Belfast Telegraph

Wish you were here? How tourist hot spots on North Coast manage to cope with downturn of cold winter months

Portrush and Portstewart are very popular ports of call in the summer, but what happens to their businesses during the off-season? Our reporter went for a stroll down the promenade to find out

Amy Platt, manager at Morelli’s in Portstewart
Amy Platt, manager at Morelli’s in Portstewart
Karl O’Neill, Portrush Lifeboat
Willie Gregg at the Harbour Bar in the town
William McKittrick in Panky Doos
Joy Cromie and Maureen McDowell
Caravan owner James Marshall
Donna Deeney

By Donna Deeney

Through the long summer days their streets come alive, drawing families, tourists and day trippers in their thousands with their dreamy beaches, amusement arcades and picturesque coastal walks.

The seaside towns of Portrush and Portstewart have long been a favourite destination at the height of the holiday season, with their cafes, guesthouses and shops abuzz with excited crowds.

But head to the North Coast these dark, cold January days and it is a very different - and chillier - feeling.

While there are good times to be had when the sun shines, the winter months can be harsh for traders, with the once-packed streets bereft of tourists and only a few hardy souls braving the plummeting temperatures to head to the beach.

However, according to locals, the towns' unique selling point helps take the chill off the dark days when visitors are thin on the ground.

The Harbour Bar, opened in 1827, is on the list of every tourist's "must do" list when in Portrush.

Tacked to the wall and ceiling are four maps that show visitors have literally come here from the four corners of the globe to enjoy a pint and the craic.

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Willie Gregg, who has been at the helm of the Portrush establishment for more years than he cares to remember, said the ambiance at the Harbour Bar, the lack of wi-fi, as well as live music 364 nights of the year, helps keep them afloat when the tourists have gone.

He said: "This is not your average bar, this is the Harbour Bar and the world and his wife comes here because the only day of the year when we are not open is Christmas Day, and we have live music every day of the week.

"It is a small bar but it is the departure lounge for six restaurants as well as the meeting place for surfers, golfers, walkers and fishermen. And while there is a lull in December, we are blessed in that our weekends are the same all the year round.

"Weekdays are quieter, but we have found the quiet season has been getting shorter and there is something on in Portrush from Easter to October.

"The key to surviving is the ability to adapt to the winter to get you through the lean times, but we use the winter months to get ready for the summer season."

A visit to Portrush conjures thoughts of sunny days, ice cream and fun day trips.

On the day of our visit, though, a chilly breeze is coming off the sea. Whereas in summer people amble through the streets, today they are keen to escape the winter elements.

For some, the dawn of a new year is bringing uncertainty.

Despite having his own unique selling point of exquisite afternoon teas set in the most delightfully quaint tea shop, William McKittrick's Panky Doos is at risk of closing.

Summer 2019 brought an unprecedented level of development to Portrush in preparation for The Open golf championship and with it road closures and diversions, which resulted in a drop in footfall.

This, ahead of the difficult winter season, proved to be too much for Mr McKittrick and his wife, who poured their savings into Panky Doos, leaving them with no choice but to put their business up for sale.

He said: "Last year the town was closed down for five months to redevelop it for The Open.

"Our business has become collateral damage because people stayed away because they couldn't get into the town.

"We caught up a bit over the summer but because the summer season was shorter we are now 50% down compared with the last three winters.

"Winter is a tough time but we have a niche in that we offer afternoon teas, and although I have lots of bookings for them, I am too far behind to keep going.

"This is breaking our heart, we would love to stay here. We knew coming into this that business is seasonal and for the first three winters things worked out great.

"In fact, even now I have bookings for over 200 afternoon teas that will take us right up to March, but unfortunately because of the impact of the development for The Open, we have been forced to put the business up for sale."

Winter or summer, the lifeboat station in Portrush is ever ready. While the number of call-outs at this time will be fewer, when the calls do come their very nature brings challenges.

Karl O'Neill is a lead lifeguard superviser in Portrush and a volunteer RNLI lifeboat crew member. He said: "Winter or summer we operate a 24-hour service, but in the wintertime our callouts tend to be commercial fishing vessels that have lost power and take a bit longer, we are out in a bit more swell, rougher seas.

"Portrush is very popular with local surfers, body-boarders and stand-up paddle boarders throughout the year, so it is not out of the ordinary for us to get calls to help people who have gotten into difficulties or injured themselves.

"Safety is paramount for our crews and we strap ourselves to our seats, but in the wintertime you definitely need a strong stomach because we can be out in very difficult conditions and at times we could be out for anything up to 20 hours.

"The personal protection equipment the RNLI provide is second to none so the cold temperatures don't tend to be a problem.

"I have been a volunteer for 13 years now, and to be honest when the pager goes off, even if it is cold and wet, I just get on with it."

While the weather has a big impact on the day-to-day lives of traders and those working for the RNLI, local people out walking said winter brings a different vibe to Portrush, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Among them are Edwina and Trevor Milliken, who visit Portrush two or three times a week during the winter.

Edwina said: "Portrush is beautiful even in the winter and a great place to come to enjoy the fresh air and sea walks and the scenery is beautiful.

"We walk right up to Ramore Head and back, which would be a good hour's walk, but we call in for lunch in one of the many restaurants."

James Marshall from Cullybackey has had a caravan in Portrush since 1988 and takes full advantage of that, no matter what the season is.

He said: "Summers in Portrush are great and we wouldn't think of going anywhere else. Our caravan looks out to the sea and that is a view that never gets boring, winter or summer.

"Summer is great but it is nice here in the winter too because it is a wee bit quieter, there is just something about Portrush that draws us here, no matter what time of the year."

A few miles down the road in Portstewart, at the renowned Morelli's ice-cream parlour/restaurant, the huge queues that stretch out on to the street at the height of summer have disappeared as the temperature has dropped. Manager Amy Platt said: "In the summer it is literally mayhem here, people are queued out the door and right up the street and that continues right up to 11 o'clock at night.

"There are days we can't even see out to the street because there are so many people, so it is very different to how things are in the winter months.

"Our quiet time is getting shorter and shorter and I would say the season now runs from March or April right up to October.

"The two weeks before Christmas is the quietest time of the year for us but then there's Boxing Day, which is like a busy Saturday at the height of summer.

"I think by that stage people want to get out for a walk and they call in for an ice-cream and a coffee. January is another dead time for us, but that's always the way."

Maureen McDowell is a lifelong resident of Portstewart and, along with her friend Joy Cromie, has never lost the joy she feels walking along the promenade of her home town.

She said: "Portstewart is a great place no matter what time of the year, but I do prefer the buzz of the summertime. But the number of people coming here in the wintertime is growing and I think that's because of the number of coffee shops that have opened and stay open in the evening.

"It used to be in winter it was very dead, but that's changing."

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