Northern Ireland's guesthouses are for many visitors the first positive impression of here. Lee Henry meets three women who offer them award-winning accommodation and food, including one who hosted a mystery Hollywood couple.
Avril Brown (64) runs The Old Schoolhouse Inn in Comber with her husband Terry. She says:
This year we were very thankful and surprised to win the AA Guest Accommodation of the Year for Northern Ireland at the prestigious AA B&B Awards. The judges commented on the atmosphere we create here at the Old Schoolhouse Inn as being "charming, inviting, snug and embracing", which of course we were thrilled about. We were elated, just delighted.
Both Terry and I have 45 years' worth of experience in the professional hospitality industry, myself as a chef de cuisine and Terry as hotel manager, and we have passed that on to our son Will, who now runs our Michelin award-winning restaurant.
The Old Schoolhouse Inn is situated in Comber, Co Down, by the shores of Strangford Lough.
Terry and I purchased the premises, which was previously a school, in 1984 and began renovating it.
The inn now has eight en suite bedrooms named after American Presidents of Ulster descent.
So we have Andrew Jackson, James Knox Polk, Ulysses Simpson Grant, Chester Alan Arthur and others. We love that historical element and lots of our guests do too, often requesting to stay in the same rooms on return visits.
We had one of our most memorable experiences one summer's day a few years ago when, to our great surprise, a helicopter landed on the front lawn and a well-known gentleman and lady descended, a Hollywood couple whose names I will never disclose.
They were looking for somewhere to stay for a few nights and ended up staying with us. They had an excellent time.
On departure, when paying the bill, there was £100 added by the gentleman. I asked what this was for and he replied: "Genuine Irish hospitality." We couldn't have been happier.
Our son Will trained in London and at Roscoff's in Belfast and then came home to help refurbish the restaurant.
We closed for six months and transformed the restaurant into a stylish and sumptuous space with a beautiful marble bar area and over the last four years the restaurant has gone from strength to strength, winning a multitude of prestigious awards.
We now have Michelin Bib Gourmand and two AA rosettes for the past two years, and most recently we were awarded Restaurant of the Year at the Licensed and Catering News Awards at the Europa Hotel in Belfast.
Will also appeared on the BBC's reality show the Great British Menu, representing Northern Ireland, back in 2014.
The restaurant is a big part of the Old Schoolhouse Inn. Will's wife Karina is front of house. She gave up a career in law to work there.
She jokes that if she hadn't, she would never see Will!
Our menus are led by the seasons. Will only uses the freshest of produce and regularly forages on the shores of Strangford Lough, sourcing the best ingredients within a close radius of the inn.
A pioneer of 'plot to plate', we erected a polytunnel and raised beds at the Schoolhouse to grow our own produce.
Here you will find fruit and vegetables and herbs and Will encourages his customers to go and have a look at the kitchen garden. It's beautiful in summer.
I'm passionate about going the extra mile for all of our guests. It's very important to me.
Adding all the little extra touches is my speciality and giving everyone who arrives here a very warm welcome and a nice cuppa and a scone is always a great joy.
I also enjoy making my own Guinness wheaten bread and various jams.
My three top tips for running a successful bed and breakfast are: always produce good breakfasts using local, sustainable produce; make sure there are plenty of fluffy towels in your comfortable rooms and, finally, do not price your B&B out of the market.
Nicola O'Neill (41) is owner of Blackrock House 5-star B&B in Portrush. She says:
My parents encouraged me to travel from a young age and from 17 years old I spent three summers working as an au pair in St Malo, Brittany, where I lived with a family that owned a seafood restaurant in their home. That helped my French, but also started to influence my taste in food and decor.
After finishing my A-levels I took a year out to travel in New Zealand, where my aunt owned a hotel.
Then I au paired for a family in Sydney, Australia, who owned a cafe on Bondi Beach. After graduating from Northumbria University in Travel and Tourism Management, I took every opportunity to work overseas, in Jersey, Disneyland Paris, Tignes Ski Resort, Vienna, Zante and Lisbon, followed by a trip around Peru, which led me to London.
I settled there for 10 years and worked as a restaurant manager for one year before joining Eurostar. Having grown up in Bushmills, however, redundancy afforded me the opportunity to return home, and Blackrock all began when I started to think about how I could combine all of my skills into one project.
I opened Blackrock House as a 5-star luxury B&B just over a year ago in April 2016. The house is Edwardian, dating from 1902. It felt right to give it a new lease of life for the 21st century.
