From Titanic tours to Tilly's cafe: Map reveals pet-friendly venues in Northern Ireland
It's what all dog owners have been waiting for: a guide to the pet-friendly establishments of Northern Ireland, where a cafe latte can be enjoyed in peace with your four-legged friend. Here, Heidi McAlpin, of In Your Pocket tourism guides, who worked on the new publication with Jo-Anne Crossley, owner of Dog Friendly Tours NI, reveals how it all came about
Acquiring a dog is like having a baby. Let me elaborate before I lose some of you. When you have a baby, a new world - call it Narnia, if you will - opens up, inviting you to step inside and never look back.
Seemingly innocuous events, from leaving the house on time to taking a trip somewhere nice, become matters of detailed logistics and in-depth planning.
I recall one particular time when my husband, Ray, and I decided to spend a few days in Cork with our newborn daughter.
Off we traipsed, baby bag and big pram in the boot, smug as you please that we could Do It All. And then, as we navigated a roundabout outside Cork city, I had a sudden stomach-churning realisation that I'd left the baby's clothes and bottled milk back in Belfast.
It was after midnight, we'd been on the road for several hours and we still hadn't found our bed and breakfast. And then, like an illuminated oasis rising up in the desert, a late-night Tesco came into view.
We pulled in, jumped out and hastily purchased some milk powder and a pack of cheap babygros. Those threads never looked so good. Let the holiday commence.
Why am I telling you this when I'm really here to talk dogs? Well, the simple truth is that, 11 years and two children on from Corkgate (nothing like a bit of drama), our family has finally capitulated and got ourselves a wee dog.
Minnie the dachshund joined the brood last summer and, since her arrival, our lives have changed immeasurably.
No longer are we a child-centred family (albeit one that forgets on-the-road essentials), but one that hunts out dog-friendly cafes and activities like dogs sniffing out meaty bones. And much like having a newborn child, owning a dog wasn't going to stop us in our social tracks. No siree.
Having published Belfast and Northern Ireland In Your Pocket visitor guides for 15 years, finding places that welcome dogs was going to be a doddle, wasn't it? We're a civilised society. We barely flinch at breastfeeding. Children in pubs are positively de rigueur. Surely a cute pup in a pub was a happy addition?
Turns out, not so much. In fact, just a couple of months ago, Wetherspoons slapped a ban on all dogs entering its bars.
And then, just when we had consigned ourselves to a lifetime spent shivering outside cafes for our daily dose of cafe latte, along came Jo-Anne Crossley, owner of Dog Friendly Tours NI. "Fancy getting together and bringing out NI's first ever Dog Friendly Map?", she suggested cheerfully. "There are around 300,000 dogs here and they need one!"
"What'll that look like, then?", says I. "A blank page?". Ever the optimist, Jo regaled me with a list as long as an extendable lead of venues that welcomed pooches, and hopes and dreams of more to follow. My mind was made up. My dog-friendly antennae were attuned. Build it and they will bark...
Local young designer Emily Osborne was enlisted to create the map and compile a colourful collection of canines for our eye-catching cover.
Soon, pubs, cafes, shops, hotels, self-catering cottages and activity providers all across Northern Ireland were queuing up to feature on this popular new print product.
Turns out Jo was right and Tim (Martin of Wetherspoons fame) was wrong. There are lots of lovely business owners out there positively begging dogs and their owners to lap up their surroundings.
There's even a term for this new business opportunity: the 'Hound Pound'. If you let little Tinkles into your establishment, turns out their owner will be so grateful they'll keep coming back for more. And they'll invite their doggie-loving friends. And they'll tell theirs. And so on and so forth. It's like the call of the (not quite so) wild. You get the picture.
And now, after a few months contacting, visiting and chatting with all manner of dog-friendly premises, we are delighted to launch the first ever Dog Friendly Map of Northern Ireland. One small step for a dog, one giant leap for canine kind.
The map is our new go-to guide for days out, from delicious Thai food in uber cool Jumon to delicious coffee and cakes in The Warehouse in Londonderry, super welcoming overnights at Belle Isle, Blessingbourne and Largy Cottages and a cheeky pint at Stoker's Halt, Pug Ugly's or The Dirty Onion.
Dogs are even welcome aboard Titanic Boat Tours, giving a whole new meaning to the term salty sea dogs. Tilly's Cafe in Portrush is a definite pitstop for all those North Coast dog day afternoons, and Dundonald Old Mill is so dog friendly they even have their own Mill Doggies' Club and serve Woofternoon Teas.
Murphy's Barkery will bake Fido a bespoke birthday cake, then Dog Trails NI can help you and your be-pawed pal burn off all those yummy calories on a high-energy outdoor adventure called Canicross.
Extending this new dog-centred phenomenon, Jo-Anne is rolling out lots more seasonal walking tours with a fine list of outdoor destinations from Belfast and Portrush to fabulous Finnebrogue Estate outside Downpatrick, each rounded off with fantastic locally sourced food for all you lucky humans.
So many more wonderful places and activities are represented on the map, free copies of which are available in the featured venues, as well as other visitor and dog-friendly locations including visitor information centres, and vets and pet stores.
As for me, I've replaced baby bags with dog poo bags on my must-bring checklist. And I have entered a whole new world - call it Dog Owners R Us, if you will - where complete strangers share happy smiles when our pups trot by and knowing looks when their leads entangle in a flurry of excitement.
"What's their name?", "What breed is yours?" and "How old is s/he?" are now questions aimed at our four-legged friends.
Meanwhile, cute babies in Bugaboos play second fiddle as we bill and coo over Butch and Coco.
No-one is going to put Minnie in the corner, show us the door or tut disapprovingly at the merest hint of a bark. In fact, fellow dog owners, including Jo-Anne and her fluffy wee friend Georgie the Lhasa Apso, will say hello and pat each other's pooches while the dogs have a good old sniff of approval.
So, next time you head into town, or pack the car for a daytrip or overnight, don't forget to bring your dog.
Share a pic of you and your significant other on the Dog Friendly NI Facebook Page, and check out dogfriendlyni.co.uk for updates on all the many featured businesses that welcome dogs. Fido's days spent Home Alone are no more.