The boutique B&B, a new era for guest accommodation on both sides of the border
Karen and John Bolleboom, who this year opened the doors of One Shore Street in Donaghadee, are among the next generation breathing new life into B&Bs on both sides of the border. Chrissie Russell speaks to the couple - and the other young hosts driving the change
Morcheeba, a band epitomising chill-out music, are playing at an unobtrusive level in the background on a very sleek sound system. The tantalising smell of fresh coffee percolating fills the room.
Until a few years ago, the building we're sitting in, on the corner of Bridge and Shore street on the seafront in Donaghadee, Co Down, was a dilapidated former chemist - all peeling peach paintwork and PVC windows.
Now, with its charcoal exterior, discreet signage and stylish sash windows, it looks more like an exclusive private members' club. Certainly not the image most people would conjure up if you asked them to think of a B&B… which is exactly what it is.
Welcome to a new era of guest accommodation in Northern Ireland and the Republic, where a next-generation wave of B&B owners is offering a fresh take on a time-honoured tradition of homely hospitality.
Forget Vacancy/No Vacancy signs or outdated B&B cliches like floral wallpaper, net curtains and knitted toilet-roll holders; the sector has moved on, with a focus now firmly on luxury bedrooms and artisan breakfasts using local, seasonal ingredients.
That delicious coffee I can smell in One Shore Street is courtesy of the on-trend Belfast roasters Root and Branch. The local Finnebrogue bacon served at breakfast (on Knead and Prove sourdough with avocado on demand) is nitrate-free. The colour on the walls, which effortlessly complements the steely blue-grey of the sea-view beyond, is 'slate 1' from the high-end Paint & Paper Library. And the lucky guests who get to toddle off to one of the B&B's five bedrooms will be tucking themselves into goose feather and down duvets, on soft cashmere mattresses with sumptuous, 200 thread count linen.
It feels like there should be a breathless M&S voiceover declaring: "This isn't 'just' a B&B..."
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"It's supposed to be a treat," grins owner Karen Bolleboom who, with her husband John, opened the doors of One Shore Street at the start of this year.
"I probably see it more as a boutique hotel, not a place to crash for the night when you've had a few too many. It's aimed at adults who have travelled a bit and want something with a certain level of luxury and escapism, something unique."
Of course, luxury comes at a price and, depending on whether you opt for sea views and a gleaming, nickel-plated, free-standing bath or the romantic charm of the top floor suite, prices for a room at One Shore Street start at £140.
But the demand is there. Bookings have been brisk, with guests already returning two or three times, keen to enjoy not only the delights of the B&B but also the hidden gem charm of Donaghadee, with its picturesque pubs like Grace Neills, its nearby Bird Observatory and the newly-opened Copeland Spirits distillery.
For all the talk of hip hotels and Airbnbs, the B&B trade across Ireland hasn't gone away. Bookings are up 2% this year and revenue rose 18% in 2018 to around £10m.
This increase in demand has been met by a boom in provision. According to Failte Ireland's most recent figures, 20 newly approved B&Bs entered the market in 2017, bringing the total of approved B&Bs in operation across the Republic to 1,100.
"The B&B experience has been at the heart of Irish hospitality for a long time and it's going to continue," says Karen O'Connor, digital marketing manager for B&B Ireland, which offers places to stay across Ireland, north and south. "Tourism numbers are up and there are enough people coming in to stay in all these accommodation options - the demand is there."
B&B Ireland has some 800 registered B&Bs on its books, with 15% of those listings added in the past five years. "There's been a big market development," says Karen. "A lot of people are deciding 'I'll try this', I think Airbnb has opened up the idea to people."
It's no secret that there are mixed attitudes to Airbnb in the hospitality sector, but Karen views it as healthy competition - although she's quick to point out the benefits that come with booking a registered B&B.
"The B&B experience we're selling is around the Irish family home - a quality break," she says. "In my opinion Airbnb is a little more casual - it might be someone's home, it might be a room outside, an annex. There are different standards. A registered B&B has approval behind it, you know there's a good level of quality, the property has been checked, the owner has planning permission, a fire cert, all their regulations and, if there's a problem, you've someone to come back to."
