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Why this summer you shouldn't let rainy days and Mondays get you down

With no sign of the weather picking up, Ivan Little goes in search of some alternative attractions that could brighten up your August

The forlorn Italians, wrapped up in their fleeces and body warmers, stared blankly at where the views should have been on the Antrim coast road as they scurried back to their luxury tour bus after a comfort break in cloud-covered Carnlough last weekend.

Rainy days and Mondays really had got them down as they wondered what they were missing in the mist and probably pondered why they'd ever said "Arrivederci, Roma" and "Buongiorno, Belfast".

Their washed-out welcome to summer Ulster-style 2015 wasn't unlike what greeted their Giro D'Italia cyclists on the same sodden coast road last year.

Yet, if the Italian tourists had been 24 hours earlier, they would have seen a carnival Carnlough, as scores of people in short sleeves and t-shirts revelled in a sun-kissed festival programme of music and dance.

And the vista from high above the village was spectacularly clear right across to Scotland, though it has to be said the impressive Cranny Falls owed much of their power to the unseasonal showers of days before.

But that's the winter of our summer of discontent in Northern Ireland this year - the unpredictable has become all-too-predictable, as the weather swings from the sunshine to the ridiculous thanks to plummeting temperatures and plummeting rain that had Angie Phillips and Cecilia Daly introducing the word "autumn" into their forecasts long before July was over.

On one Radio Ulster programme on Thursday, presenter Seamus McKee couldn't even bring himself to share the forecast with his listeners. After promising brighter spells in the evening, he said, "As for the rest of it - you don't want to know".

The gloomy weather reports that were read out may have sent a shiver down thousands of spines, but the real thing at times was even chillier, making it Baltic in Ballycastle; nippy in Newcastle and parky in Portaferry.

All week, the weather has been so dreadful that the internet has been awash, so to speak, with websites offering handy hints to holidaymakers about what to do when the showers rain supreme.

And across Northern Ireland it seemed that visitors were warming to their advice, proving that every cloud can have a silver lining. One attraction which has benefited from the rain with a significant upturn in visitor numbers is somewhere which owes its very existence to ice and water - Titanic Belfast.

From early on Friday morning, it was heaving and a spokesperson said: "All of July has been a really busy month. This week we have certainly had some of our best days of the year.

"It's our peak season, when we anticipate high visitor numbers, but the weather has undoubtedly helped our cause and there is no doubt that people prefer to be indoors when it rains."

Tricia Gibbs and her friends from New Jersey had been planning a trip to the Giant's Causeway, but seeing the laden skies they took the easier - and drier - option of Titanic Belfast, postponing their outing to the north coast until the weather improved.

"You don't come to Ireland for the blue skies," said Tricia. "But I wasn't expecting quite so much rain. Even so, we've had a really good time here. But it would be even nicer if the sun was shining."

Officials from Ulster's top indoor tourist haunts won't admit it openly, but privately they do hope for bad weather, which is good for business. The rain-dance effect they call it.

At Crumlin Road jail in Belfast, director Kieran Quinn said there had been a 50% increase in their visitor figures since the rains came in July. On a really good day at the jail - which is actually a really bad day for the rest of us - upwards of 400 people will visit the historic prison.

But it works both ways, according to Kieran, who said: "Two years ago, when July was roasting, we saw our business dropping, because people were heading to the beaches and to the zoo instead."

At W5, the award-winning science exhibition centre in the SSE Arena, Belfast (formerly the Odyssey) - where there's a nightclub called Beach - they're enjoying one of their busiest-ever seasons, with a simulated TV weather forecast particularly popular for some reason.

Ann Graham, W5 marketing executive, said that there was no doubt their visitor numbers go up when the rain comes down.

She said: "In 2015, W5 enjoyed one of its most successful years since opening in 2001 and had an increase of 12% of visitors from 2013.

"But for the summer period this year, the numbers are again up 7.5% on the same time last year.

"That's primarily due to a massive amount of programming in May, but also because of the periods of bad weather."

In Co Armagh, Tandragee, which isn't a name that usually tops international tourist itineraries, becomes a hotspot in the cold and wet weather.

The attraction there is Tayto Castle, where up to 120 visitors a day can go on tours to see how the crisp manufacturers make their favourite snacks.

Bob Brown, Tayto group's PR manager, said they have to take on extra staff to cope with the increased crowds in the summer.

He adds: "The weather does play a part. If it's glorious outside, we are competing with the sun, but when the weather turns inclement, as it has done over the past month or so, we get inundated with requests for tours, mainly from day trippers."

