Thursday, July 8th
Tramore has an unusual relationship with its seafront. Most seaside towns in Ireland place their centre there, to avail of the view. But the first thing I notice when driving into the town is the kind of back-to-front layout of the place. The hotels, for instance, are all located quite far back from the seafront and its famous 5km-long beach.
There is a prom, behind which is a huge car park, behind which is a four-acre amusement park, and behind which again is a mobile home park with more than 500 units on site. It gives the town a fragmented, disjointed feel; an impression that stays with me for the duration of my visit.
Paul Tuohy is waiting for me at Oceanics Surf School on Riverstown Road. He seems to know the whole town: everyone who passes the gate waves to him as we are talking out on the deck. “We were the first surf school in Ireland to open,” he tells me. That was 23 years ago, when Tuohy and his wife Linda had 10 surfboards and 25 wetsuits.
“People didn’t even know what surfing was when they came to book,” Tuohy says. “We had to hum the theme tune to Hawaii Five-O to them, and then they got it.”
These days, they have six instructors, and seven junior staff. A weekly camp for children costs from €110, and a private lesson for an adult is €50. Right from the beginning, there were as many girls as boys taking surfing lessons.
“This year, for the first time ever, we have certain weeks that are already booked out. Before we would always have had about 75 per cent of capacity booked and the rest were walk-ins. Pre-bookings have exploded.”
Tuohy has seen Tramore change over time. "It used to be a real hurdy-gurdy place, now it is much more of a outdoor activity destination," he says. "People used to come down, go to the beach, to the amusements, have a few drinks. Now people want to do things: like bike the greenway or surf or head off to Dunmore East for the day."
Danny Devine is the co-owner – or "proprietor", as he prefers to be called – of the 60-room Majestic Hotel with his wife Annette. The Devines have had the hotel for 33 years; a lovely, light-filled space with understated glamour in the bedrooms; striking prints of gold palm trees, and art-deco style fabric on one wall.
Tonight, 55 of the 60 rooms are occupied. “People are dying for somewhere to go. I don’t think we have a spare bed for August,” he says. While they did get some coach tour business from North America, Tramore has traditionally been a domestic destination: “One of the original seaside towns.”
Devine has 57 staff at present. “It is very, very difficult throughout the hospitality industry to recruit anyone with experience at the moment; it is something to do with this PUP [pandemic unemployment payment] business.”
Dryrobes are definitely not the preserve of urban swimmers: there are plenty of them here too
It’s not just finding staff that is challenging. “Accommodation is very difficult to get for staff. People do holiday lets in Tramore, and are not inclined to take in staff.
“In the 1980s, when we came here, there was a recession. Tramore was a little down at heel. The beach was always the attraction, but the hurdy-gurdy amusements dominated. People are much more health-conscious now. They want to walk, hire bikes, go swimming.
“When we started first, when the breakfast was over, the bar door would rattle with people looking for pints of Guinness all day long. Now, we sell more coffee in the bar than all the other drinks combined during the daytime. That is the single biggest change.”
I go to check into my hotel, the Sands, on Turkey Road. (During my visit, nobody I ask knows why this road is named after a bird we eat at Christmas.) Six days before arrival, I had phoned to book a room for two nights, and been asked at that time to pay a non-refundable room charge of €159 in full for the first night. It's extremely unusual for an Irish hotel to have zero allowance for cancellation: usually, there is either a 24- or 48-hour window prior to travel. It's not been the friendliest of welcomes from the off.
“You’re here for two nights,” the receptionist announces.
“Yeah, well you’ll have to move rooms tomorrow. That room is booked.”
“I thought I had booked it,” says I, confused.
“Yeah, no, you’ll have to move to another room, we need that room back.”
It strikes me that if, for some inexplicable reason – because none is offered – I have to move rooms in this hotel the following day, that I might as well move hotels altogether. So I phone Danny Devine, who is surprised to hear from me so soon again, and who books me into the Majestic for the next night.
The sun is shining, it is 19 degrees, and according to my weather app, the next day is going to be rainy. So I've driven the few kilometres out to the Guillamene swimming cove, which has been recommended to me as a popular local place to swim.
