24 hours in Bundoran: ‘The town is mental. No one expected it to be so busy’

The Donegal SEASIDE town is enjoying an unexpected tourist boom in the wake of lockdown

Before I even arrive in Bundoran, Co Donegal, there are clear signs the longtime seaside resort town is busy. I call two days in advance to make a hotel booking for Wednesday, July 30th. There are five hotels currently open in Bundoran. The Allingham Arms, 132 rooms, full. The Great Northern, 102 rooms, full. The Holyrood, 91 rooms, full. Fitzgerald’s Hotel, which has 16 rooms, has two left, and I book one of these. I hadn’t tried the Grand Central, 64 rooms, but by the time I drive into Bundoran, it too is full.

Wednesday, July 30th: 2pm

The town has what must be one of the most scenic car parks in the country, on the Atlantic Way. It overlooks Bundoran’s bay, and the fresh, wild smell of brine and seaweed hits the second I open the car door.

The town fronts on to sandy beaches and little coves, and when the tide is out there are rock pools and wide strands. There are lovely walks along the rocky headlands, some of which are lit up at night. At Bargain King on Promenade Road, one of the town’s many souvenir shops, there are dozens of spades hanging outside; the stalwart must-have of a seaside holiday. Plastic spades are €2. Spades with wooden handles are €3. Another generation of children will dig moats and build ephemeral castles on Bundoran’s beaches this summer.

Not long after I get out of the car, it begins to rain; a persistent rain which later that night will cause downpours along the west coast.

2.30pm

Ken Page is the owner of Page’s Fish and Chips on Main Street. It opened in 1988, and he took over from his parents in 2002. There are seven chip offerings alone. Along with plain chips, there are curry, cheesy, cheesy curry, garlic, garlic cheesy and coleslaw. A portion of plain chips is €3; the cheesy curry chips will cost you €4.60. There are also burgers, chicken done different ways, sandwiches and ice cream.

“Our most popular seller is fish and chips,” Page says. He serves haddock from Killybegs, not cod, due to sustainability. It’s a true family business: of the six other staff members, three are family. His wife Claudia, and daughters Caoimhe and Jemma are all working behind the counter.

Even though their seating capacity has been reduced from 36 to 28 due to Covid-19 social distancing, the rise in his take-away business has helped compensate. Families comprise most of his business. “But my breakfast trade is almost nothing,” he says. “Those people staying in hotels who wouldn’t have got up in time for breakfast, or the people booking rooms with no breakfast. Once the hotels get you now, they try to keep everyone in.”

Page is open from 10.30am to 9.30pm daily. With the lack of pubs open, he has noticed a trend in people ordering ice cream from 8pm to 9.30pm, when people are out walking. “I have noticed that people are more respectful and patient to each other this year. The atmosphere is a bit different now that the pubs are closed.”

3.30pm

Bundoran’s tourism officer Shane Smyth: “I don’t think anyone expected the town to be so busy.” Photograph: James Connolly
Bundoran’s tourism officer Shane Smyth: “I don’t think anyone expected the town to be so busy.” Photograph: James Connolly

“The town is mental,” Shane Smyth announces, sitting behind his desk in Bundoran’s tourist office. Smyth is Mr Bundoran. He comes from the town; he is the current tourism officer; he is an ambassador for the brand Discover Bundoran; he presents a weekly podcast called The Bundoran Weekly (for the recent 100th episode, his guest was Daniel O’Donnell); and he is also press officer for the local RNLI branch.

“I don’t think anyone expected the town to be so busy,” he says. “If we can keep it going for another few weeks, people will have had a decent enough summer. Any business that I have talked to have said trade is exceeding all their expectation.”

For a small town with a small year-round population – the 2016 census recorded just 1,963 people – it has a very large number of tourist beds. According to a 2018 Bundoran Tourism report, in addition to the town’s hotels, there were nine hostels, 400 self-catering premises, and 16 caravan sites and campsites. The caravan and campsite cohort alone provided 4,312 beds.

I think there are a lot of house parties going on

The majority of these beds are usually occupied during a six-week window from mid-July until the end of August. Although there is a perception that most visitors come from Northern Ireland, the 2018 report found that 35 per cent came from the Republic, with 34 per cent from Northern Ireland. Among the other visitors, the US market, so dominant in other tourism hubs, such as Kerry, comprised only 5 per cent. Bundoran has never relied on the North American market; a fact which is now working to its advantage. Most of the area’s holiday homes, for instance, are owned by people from Northern Ireland.

