Wave of optimism along south coast amid reopening preparations

‘We’re gung-ho and ready to go,’ says hotel owner. ‘At some stage, life has to go on’

 Mary Lincoln and her daughter, Katie, owners of Ardmore Pottery in Waterford, are looking foward to reopening. Photograph: Mary Browne

Mary Lincoln and her daughter, Katie, owners of Ardmore Pottery in Waterford, are looking foward to reopening. Photograph: Mary Browne

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Steve the capuchin monkey is dying to get visitors back, says Bridget Collins as she leads the way to the monkey enclosure at the farm and wildlife park she runs in Ardmore, Co Waterford.

An air of nervous energy in the park abounds on a Tuesday morning. Fences are being repainted, enclosures extended, and the foundations laid for new glamping pods due to arrive from the UK.

The news that everyone else in the wildlife park industry is waiting for has just come in: May 1st is their date for reopening. Online bookings opened earlier in the morning and are already flying in.

In a normal year, the park has 12-15 staff and attracts 30,000 visitors. “We were down to about 21,000 visitors last year,” which was better than it could have been thanks to “a brilliant summer”, says Collins.

There is a lot of optimism in the area that this summer will be even busier. “We’ve no choice. If it’s not a good summer this year, we’ll be closed by this time next year,” says her husband, Denis Collins.

Bridget and Denis were auctioneers until the last recession hit. “We had to do something, so we started a nice family open farm” on 45 acres of land owned by her parents.

We’re ready to serve everybody who comes to the village with a positive attitude. The businesses need people coming back now

Then things “went crazy”, she said. Now the park is home to meerkats, chinchillas, racoons, marmoset monkeys, sika deer, prairie dogs, wallabies, a pregnant porcupine and a Burmese python, many of them from other zoos.

The monkeys are not the only eager ones. That sentiment is echoed in all the towns visited along the coast of the southeast. Last year’s evident air of trepidation has been replaced by a sense that, this time, everyone knows the drill.

“Going into last summer, we all had a couple of nerves because it was totally new,” said the general manager of the Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore, Patrick Shields. This time, it should be like last summer, not the past few months.

Despite all the positivity, there are notes of caution: frustration about the uncertain reopening map; fears about what the landscape will look like once the expected summer bounce subsides; and, for some, an undercurrent of anxiety about whether an influx of visitors might bring a surge in virus numbers.

However, Sharon O’Halloran in Beachcombers ice-cream and sweet shop – known to everyone locally as “the pink shop” – is keen to ensure that is not Ardmore’s message.

“We’re ready to serve everybody who comes to the village with a positive attitude. The businesses need people coming back now. Last year, we did in four months what we’d normally do in eight months. So yeah, I’m very optimistic.”

Patrick Shields, general manager of the Cliff House Hotel, Ardmore. Photograph: Mary Browne
Patrick Shields, general manager of the Cliff House Hotel, Ardmore. Photograph: Mary Browne

During lockdown, Patrick Shields used the time to refurbish the five-star Cliff House Hotel. More than half the rooms have been renovated, which kept more than 25 of the hotel’s full-time staff of 127 employed.

Outdoor dining has been expanded, too, along with spa treatments in the garden. Expecting a phased reopening after the June Bank Holiday, he hopes by July to be operating at capacity – a full year since it was so.

Sales are down by about half, an industry average. Shields believes supports, including the lower VAT rate, should be retained. The impact of stop-start lockdowns on sales has been “a matter of millions. You could have easily said it’s not a time to invest, whereas our owner has gone the other way, and said, let’s use this opportunity.”

In the kitchen, chef Ian Doyle is anxious to get back to serving customers. He started here last March, and has had only 15 weeks of normal service since. Despite this, he managed to hold onto the restaurant’s Michelin star, and used the time to develop a new menu based on foraged ingredients. “I’ve learned a lot of new skills in this time, but nothing beats what we actually do at the restaurant.”

Now, if you were to tell me that we’re in for another year or two of this, I’d be like, oh my God, no. But I do feel there are positive things I’ve been able to achieve

The manager of Ardmore Pottery and Gallery, Katie Lincoln, is also braced for a busy summer. There were days last year when it was so “hectic the guards had to close the village, the place was physically so full”. Like Doyle, she had just moved to Ardmore to take over managing the shop established by her mother, potter Mary Lincoln, 35 years ago, when the first lockdown happened. The year since has been “very tough”, and the last lockdown in particular was “bleak”.

“But I think we’ve been very lucky in so far as we’re a family business, we could go small easier than a lot of businesses.” She used the first lockdown to get a website up and running and familiarise herself with the business, while Mary kept busy in her pottery workshop. The past year offered “a chance to bed down” into the business. “Now, if you were to tell me that we’re in for another year or two of this, I’d be like, oh my God, no. But I do feel there are positive things I’ve been able to achieve.”

The mood at Redbarn in Youghal, 22km west in Co Cork, is more subdued. Soon, a new 400m “eco boardwalk” will open along the white sandy beach, and a number of holiday houses seem occupied.

But the Quality Hotel did not open last summer, and the man painting the wall out front says he does not know if it will reopen this year. Over email, general manager Allen McEnery says the future is still too uncertain.

“Food and beverage is extremely expensive to start up and with such a short season it may not be viable. If we are allowed open for June, that may make it more viable,” he says.

Fifty holiday homes and 48 apartments are available for rent, and there is takeout food available from two pop-up outlets on the seafront. “The leisure clubs seem to be forgotten about, we have no idea when they might be allowed to open.”

That’s just really beautiful. To have people back out by the sea for their own sanity, and their own mental health, it’s going to be brilliant

Bill Kelly, owner of Kelly’s Hotel in Rosslare, Co Wexford, shares some of McEnery’s frustrations. “We’re gung-ho and ready to go. Our team is ready to get back to action as quickly as possible. At some stage, life has to go on.”

During the second World War, he says, “we had a longer season than we had last year… We’ve lost a fortune over the last year because we tried to maintain as many staff as we could on the EWSS”, the Government’s employment wage subsidy scheme.

He is anxious they will be able to open “as a holiday hotel, not a Covid hotel”. In preparation for restrictions, he has invested in two new stretch tents for outdoor dining. Even so, he thinks outdoor dining “is not a runner for most of the time in an Irish climate. If they’re going to put any restrictions on the way we operate by way of social distancing, they’ve got to continue with the EWSS.”

Kelly is nervous about what might happen after the summer. “I feel there could be an initial bounce, but I think it’s not going to last.” The Government must offer a roadmap for life after Covid.

Elsewhere along the southeast coast, seven-times national surfing champion Craig Butler is busy dealing with online orders in Tramore Surf Shop. Sales of surfboards and wetsuits exploded during the pandemic – in a single week recently, he sold more than 50 beginner surfboards. Bookings for summer camps and private lessons are busy, too.

Like everyone else, he just wants to be able to get on with it. “We have 15-20 permanent staff normally throughout the year, and to have them all out of work, it’s really tough,” he says.

For him, the desire to reopen isn’t just about business. During a run the day after the 5km restrictions were lifted, he said everyone he met were joyous about being able to be back by the sea.

“That’s just really beautiful. To have people back out by the sea for their own sanity, and their own mental health, it’s going to be brilliant,” Butler says.

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