The car park is full and there are steep steps down to the cove. There must be 30 or 40 people there, of all ages. Kids in wetsuits jump off the pier (the diving board that’s usually there is absent). Teenagers, families, clusters of pals are in and out of the water. Dryrobes are definitely not the preserve of urban swimmers: there are plenty of them here too.
There are children's portions, and now also 'senior' portions available, presumably aimed at older diners, otherwise why call them 'senior'
Guillamene is a gorgeous, deep-water cove, beneath soaring cliffs. The position of the sun is such that it’s right over the cove, lighting up the blue-green water. I spend almost an hour in the water, and it is glorious. I can see all the way back to Tramore, and the “Vertical” – a 40m-high ride in the amusement park.
“I’ve been plastering walls all day, and this is better than a massage,” one man swimming near me confides to another.
I'm at an outside table at O'Shea's Hotel on Strand Street, at the Slip Inn bar. Something on the menu catches my eye. "Senior portions available."
“What’s that?” I ask.
“A half-portion,” the waitress explains. “Half a meal.”
So there are children’s portions, and now also “senior” portions available, presumably aimed at older diners, otherwise why call them “senior”? Is there some new industry assumption that older people are incapable of eating a full meal?
The tide is out, and myself and many others are walking on the beach, in the indigo twilight. There's a mist coming in, and people are out with their dogs and aromatic bags of chips. It's a fantastic amenity to have such a huge beach in the town, and not just that, but a pristinely clean one. I don't see one item of rubbish on the beach or street during my entire visit.
Friday, July 9th
Just as I meet Michael Garland, the manager of Tramore Amusement and Leisure Park, it starts to rain. Rain and gadgets don't go together, so the pair of us and my iPad seek shelter in a (stationary) cab of the Magic Mouse roller coaster.
“I’m terrified of heights,” Garland confesses, saying he’s never actually been on most of the rides he is responsible for, and definitely not the 40m Infinity one.
There are 46 different rides on the four-acre site, which has been in existence in its present form since 1987. The land and all the attractions are collectively owned by a number of shareholders, “of showman background”, as Garland puts it.
There is a perception that Tramore attracts the wrong kind of people, who would sit down and be loud and have a drink. But things have changed. More families are coming now
The park operates on a pay-as-you-go system: there is no day-pass system. You pay for rides individually, which cater to a range of ages. Each ride costs between €2 and€3.50. Employing over 200 staff, the park is the biggest single employer in Tramore. It opens at noon, and usually closes at 10pm.
“We had between seven and eight thousand unique visitors yesterday. It’s better than Tayto Park, in my opinion. The quality of the rides here are excellent now.”
Garland believes that Tramore has “untapped potential as a destination. Our PR is very bad. There is a perception out there that Tramore attracts the wrong kind of people.”
What does he mean by that?
“People who would sit down and be loud and have a drink. But things have changed. More and more families are coming now.”
I'm back walking the prom. There's a stall on the prom displaying signs that look like number plates, but aren't. They are inclusive of various county rivalries: Up The Deise; Up The Dubs; Up The Cats; Up The Rebels; Up Tipp. There are also some colourful phrases, not all of which I understand: Keep Er Lit; Feckin Eejit; Mad 4 Muck; Mad 4 Tar; Dirty Diesel.
Another sign says “My Shebeen”, which makes me wonder how popular a seller it has been in the last 16 months.
A couple of kilometres out of town, at the unlikely location of the Pickardstown Service Station forecourt, is the Unbeetable Food Truck. The menu is short and tantalising. Roasted tomato soup. Stuffed sweet potato taco. Sourdough sandwich. Thai peanut and quinoa salad. Chicken, sweet potato and chickpea curry. Everything is between €3 and€10.
“We got in before food trucks became so popular,” manager and chef Jenny Donoghue says. Unbeetable opened in February 2019 and has three staff. “It’s a small menu, a small place, and a small staff. Everything is made fresh. We don’t use deep fryers or microwaves. Everything moves and everything sells. We do dairy-free and gluten-free too.”
The previous day, they served some 150 people. They stagger the menu, changing one or two things every week, to keep it interesting for their mainly local and very loyal customers, who found them via word of mouth. “They’ve told us we can’t take the peanut salad off the menu though,” Donoghue laughs. “It’s our most popular seller.” I can confirm how good it is, as that’s what I had ordered myself prior to our conversation.