“July has always been a more northern crowd; August is when the South arrives,” he says. “We are hearing the accents change now. We are definitely getting more people from the South now. There has always been a perception that Donegal is very far away, but maybe that will change now.”

What has been the impact on the town of the bars being closed?

“I think there are a lot of house parties going on, back at the places people are staying at. But I’m not sure,” he says.

5pm

The Allingham Arms, a 132-room modern hotel overlooking the sea, reopened on Friday, July 3rd, and was was 90 per cent booked out that first weekend. Owner Peter McIntyre is ebullient. They are full tonight, all this weekend, and already have 95 per cent bookings for August. A double room with breakfast tonight is €110.

“I am amazed to be full,” he admits. “Back in June, I hadn’t one booking. The summer looked like I’d only be doing 10-20 per cent.”

McIntyre has been in business for 30 years as a hotelier, and built much of that business on running specialised country dancing weekends, most of it aimed at the over 50s. “The dancing is gone, so I had to go after a new market,” he says. “I’ve gone for families and the 25-35 age bracket. People are coming to us from Cork and Dublin and Leinster, which is a completely new market for us, and we are hoping we will keep that market once this thing is over.”

He reports that people are staying longer this year; three or four days and even a week. “A lot of them are first-time visitors; people we have never seen before. I’m hearing from lots of other people that Donegal as a county is doing very well.”

We are full, but I am now realising that people are absolutely mad to get out of their houses

Not only is McIntyre currently full, he’s actually doing better business than he did this time last year, which was about 80 per cent occupancy. He has taken all his 80 staff back, and it’s so busy he has taken on an additional 20. “This week wouldn’t usually be peak season in Bundoran because of the Galway Races,” he says. “It is absolutely unreal. I am very surprised we are full, but I am now realising that people are absolutely mad to get out of their houses.”

The rain is lashing at the windows as we’re talking, in a corner of the restaurant. The mist is down. The forecast is awful. I ask if he’s worried about the weather affecting business.

“Not one bit!” McIntyre laughs.

7pm

There’s a giant statue of Neptune, or rather, half of Neptune, at the entrance to Macks Amusements on Main Street, one of several arcades on the street. Not all of them allow children in, but Macks does.

The place is buzzing and only people I see wearing masks are the staff, who are diligently sanitising over and over all the things that are touched in an amusement arcade – handles, knobs, screens. There are small children in buggies and family groups towards the front of the arcade, where the amusement machines are, and towards the back, where it is darker and quieter, adults who look like they are there on their own are intently focused on the games they are playing.

Conor McEniff, son of the late hotelier Seán McEniff, owns the arcade. We go into a room at the back of the building, where a huge poster of a Queen album dominates one wall, to talk. He tells me that the arcade has 300 gaming machines and 80 amusement machines. But the arcade isn’t his only business. He lists the rest of them off.

“The Paris nightclub across the road, but that’s closed. An adventure centre, but that’s closed. A guesthouse with 21 rooms. That’s new. That sleeps close to 80. An ice-cream parlour. A couple of pubs in Sligo. Oh, and I rent out some apartments and houses.”

Bundoran has become a family-orientated town

Two months ago, McEniff didn’t think he would be doing any business at any of these places. “There’s a southern business here now that we have never had before. It would have been traditionally a town for Northern Ireland working-class families, and now we’re getting more middle-class southerners,” he says. “There are people from Tipperary, Cork, Longford, Kildare, Wicklow, even from Galway, believe it or not. And a lot from Monaghan, and then there’s the traditional Northern Ireland crowd.”

He has observed this not from the people coming to the amusement arcade but from those people renting rooms in his guest house or other rentals in the town. “All the rental houses and apartments in Bundoran were all booked out before July started,” he says. “I am full every night now. Bundoran has become a family-orientated town.”

8.45pm

Earlier in the day I made an online dinner reservation at Maddens Bridge Bar and Restaurant on Main Street. I show up on time for my pre-booked slot. The restaurant, which is laid out over different floors and levels, has a clear one-way system in operation. I order the fish of the day, which is mackerel from Killybegs. I read my New Yorker and feel extremely happy to be out in the world again.

