How a former coastguard boathouse on Belfast Lough shores has been transformed into a much sought after holiday let
Carol Magill tells Stephanie Bell how travellers from around the world have booked out the building she once regarded as an eyesore and why she runs a boot camp to help others make the most of Airbnb
What looked like an ugly abandoned garage in the garden of their new home has been transformed by a Co Antrim couple into what is fast becoming an international tourist attraction.
Carol Magill and Colin Simms had no idea that the unsightly building on their Loughshore property in Whiteabbey was in fact an historic gem.
The building, which they both regarded as an eyesore when they bought their new home three years ago, turned out to be a 19th coastguard boathouse used as a base to police Belfast Lough against smugglers.
And as the curious couple carefully stripped it back they were delighted to discover that most of its original features were still intact.
Now after a painstaking conversion they have transformed their once unsightly outbuilding into a restful Airbnb holiday let which has been attracting visitors from all corners of the globe.
For Carol, the launch of the business was a complete new direction brought about when she was made redundant two years ago.
Carol (48) and her husband Colin (49), an electrical engineer, live in one of a row of former coastguard cottages in Whiteabbey with their children Daniel (9) and William (14).
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Since launching the boathouse as an Airbnb last December it has been virtually booked out with visitors coming from as far away as Alaska, Canada and Hawaii.
And during European Heritage weekend last Sunday, it was the turn of local people to visit the beautifully restored historic building which looks out across Belfast Lough.
Carol explains: "When we bought the house we thought the building that came with it was some sort of office or garage.
"You could see it had a lovely sea view from the office window but other than that it was very run down and difficult to see what you could do with it. It was actually an eyesore to be honest.
"It was a neighbour who told us of its historical significance and as we started to strip it back, it began to reveal itself to us.
"We found a lot of the original features inside including the original beam where the boat would have been attached and the slipway where the boat would have set sail.
"There were also a number of old hooks and shelves which were original.
"The builders also found an original Thirties barred window which had been covered over with wood."
As well as stripping the building back to discover is original beauty, it also began to reveal a very colourful history.
Carol and Colin discovered their building dated from the 1800s, when a ring of coastguard cottages and boathouses was built around Belfast Lough.
The coastguards were armed with swords, then rifles, ready to defend the shores.
The establishment of the coastguard during this time was not so much about saving lives (although rescue from shipwrecks was in the job description) but prompted by the loss of revenue to the crown from smuggled goods.
Contraband cargo smuggled via the lough included gin, swords, gunpowder, tobacco and rope.
Carol says: "The boathouse sits on the coastal walk along Whiteabbey to Gideon's Green, but many people who walk along the path do not realise that before the Belfast port was widened, this shore was the centre of commercial trade in Northern Ireland.
"It was the beating heart of the linen and rope trade and the coastline has many signs of that past.
"Our coastguard boathouse was part of this and its history includes tales of romance, intrigue, rebellion and oppression.
"There is one great story we uncovered about a farmer called McClenaghan from Portmuck who was a gentleman farmer who was also a master smuggler. His granddaughter ended up marrying a coastguard."
Coastguard boathouses are dotted along the Antrim coastline and have survived and been restored for a number of uses although Carol's is the only one which has been converted into a holiday home. Another boathouse in Whitehead is being used by a boat club for storage and there is one in Ballintoy harbour which has served as a backdrop for the filming of TV blockbuster Game of Thrones.
Another in Ballycastle is in daily use as a hairdressing salon.
Carol is thrilled by the success of her conversion as initially she was shocked to lose her job so soon after moving into their new home.
She had been working as a partnership manager with the Chartered Institute of Marketing when she was made redundant during cutbacks two years ago.
During renovations of the boathouse she seized on the opportunity to create a new income while also sharing the historic building by a modern reinvention as a dog friendly holiday let.
While ensuring it was true to its great historic past, she has also modelled it into a comfortable and bright open plan kitchen/living room, a bedroom with a king size and double bed and a modern shower room.
It was been decorated with a nod to its coastal location and history with the addition of some charming nautical accessories.
Since it opened last year, it has attracted over 100 visitors who were drawn to its superb location and its rich history.
Carol says: "We were really lucky to get the planning permission and as the building work progressed the building revealed more and more of its secrets.
"To keep it to planning and building control regulations we had to insulate it to a modern standard which meant covering up all the old Belfast brick inside.
"We reinstated it through tiles in the bathroom. Where we weren't able to keep original features we went for modern equivalents.
"Tourism NI was also really helpful and they suggested putting in a washer/dryer which we wouldn't have thought of and our guests love.
"We have also had a lot of support from our neighbours and local businesses in Whiteabbey village who shared our vision for it. Our guests love the local fish and chip shop and the restaurants and people have given us a lot of old documents relating to the boathouse and the coastguard service at that time.
"The history of the building as well as the spectacular views of the lough are what makes it such a fantastic place.
"It was quite daunting and a very stressful journey and you never know until it opens its doors if it is going to work."
The couple had booked a week's family holiday in Spain before Carol was made redundant and had considered cancelling it.
However they were so exhausted by working on the boathouse conversion they decided to go ahead with their break, posting their holiday home online for the first time the day before they left.
"The run up to the opening of the boathouse as a holiday let was so exhausting that we decided to go away after all," Carol says.
"I put it online the day before we left and it went crazy. By the time we got home a week later I had 20 bookings and we have more or less been at capacity ever since.
"We've had visitors from all over the world, from Australia, Canada and America, and we have people coming soon from Hawaii.
"They see the pictures of the boathouse and read its description and have told us that because it is such a unique place they felt they had to book it.
"In Northern Ireland we take for granted how close we are to the sea and for many of our visitors being able to look out over the sea is a real novelty."
Now an Airbnb "superhost" thanks to over 40 five star reviews from delighted visitors, Carol has set up a networking programme for people interested in setting up their own holiday lets.
She also runs one-day boot camps to help point out potential pitfalls and share advice.
She says: "While it has great flexibility for me as a mum to be able to run a business from home, it can also be quite isolating.
"I started meetings with other people who are already running an Airbnb so that we could exchange ideas on best practice and then set up the boot camps to make people aware of the pitfalls and risks.
"I hadn't realised that visitors review you and if you fail to get five stars three times they can kick you off the platform.
"The boot camps are designed to help people if they are not getting five stars to address what is impacting on their reviews."
If you are interested in Carol's boot camps you can contact her at email@example.com or check out the Coastguard Boat House on Airbnb (https://airbnb.com/h/belfast-boat-house), Tripadvisor, Booking.com or HomeAward