But on the north coast, the tourist market is more of a captive audience, though the bad weather has proven to be too much recently for some caravanners, who upped sticks to return to their home comforts.

On a windy Wednesday morning in Portstewart, which traditionally attracts the more mature holidaymakers, it looked as if indoors was the only way out for scores of visitors who took to shooting the breeze in cafes, though, perversely, ice-cream parlours weren't left out in the cold, either.

Along the promenade, the blustery conditions coming in off the choppy Atlantic blew more than the cobwebs away and a children's play-park was virtually deserted just months after it was flooded by mountainous waves.

The cliff walk past Dominican College on Wednesday morning was only for the bold, or for the bonkers.

"There's wiser eating grass," said a rueful Irene Todd, from Carryduff, who did the walk on her own, because no one else from her family would join her.

In her bakery in the Diamond, Sarah McLoughlin's "iced" buns took on a whole new meaning.

She said: "The start of July wasn't too bad and the week before last was great because of the Red Sails festival, which was blessed with the odd bit of sun between the showers.

"But this past week has been really atrocious. It's been like winter and I had to put all the lights on in here on Monday, because it was so dark outside. And when I looked through the window, I had to keep reminding myself that it was July.

"I felt sorry for some of our regular visitors from the caravans. They told me the children were fed up being cooped up."

Peter Lindsay was one of the "deserters" throwing in the rain-soaked towel and looking forward to his central heating back home in Ballyholme. A happy camper he was not.

"There's just so many times you can take the kids to Barry's amusements to keep them warm and dry," he said, as he took a last stroll along Portstewart Strand, where I couldn't help thinking about an old cigarette advert on the TV which boasted that people were never alone with a Strand. But on the beach in Portstewart on Wednesday, they almost were.

Fewer than the usual number of cars were parked on the normally packed expanse of golden sand and all but a handful of their occupants were watching the waves, rather than splashing about in them.

Portrush's East Strand had a hardy band of surfers and wet-suited swimmers in the water under the watchful eye of a female lifeguard, who may well have been a Baywatch babe, but it was impossible to tell under her multi-layered clothing and hood.

There wasn't a bikini (or a mankini) in sight and families who put a brave face on it did so from behind their windbreakers.

At the other end of town, the West Bay was even quieter. A pollution alert had shut it down, demonstrating that sometimes it never rains but it pours.

But Ulster holidaymakers really are a breed apart and, as soon as there was the merest hint of sunshine on Wednesday afternoon, the climate in Portrush changed, in a rush.

Shortly after the clouds disappeared, throngs of optimists appeared. From nowhere. And from the amusement arcades.

"We're here to have a good time," said Jacqui Crossan from Limavady as she bought her children ice-creams from a Portrush shop which has a sun awning that doubles as a rain shelter.

That resilience of holidaymakers is echoed on one of the websites which lists the top places to go in bad weather in Northern Ireland.

The Discover Northern Ireland page is headlined "Rain or Shine is fine", which even a number of tourism officials admit really is looking on the bright side. But there's a refreshing honesty about it, too.

One of the must-sees they recommend is the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum just outside Holywood, but they do add a caveat.

For while the Transport Museum is mainly under cover, the same can't be said of the Folk Museum, lots of which is exposed to the elements.

The cautious internet advice is to visit the Transport Museum first and go across the road to the Folk Museum "if the rain clears".

Even so, visitor numbers at Cultra have been encouraging and, at the Ulster Museum in Belfast, it's been a bumper season.

In the first 29 days of July, 48,000 people dropped into the museum, which officials said has been buzzing with a sense of excitement throughout the summer.

Les McLean, head of operations at the museum, said: "We've been delighted to welcome so many people of all ages here."

He didn't, however, put the healthy figures down to the weather, but rather to the quality of exhibitions, like a Viking's Guide to Deadly Dragons, which has been popular - especially with children.

He added: "We are very much looking forward to a busy August ... whatever the weather."

In Lisburn, thousands of families have been queuing up to dodge the deluges - for a soaking in the huge swimming pool in the Lagan Valley LeisurePlex.

Alderman Paul Porter, from Lisburn and Castlereagh Council, said: "We always see a significant rise in the number of visitors to the LeisurePlex when the weather's too poor for outdoor activities.

"There's never a bad time to get wet in the pool."

But no matter what the outlook is for Northern Ireland in August, the tail end of July will be remembered as a time when most people here found it impossible to keep their sunny sides up.

And, just seven days ago, Radio Ulster presenter Gerry Kelly added insult to injury.

Even though last Saturday afternoon was unusually dry for the month that was in it, Gerry's main interview was with ... Wet, Wet, Wet.

Belfast Telegraph

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