Three bites in, a mackerel bone becomes lodged in my throat. Fast forward a few minutes, and I am explaining to a staff member what’s happened, while simultaneously coughing and gagging in transit to the bathroom. Bad as I feel, I feel almost worse for the staff. They are trying to do business during a global pandemic, and I’ve morphed into the perfect nightmare customer; gasping in public like a dying character from the movie Contagion.

Once I emerge from the bathroom, there follows a few minutes of chaos by the staff counter. I eat a couple of different things brought to me in efforts to dislodge the stubborn bone. It remains there, but I can breathe normally, so my underlying panic dissipates. By then, I just want to leave, and ask for the bill. My card is debited in full for the meal I didn’t get to finish.

However, once the manager shows up, having heard about a customer having some difficulty, leadership ensues immediately. Mortified, he issues a refund. He puts me on the phone to Night Doc to seek their medical advice; offers that someone from the restaurant will drive me to the hospital emergency department in Sligo if needed; and gives me his number so I can call if this is what I later decide to do. He is kind, attentive and concerned.

The place is dead at night now, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing

It’s still raining when I leave the restaurant and walk up the town. Traditionally there would be live music playing in some of the bars, which are of course shut. The hotel bars would also be busy, some of which, like the Allingham, offered regular entertainment. There’s nothing of that now. Nobody smoking in clusters outside bars, no blasts of noise when doors open, no crowds of people on the streets, figuring out their next stop for the night.

The amusement arcades are still open, but that’s it. Everything else is closed. It feels more like 3am on an “ordinary” July night in the town, rather than the 10pm it actually is. Despite the fact that Shane Smyth has told me the town is “mental”, it doesn’t seem that way. The people staying in the full hotels are remaining there, and the many people in holiday houses and caravan parks have gone home for the night.

During the time I’m in Bundoran, people tell me the town is a much more pleasant place for being quieter at night. They don’t want to names names because they don’t want to seem as if they are criticising people in the pub and entertainment industry.

“There used to be men out drinking all night and never going home to their families all weekend.”

“There is no hassle at all on the streets in the evenings now.”

“The place is dead at night now, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing.”

I go back to my hotel, Fitzgerald’s, where my room overlooks the ocean. It rains all night. Overnight, the fish bone in my throat dislodges.

Thursday, July 30th: 10am

Gerry and Josephine O’Donnell own and run this lovely hotel which belonged to Josephine’s mother, a Fitzgerald, who established it in 1941. It’s the smallest hotel in town, with a definite atmosphere of former days. My room key, for instance, a VingCard, a rectangular piece of plastic with holes punched in it, dates from the 1970s. The O’Donnells have been running Fitzgerald’s for 43 years.

“We opened the bistro on July 3rd, but didn’t open our rooms until July 10th,” Gerry says. They’re both at the older end of life, so reopening carried particular risks for them both. “We’re not as front-of-house as we were.”

The hotel is doing well, and they are “turning people away almost every night”.

11 am

Apart from the amusement arcades, Bundoran has two large family attractions: Water World and Adventure World. Water World, which is owned by Donegal County Council, is not reopening this year. It’s mainly an indoor facility, and the lockers in the changing rooms are too close together. Usually they get about 55,000 visitors a year, and the average time spent there is two hours.

Michelle Wilmot is the co-owner of Adventure World, a small family amusement park close to Water World. They reopened on June 30th. The park isn’t yet open for the day – it runs from 1pm to 10pm – so the rides are still silent. It’s a park aimed at young families, with water bumper cars, a gentle and low “roller coaster” track, and the traditional waltzing horses. There’s also a big wheel, which is €3.50 a ride. It spends six weeks in winter outside Galway’s Great Southern Hotel for the city’s Christmas market.

“We were so worried during lockdown because we have invested so much into this and we were closed for so long we thought we might go bankrupt,” Wilmot says. They’re now getting between 300 and 400 people a day, numbers which are better than usual for this time of year.

The difficulty is, being an outdoors experience, they are weather dependent. The rain that started on my arrival the previous afternoon still hasn’t stopped. “Considering the weather lately, we are surprised people are here at all,” she says.

Are more people coming to them now that Water World is closed? She shakes her head. “Usually people do both. They’ll go there and then come to us. The two of them together are the draw.”

She noticed more people from the South of Ireland, but a solid 75 per cent of their business remains with Northern Irish families.

Noon

Gina Witherow is the owner of the Donegal English Language Centre, which is based in a large house on the edge of the town, with adjacent accommodation. Like many businesses in Bundoran it has come down to her through family: her mother started it 30 years ago and she took over 14 years ago.

