle to wander down roads into little harbours and long beaches; Portballintrae, Ballintoy, White Park Bay. They are all crowded; all beautiful. The Causeway Coastal Route goes from Derry to Carrickfergus, along the Glens so tourist numbers for that area come in under Causeway Coast and Glens.
The latest official tourism statistics show that in 2018 (the last year for which figures are available) the coast and glens had one million overnight visitors. Hotels in the area had 67 per cent occupancy. The people staying overnight in that area were predominantly from Northern Ireland, at 63 per cent, and just 16 per cent from the Republic. (Most international tourists spend the night in Belfast.)
I check in to the Marine Hotel on the seafront. Nine days previously I had booked a sea-view room, and my card had accordingly been debited a £50 deposit for same. I had the email to prove it. However, my allocated side room has a view over a busy roundabout. Puzzled, I go downstairs to query the presence of said roundabout outside the window and absence of ocean.
What ensues is something akin to the shenanigans at a famous seaside hotel in a famous old sitcom. Apparently my crime – a new one on me, I confess – was to have made the booking too long ago. I had also checked in too late (check-in opened 15 minutes before my arrival).
The moral of the story was: they were full, and no sea-view rooms were left because I had made the silly mistake of booking and partially paying for said room with a view too long ago, and in addition, checked in too late on the day to have any hope of claiming it. A dog had consumed their homework, and the bag along with it.
'It would have made a lot more sense that we all worked together...there were different times for things happening on each side of the Border, which confused people. It was crazy'
Ballycastle is where the ferries depart for Rathlin island. Mary O’Driscoll and her family operate the subsidised ferry service to the island, and have two boats; one cargo, one passenger. O’Driscoll also manages the only hotel on the island; the 11-room National Trust-owned Manor House, which is closed.
“Usually we’d be doing between 12-14 return trips a day,” she says. It’s currently four, and social distancing has reduced the number of passengers.
I point out that it’s ironic Ballycastle is so busy, because most people wouldn’t notice the loss to her business as it’s so crowded. “I am shocked at how busy it is,” she says. “People are congregating together with no social distancing.”
She says how unhelpful it has been for the tourist industry island-wide to be operating under different regulations.
“It would have made a lot more sense that we all worked together. Dates were changing, and there were different times for things happening on each side of the Border, which confused people. It was crazy.”
As Esther Dobbin had pointed out to me earlier that day, “even domestic tourists don’t see the Border. They just see Ireland. Some people they don’t even know where they are, so it is very difficult for the customer to know what they are meant to be doing where.”
I’ve been tipped off to eat in O’Connor’s Bar on Ann Street, which specialises in seafood. My temperature is taken on arrival, as are tracing details.
I order crab claws. A huge plate of locally caught brown crab claws, still in their shells, arrives at the table. There are napkins and melted butter and implements for dealing with cracking shells. I set to with glee, making a glorious mess. The crab is plentiful, totally fresh and delicious. I may not have a sea-view room, but my innards are certainly getting their fill of the ocean.