Scenery, sands and boom-time for foodies on north coast
There's a new breed of businessperson on the north coast enhancing the tourism offer in Northern Ireland's favourite holiday spot. The last 12 months have seen the north coast go through a food revolution, with new restaurants and producers popping up, driven by a new creativity and ideas.
Locations like restaurant Harry's Shack on Portstewart Strand, and Babushka cafe in Portrush, have offered customers a chance to get closer to nature from their seafront locations.
Their enthusiasm has now made the area a major destination on the foodie map, with people travelling from all over Ireland to sample its delights.
The new restaurants and coffee shops - the first of which was Coleraine's Lost and Found, opened just over a year ago - have heralded a shift towards places celebrating producers from the area and highlighting the traceability in what they sell.
The area has always been popular with tourists making the journey up from Belfast to visit the Giant's Causeway and Bushmills Distillery.
Its reputation has grown on the back of fantasy TV series Game of Thrones, which is part-filmed in the area - and the huge success of the Irish Open of 2012, which was held at Royal Portrush.
The Causeway Coast and the Glens in 2013 had 704,716 trips to the area, second only to Belfast, which equates to almost one in five of total trips in the province, according to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency.
The area's trade is seasonal, with the North West 200 motorcycle race, which begins next week, heralding the start of the tourist season when the population swells.
In February, the owners of Belfast restaurants Coppi and Il Pirata announced they were to bring their take on rustic cooking to the north coast after taking over the former Sweeney's wine bar in Portballintrae.
The new wine bar, Bartali, follows the Italian cycling theme as the group's other restaurants, named after the five time Grand Tour winner in the 1940s and 1950s - who was also the chief adversary of Fausto Coppi. Tony O'Neill, owner of Thornyhill Restaurants, said it was the coastline that lured him to open a new restaurant on the north coast. "We've been looking at the north coast for the last couple of years, since we opened Coppi. I love it up there - it's such a beautiful part of the world. The beaches are gorgeous and the coastline is fantastic."
Naomi Waite, Tourism NI marketing director, said the north coast's popularity is still very much driven by the landscape. "The scenery and beaches of the north coast continue to attract visits from local residents and out of state visitors alike, with the resort towns of Portstewart and Portrush benefiting from the family market and a high number of day trips and short breaks."
However, increasingly the north coast's tourism is driven by sports tourists and Game of Thrones fans looking to find the Isle of Pyke and the road to King's Landing.
Ms Waite said: "The Causeway coastal route, Carrick-a-Rede and the Glens are recognised worldwide for their stunning landscapes and, increasingly, by screen tourism fans who take tours to locations such as Ballintoy Harbour and the Dark Hedges. Major events such as the Irish Open and Giro d'Italia too have brought an increased interest from golfers and cyclists keen to have their own unique experience of the golf courses and cycling routes of the north coast."
We speak to the people behind some of the north coast's remarkable new food businesses to ask them about how they're helping change its reputation as a food destination.
By the Sea, Coleraine
Gift and lifestyle shop By the Sea initially opened as a pop-up last October, but after a successful winter season is now a permanent fixture on Coleraine’s Queen Street.
The store has a strong connection to the surrounding area, with owner Tracy McAllister describing the shop as “simple coast living with Nordic twist”. Like nearby restaurants and coffee shops, Ms McAllister said customers want to be confident about the provenance of the products they purchase. She said: “I think people are moving away from the disposable, pound shop culture, to more of an experience for the customer.
“It’s about traceability, it’s not disposal. It’s about choosing products with a story where there is a story behind it, and offering an experience which you won’t get online.”
There is a strong connection between all the stores on the north coast, as they strive to improve the popularity of the area. “It’s about support of other like-minded businesses, such as Lost and Found, Babushka, Kiwi’s Brew Bar (Portrush) and Ursa Minor (a bakery in Ballycastle),” Ms McAllister said.
“We all know each other and are supportive of each other. It’s a great time to be in business, there is a sense in the air there is positive change happening.
“It’s to ensure a future for the economy in this area. The local area all sees the benefit if we can all pull together and that will re-generate the area.”
Harry’s Shack, Portstewart
John and Sally McKenna’s guides rated this Portstewart Strand eaterie as their Restaurant of the Year, just a few months after it had opened in August last year. Indeed, it has been wooing critics from all over the UK with its focus on bringing fresh local fish to beachfront dining.
Harry’s Shack’s reputation has travelled far and wide, leading many people to brave the elements and make the trip to the beach, even at the height of winter.
This Easter was so popular it led to many people being turned away. Harry’s Shack owner Donal Doherty said: “Easter was mental. We were looking after hundreds of people a day and turning away hundreds of people.”
On sunny days over Easter, the population of the north coast quadruples, Mr Doherty added.
He also runs Harry’s at Bridgend in Co Donegal.
Mr Doherty said he notices the tourism growth in the area. “There are more people looking at the north coast. We had an amazing winter, and the north coast is becoming an all-year round destination. What we want to be is a two or three-day destination rather than a just a day trip from Belfast.”
One of the things the north coast offers is the feeling of being away on holiday, and yet is only an hour’s drive from Belfast. Harry’s Shack taps into that by offering a unique dining experience on Portstewart Strand. It is now taking that forward by offering outside eating.
Set out to sea on the Portrush pier, Babushka brings customers closer to the ocean that surrounds it. However, being on the edge of the sea has its ups and downs, as it found out earlier this year having to close for six weeks after the taking a battering from the stormy Atlantic waves.
George Nelson, owner of the cafe, which focuses on quality food and coffee, said social media has played a major role in growing food tourism in the area. “It has a really good reputation for food, and with social media more people are getting to see that.”
He said people from all over Ireland are coming up and “doing the rounds”, going to Lost and Found, then Babushka and Harry’s Shack. As the north coast has gained a reputation as a quality food destination, this has been built on the back of customers expecting quality ingredients. “I think that came off the back of the horsemeat scandal, people what to know where food has come from and its provenance,” Mr Nelson said.
“When you work with local suppliers you get that traceability.”
Mr Nelson said, over the weekend the cafe sees a “huge jump” in customers with many people travelling up to the seaside town.
Expectations will be high for the north coast after a very successful Easter holidays. “Easter blew everything out of the water. They were some of the best days since we opened.”
Lost and Found, Coleraine
Since its opening in February last year, Lost and Found has led the focus on freshness and provenance in the hospitality trade on the north coast.
The Coleraine cafe aims to deliver world class coffee, as well as supporting and celebrating producers from the area, such as Ballycastle bakery Ursa Minor.
The coffee shop’s aim upon opening was to bring back the tastes the owners experienced in their travels and offer that on the north coast. Dave Lynas, owner of Lost and Found, said: “In terms of Lost and Found it was that creative spirit that was lacking here. I think we brought something unique to the north coast.”
Mr Lynas said the growth in popularity of the north coast was following on from the success of quality restaurants and cafes in other parts of Northern Ireland, such as OX and Established Coffee in Belfast, and taking advantage of the good agriculture base in the province.
Over the last year, the businesses that have opened all have a similar philosophy and belief in what they want to achieve. Mr Lynas said: “I realised Harry’s Shack and Babushka were all on the same page.” This, he added, is helped by being part of a smaller community on the north coast which you wouldn’t get in the city.
This allows them to “bounce ideas off each other”, and they are all very supportive of each other’s businesses. Mr Lynas said: “We tend to always tell customers to go and see Tracy and George at Babushka, and Harry’s Shack. We realise we all need each other as well.
“This food movement on the north coast is in its infancy and we need to keep encouraging each other. I think despite being seasonal, we want to keep innovating and keep getting better.”