They offer three different types of English classes, paired with activities. One is for young children, between eight and 11, who come with family members. They stay in holiday homes. The 11-17-year-old cohort stay with the 41 host families around the town. The children and young adults stay for a fortnight, for a package of classes and activity that costs €1,500. Then there are adults, who stay for up to six weeks each summer. Collectively, they come from more than 20 countries, with Italy comprising half their customer base.

“The cancellations started back in February, even before lockdown,” Witherow says. “We were watching Italy get hit so bad. It was like watching two years of work go down the drain.” She had to make 1,100 cancellations, and about €80,000 in refunds.

Without even referring to any paperwork, she knows exactly how many people were due to be here this week.

“There were 130 kids booked for this week, and 48 adults. We were at full capacity, so that’s how I know. We were full from the end of June through to the third week in August.”

It’s not just Witherow whose business has been affected by these cancellations. There is an equestrian centre which picks up 60 per cent of its business from the students at this time of year. The surf business picks up 20 per cent, and local bus hire 30 per cent. That’s all gone.

It’s not replacing what we have lost, but at least we are busy and doing something

With zero students arriving, Witherow sat down with her husband and brainstormed as to what they could do to try to make some income this summer. They realised they could use the centre’s certified kitchen to prepare food.

“We opened up a gourmet take-away,” she says. This is now the sixth week that Bia Bundoran has been operating, Thursday to Monday. It’s predominantly local people who order online and then pick up from early evening, and word of mouth is spreading. They sell out some 80 meals every day. What they’re offering is in fact akin to a virtual food truck.

“We wanted to use local produce,” she says. They sell lobster rolls and chunky chips for €14.50. The lobster comes from Mullaghmore and Bundoran. For their beer-battered fish, they use Donegal Blonde beer. Fish comes from Killybegs. “The fishermen had whitebait coming in, so we’ll have whitebait on the menu tonight.” There’s also salt and chilli squid; a gourmet beef burger, sweet potato and bean chilli; and once a fortnight they offer half a lobster, chips, slaw and a garlic dip for €20 which, unsurprisingly, sells out immediately.

“It’s not replacing what we have lost, but at least we are busy and doing something.”

1.30 pm

I’m at the brilliantly-named Buoys and Gulls. It’s not, alas, a children’s clothing shop, which would make it the best name ever for such a shop by the sea. It’s a lovely gift shop and small cafe, where I have one of the two toasties on offer, both sourdough. Obviously the sourdough mania of lockdown has also reached Bundoran.

I’ve been waiting for the rain to stop before going to my next location. But it’s now evident, both from the look of the sky and my weather app, that the rain is not going to stop for some time. In the boot of my car are my swimming things. Bundoran has, not one, but two natural outdoor swimming pools. They’re tidal, and the tide is now in.

I walk out from Buoys and Gulls, out past the west end pier, out to the west end cliff walk. I look down at the large natural swimming pool, where the water is calmer than the ocean. It’s empty and glorious. But the day is so dark that the water looks black and somehow foreboding in that way Irish landscape can become so mercurial, and I decide to give the swim a miss. The other natural pool, the “thrupenny pool”, is close to the main beach. With all the recent international interest in wild swimming, Bundoran is lucky to have two of these seawater pools.

3pm

Owen Murphy of Murph’s Surf School giving a surf lesson on Tullan strand. Photograph: James Connolly
Owen Murphy of Murphs Surf School, giving a surf lesson to Cillian Meehan and Lily Guildfinch, on Tullan Strand, Bundoran, Co. Donegal. Photograph: James Connolly/The Irish Times
Owen Murphy of Murph’s Surf School giving a surf lesson on Tullan strand. Photograph: James Connolly

Owen Murphy has a mobile surf operation out at Tullan strand, a couple of miles out of town. where the famous Donegal waves are particularly lively. Despite the poor weather he has had 30 children out this morning and has just kitted up 20 adults for an afternoon session. It’s €25 for children and €35 for adults for a 90-minute session.

“Business is slightly up on last year,” he says. “There are lots of families who seem to be around for a week and want to surf every day.” He has noticed lots of people from Dublin and Cork; people who seem to be unfamiliar with the area, and thus first-time visitors.

“Put it this way,” Murphy says, “I’ve never had to give directions before to Tullan strand to the people who usually ring up to book.”

And of course, as I drive away from Bundoran the rain stops.