It is in the perfect location, on the main Causeway Coastal Route, on the North West 200 circuit and a two-minute walk to the beach and the railway at Dhu Varren. Blackrock now has five en suite bedrooms, four of which are guest rooms, three reception rooms and a kitchen diner plus a balcony. It wasn't initially a conscious decision to create a 5-star luxury product. It was blood, sweat and tears to get the place ready. I worked three jobs one summer, with no holidays for a couple of years and even had to cope with a slipped disc.
My father played a huge part in that also, helping me with the build throughout.
I originally thought that all of my guests would be international tourists destined for the Giant's Causeway, but I have a really strong following from the Northern Ireland domestic market. I've seen a huge increase in golf tourism in the past 12 months also.
Last summer a guest proposed to his partner on the balcony and we have had six Irish and American brides and grooms stay either on their wedding night or as part of their honeymoon. We even had a groom's party hire the whole house for the weekend and leave for the church from Blackrock. That is something I simply never anticipated when opening a bed and breakfast. I have just recently worked with the Rory Foundation for the Irish Open in Portstewart Golf Club and had the pleasure of welcoming former world champion snooker player Dennis Taylor to stay whilst playing in the Pro-Am. And being on the North West 200 circuit, current champion Alistair Seeley and former track rider Jeremy McWilliams have also stayed.
Running Blackrock is my passion.
Sally Cassidy (62) is co-owner of Arkle Bed & Breakfast in Londonderry with her husband Terry. She says:
Initially we started the bed and breakfast to help pay the mortgage, but now we enjoy running the place. It's a lot of fun. No two days are the same. All-year round we welcome different guests from different cultures. They all have different stories to tell but the same expectations for good service, a comfortable night's sleep and a hearty breakfast.
I love to see the smiles on our guest's faces when they see the wonderful array of fresh fruits, yogurts and other delicacies that we offer.
These days it's not unusual to go into the dining room and see a guest standing up and taking a photo of their breakfast before they tuck in.
Arkle House is a Victorian property built around the turn of the century. All the rooms are en suite and have a view of one of the old mature gardens. I love to pick all the colours and fabrics for each room.
The house is teeming with Victorian charm and character and guests can enjoy things like antique fireplaces, a beautiful staircase and plaster mouldings.
We even have the original rolltop bath here, which was installed around 1903. We sometimes challenge the guests' powers of observation by asking them what happened on this spot in 1832. Obviously I can't disclose it here, as the cat would be well and truly out of the bag.
Last year we built a treehouse for the children who come and stay, which they can enjoy with proper supervision. We also built a large covered patio area with a chiminea, gas fire and a barbecue. This area incorporates a 24ft-long waterfall, which cascades water from a height of about 10ft.
We once had a Canadian MP named John Cummins stay with us. He was visiting with his father, who was stationed in Derry during the Second World War. Mr Cummins Snr, Jack, was one of the last Canadian servicemen to be demobbed at the end of the war. He had very fond memories of a family who owned a pub in the city who were very kind to him, and especially the barmaid, who gave him a lock of her hair, and the pub regulars, who had a whipround for him when he left. He still had the hair and the coins all those years later, safely secured in an old tin box.
When they were checking out after a few days they said that they had a good time but were disappointed that they couldn't trace the family who had looked after Mr Cummins during the war.
Terry used his connections in the pub trade to locate them and they all had a wonderful reunion. The Cummins family went home happy.
My responsibilities in the B&B include cooking, cleaning, making beds, waiting for guests to arrive, dealing with cancellations and coping with the good and the rude. It's all in a day's work, but I wouldn't want to be doing anything else. It is so rewarding when things go well.
A few years ago we were presented with the City Coat of Arms from the Lord Mayor for our services to tourism in the city. We have so much to offer our guests. Derry, with its stunning walls, museums and cathedrals. The old streets heavy with history and bursting with the bustle of cafes, pubs and restaurants.
The north coast is within driving distance, the rugged beauty and beaches of the Inishowen and Fanad peninsulas are also nearby, as are the Foyle golf courses and the world famous Ballyliffin links course.
That said, the city's biggest asset is undoubtedly its people. It's just a wonderful place to live and work.
I hope to keep changing, innovating and improving to meet the ever-increasing demands of the modern tourist. There are a lot more sausages to be cooked and bread to be baked. I can't wait. Bring it on.