She says there's no such thing as a typical B&B guest. "Ten or 15 years ago you would have said it was generally the older generation, but now it's young, old - there's no stereotype." The same with owners - long-standing hosts offer a wealth of experience, while the younger generation bring enthusiasm, fresh energy and new ideas.
Karen Bolleboom, originally from nearby Bangor, had been living in London for 23 years, and working for a bank, when she returned to Northern Ireland to open One Shore Street (which technically is branded "guest accommodation" since the couple live nearby, not on-site, the main stipulation for an "official" B&B).
"We wanted to have a go," Karen says. "We were looking for an opportunity to have our own business, live by the sea and we loved Donaghadee. When we saw the building for sale it was a case of right time, right place. We wanted an adventure."
That's something that Tristan Fahy and his wife Emma can relate to. "I'd worked in marketing for 10 years and Emma in nursing and it was getting where we felt we could predict what we'd be doing for the next 30 years," he explains. "We wanted to take a leap into something more exciting and challenging."
The couple opened Hook Lodge, on the Hook Peninsula in Co Wexford, 18 months ago. "Our whole objective was to try and stand out," says Tristan. "We identified that everyone is so busy nowadays that when they take a break, why not create a home away from home that has the amenities and small touches that we all enjoy?"
With prices starting from €95 per room, their B&B focuses on grown-up treats. It's adults only, Nespresso machines grace each of the four city-styled bedrooms and guests can nestle down in calming spaces like the library or yoga room. As a fully-trained fitness instructor, Tristan plans to develop a work-out retreat aspect to the business, building on their 'wellness' ethos. This year they swapped out the popular fry-up option on their breakfast menu for options like smashed avocado on eggs, smoked salmon and porridge.
"It was a risk, but not one guest has complained or even questioned the new healthier options!" laughs Tristan.
A B&B without the full Irish? Surely not. But it seems ripping up the menu, as well as the rule book, is a common theme with the new B&B generation.
"When I started out, I thought the full Irish breakfast was a non-negotiable component of a B&B and diligently stocked up on rashers, sausages, black and white pudding and the trimmings," reveals Sorcha Molloy, a trained chef who, since 2004, has been running the award-winning boutique B&B The Heron's Rest in Galway. One day a guest, in search of a lighter breakfast offering, encouraged Sorcha to only cook the food she wanted to cook.
"From that day forward we never cooked another rasher in the house," she laughs.
"These days we offer artisanal cured sausages from Gubbeen, honey-baked ham from our local butcher, wonderful smoked salmon and mackerel from Burren Smokehouse, farmhouse cheese, luxurious home-made muesli with local natural yoghurt, locally roasted coffee and fresh baking done in-house each morning."
The best B&B owners will make it look easy - giving a cheery welcome and the impression that all the wrestling with superking bedding and scrubbing of bathrooms just happens by magic - but the hospitality trade can be a fairly inhospitable industry to survive in.
"We've had white-knuckle years, with a temporary closure, recession and a house fire," admits Sorcha. "Pit against that the proliferation of Airbnbs that fly under the VAT radar, plus a 25% VAT increase this year... The only way we thrive is to keep our place a cut above the rest, with lots of thoughtful extras - all at a great price."
Diversification is also important. The Heron's Rest now operates self-catering options in the adjacent building, but with support from the main B&B team, who will book restaurants, deliver gourmet breakfasts and hand-crafted picnic baskets on request.
Rooms in the B&B start from €129 and there's on-site parking. At One Shore Street, Karen is running pop-up dining events hosted by award-winning Co Down chef Will Brown. The first night in April sold out, with many patrons opting to also stay over. The second already has a lengthy waiting list.
But change can be a little more tricky when you're quite literally a second generation B&B owner. For nearly 60 years, Oriel and Nicholas Hill-Wilkinson have welcomed guests into their home, Ross House, a traditional 19th century farmhouse set in the rolling countryside of Co Sligo. Now the couple's daughter, Gemma, is taking over the B&B's reins.