The Victoria "Vic" House on Queen's Street looks like any small-town Irish bar from the outside. But step inside, and the tardis-like effect begins. It opens up like a concertina at the back, with covered terraces on three levels, and a fabulous sweeping view down to the beach from its elevated site.
Friends Pat McGuinness and Donagh Cronin bought the place, which was originally a coach house, a couple of years ago. They spent several months upgrading the outside structure, which now showcases corten steel, hardwood cedar and retractable roofs.
Cronin has a theory as to how various Irish seaside resorts developed. “Your dole used to get transferred to seaside towns – places like Bray, and Salthill and Bundoran and Tramore. That’s how these towns developed their clientele originally.
“Then the crash happened, and the middle class started coming to Tramore and using the beach. Things have completely changed here. There’s a move away from the arcades and amusements, and a push towards becoming a foodie destination – Seagull, Mezze, Unbeetable.
“House prices have gone bananas. There is no supply here at all in Tramore. There is a new development being built, and there are 65 people on a waiting list for 16 houses,” McGuinness says.
The Seagull artisan sourdough bakery on Broad Street has a queue outside it every time I pass. They recently opened a second outlet in Waterford city. I buy some seaweed sourdough and it is excellent. The Mezze deli nearby features all fresh takeaway Middle-Eastern food, and products you can buy to attempt to recreate the experience at home.
There is still a demand for the exact opposite of the fresh, mainly vegetarian food offered by Unbeetable and Mezze. Dooly's Fish and Chips has two outlets in Tramore; one at the Prom, and the other on Main Street. The Prom outlet has a constant queue outside it, day and night. I had bought a bag of chips from there the previous evening to eat while walking the prom, and they were excellent: hot, crisp and perfectly cooked, with just the right crunch that is often so elusive in a chip.
Alan Dooly stops bagging chips and serving fried haddock to chat to me. He is the third generation of his family to work in the business. His grandmother set up the first shop, which his father took over, and now himself and his two siblings run three shops; a third is in Waterford city.
“We make all our own chips, mostly from Wexford potatoes.” It takes only 10 minutes to put a 25kg bag of potatoes through first a washing and chipping machine, and then the fryer. Spud to bag of chips in literal minutes.
“We sell mainly fresh haddock. It’s the easiest white fish to source,” he says. What’s their most popular seller? “Fish and chips. We’d sell about 350 portions of those every day.”
In recent years, there has been a cluster of developments at the far end of the prom. One of them is Molly's Cafe, which displays its name with a cheery pink neon sign. It's one of the few businesses in Tramore that is right on the seafront, with the accompanying magnificent views of the moody sea and headlands beyond.
Molly McCann first started working in the T-Bay surf club cafe when she was 14, and her family moved from Dublin to Tramore. Now she leases it from T-Bay, and has been running the place as her own cafe – Molly’s – for the last two years, an admirable achievement for someone aged 26. She has a staff of 13.
This is summer 2021, where hospitality remains so uneasily dependent on weather until other arrangements are put in place
“We go through 70kg of coffee a week,” she says. “Our menu is very simple. Blaas, with bacon and sausage or vegan sausage.”
Her mother, Ann, bakes for the cafe: banana bread, carrot cake, lemon drizzle, energy balls. “It is all very simple. I knew I couldn’t compete with other businesses on food, so I decided to focus on really good coffee.”
McCann opened in July 2019, and had established her customer base pre-pandemic, which is mostly locals. “During lockdown, I was always incredibly busy. People would walk the prom and then stop for a takeaway coffee.” At present, she sells an average of 500 cups of coffee a day.
“Tramore has changed so much since I came here first,” she says. “It’s become so buzzy. There is a very cool scene here now.”
Later, McCann messages me to say: “I would be lost without my dad; the cafe would not be open without him.”
It's raining hard. Sideways rain, with a sea mist. I show up optimistically for my booking at an outside table at One The Waterfront. The manager walks me to the door that leads to the exterior decking and many tables. We contemplate the scene. There are umbrellas, but there might as well be none: every surface is sodden. There isn't a single customer outside.
“I can’t let you out in that,” he says.
We look at each other. There are plenty of tables inside, but I’m not a resident, and we know the rules. So I walk back to the Majestic in the driving rain, and eat there instead. This is summer 2021, where hospitality remains so uneasily dependent on weather until other arrangements are put in place.