"Mum was a founding member of Irish Farmhouse Holidays," reveals Gemma. "Someone asked her if she would do B&B for two or three months and that turned into 57 years! We have guests who have been coming back for 30 years. They've seen my brother and I grow up and now they're seeing our kids grow up. My mum has built an amazing reputation, which is wonderful, but it also comes with a lot of pressure to follow in those footsteps. Her and my dad have grown the business and I know they are excited to see my plans, but there's definitely a balance to be struck between keeping the things that have worked so well and putting my own stamp on it."
To that end she's been eyeing up the potential of the farm buildings as self-catering apartments and initiating interior design updates in the five existing bedrooms, where a stay costs €45 per person per night. But she has no desire to drastically alter a tried-and-tested formula. "The house is a real homely home and I think that's why people like coming back - it feels like home," she explains. Oriel's renowned cooked breakfast is most definitely staying.
In 2015, Richie Foley and his wife, Caroline, took over the running of the exquisite Roseville House in Youghal, Co Cork, a B&B first launched by Richie's mother Phyllis in 1987. The change in ownership marked a new chapter in the B&B's life, with the couple keen to take a more modern approach to the traditional B&B model. It was another inclusion in this year's Fab 50.
They did away with a shared dining room and guests now have the option of two spacious suites - not rooms - where, from €59pp sharing, personalised breakfasts and freshly squeezed orange juice are hand-delivered each morning under shining silver domes.
Comfy, wing-backed chairs offer uninterrupted views of the garden and each suite also boasts a fully stocked larder - complete with fresh milk, not a carton of UHT in sight.
The decision to focus on the day-time use of guest rooms - rather than solely used for the 'bed' aspect of the B&B experience - was informed by the couple's own experiences.
"We wanted to offer something really different," explains Richie.
"We basically sat down and analysed everywhere we had stayed over the past 10 years and picked the positives and negatives of our experiences - everything from tiny rooms in New York to five star hotels in Ireland with breakfast buffets where someone has used the bean utensil and stuck it in the scrambled eggs!"
Their in-room breakfast service (guests fill in a card the night before) means no-one has to rush down, or even dress for breakfast. There's also no dining room to clean. But when making changes to something as personal as a home-grown business it can be inevitable that feelings are slighted and alterations perceived as criticisms. Richie is frank about the fact that taking the reins was not entirely without its challenges, but feels working towards a new look for Roseville House has proved a triumph and a great addition to Youghal town.
That's not to say it's always easy. "You need to be sociable and friendly, open to meeting new people and genuinely take an interest in them," says Richie. "You also need to be hard-working, because running a B&B is not easy and dealing with the public can be challenging."
"You're living with guests," adds Tristan from Hook Lodge. "You also need to remember that yes, you are a B&B but also a small business so be prepared for all the elements that go with that, such as tax, accounting and returns, cost analysis, marketing, sales and - of course - cooking, bed-making and cleaning!"
He adds: "We've definitely never regretted the decision, but we have gained a lot of perspective. The dream of moving to the countryside also involves long hours cleaning toilets! There was a lot of security in the corporate world..."
"I've a new found respect for people who own their own business," agrees Karen of One Shore Street. "It's a culture shock realising no-one is going to pay me money every month, I have to go out and get it."
She feels fortunate that, aside from taking charge of 'music and coffee', John's main employment is his IT job in Dublin. At the moment every penny of profit generated by the B&B goes back into the business and the build itself was far from cheap - even with the assistance of a National Lottery Heritage Fund grant.
"I don't even know what figure to give," says Karen grimacing slightly. "Half a million, probably more. The grant covered some, it allowed us to proceed and do the building justice."
And from traditional Bangor Blue slates on the roof, to a staircase where the old seamlessly blends with the new and tasteful Georgian-style panelling, they have more than done it justice.
Modern accents like cool marble tabletops, a striking copper and glass light fixture and exquisite crockery from the chic Scandi-brand, Broste sit comfortably with the charm of the old building, traditional beehive door knobs and toggle light switches.
Atmospheric works by Causeway coast artist Adrian Margey, all depicting local landscapes, hang on the walls and beyond... those captivating views of the harbour, where two horse riders have just cantered along the surf, past the lighthouse, and a swimming group is about to take the plunge.
"I've no regrets," smiles Karen.
"Life is for living and this is the start of something for us, let's see where it goes."