Our reporter Kathryn McKenna took part in the Dog Friendly Tours this week, in which dog owners and their four-legged friends sample the best local food and drink the province has to offer.
This weekend, my husband and I embarked upon a Dog Friendly Tour.
As a couple, our lives changed dramatically two years ago when I finally succeeded in convincing my now husband into adopting a dog, our rascal Working Cocker Spaniel, Dougal the Dog.
Our daily lives were quickly dictated to by our loveable, mischievous bundle of fur, who soon learned how to manipulate us with his deep brown puppy dog eyes, and demand we spend less time out on the town in exchange for catering to his every affectionate need.
But it seems we aren’t alone, as Northern Ireland woman Jo Crossley, who comes from a background in hospitality, has come up with a unique solution. Dog Friendly Tours, held in both Portrush and Belfast (with more tours planned for the near future), takes similarly dog obsessed humans and their four-legged friends on a tour of dog friendly locations, stopping in on local pubs along the way for the very best local food and drink the Province has to offer.
The Portrush Dog Friendly Food Tour is approximately five kilometres in distance with regular stops at venues boasting finely poured pints of Guinness, lunch, local craft beer and more.
As city natives, I booked us onto the Belfast tour, however we were slightly apprehensive at Dougal’s prospective behaviour, and feared we might ultimately be expelled along the way for naughty behaviour. Fortunately, as it quickly transpired, we needn’t have worried.
Tour leader and company founder Jo Crossley could not have organised a more enjoyable, fun-loving, unique day out.
The consumate professional, Jo exudes friendliness whilst maintaining a calm and friendly atmosphere that puts even the most nervous of dogs instantly at ease. So if you have doubts about your dog’s behaviour - don’t worry. Take them along, and if it is needed, Jo advises just stepping out for a breather if they act up.
Upon our arrival at the Dirty Onion at 11.45am, Dougal’s excitement at seeing the other dogs was palpable - and the novelty at seeing their reactions is now a special memory I’ll never forget. Jo promptly awarded him with his offical Dog Friendly Tours bandana (which he still wears proudly), and after a refreshing coffee and relaxing meet and greet with everyone, we were off to our first destination.
Jo, the proud owner of a four year old Lhasa Apso, Georgie, who she refers to as the ‘boss of her house’, explains she came up with the idea in a lightbulb moment.
“The past couple of years I had an idea of doing a tour. I was out and about walking Georgie in Portrush and just thought, why not come up with a tour where you can bring the dog with you? I came up with the idea of visitng a host of venues which allow dogs inside, and tying our delicious local food and drink into it as well.
“From there, I approached a few of the places I normally frequent, and the owners were so enthusiastic. Not one person gave me a funny look, which may have given me a few doubts! Their reaction was so positive, I knew there was merit to it and that I was on to a great idea.”
After the Portrush trips proved a huge success, Jo set up Dog Friendly Tours in Belfast, in December. This tour takes place on Sundays in the Cathedral Quarter, visiting four Dog Friendly venues where you will enjoy food and drink, and your dog will also get treats and water.
The tour concludes with lunch in the Dirty Onion followed by a whiskey and beer presentation.
Our first stop was St Anne’s Cathedral. Now a famous point of the tour, the quirky idea came after Jo attended the popular Pets’ Service hosted by St Anne’s Cathedral in October.
“Visiting the Cathedral is such a great part of the day,” Jo explains, “The service is just ending and there’s a lot of parishioners about. They are an older congregation and they all start smiling as they see the dogs coming in, which is lovely.
“You wouldn’t normally bring your dog into a church or a cathedral, it’s about getting in and admiring the architecture of the building and hearing about the history.”
The dogs on our tour were very well behaved as Jo talked us through some of the key highlights of the cathedral, including Lord Carson’s Tomb, the Spire of Hope and the Titanic Pall. The dogs and their owners then have a chance to look around inside before posing for group photos and moving on to the next stop.
Jo negotiated the city streets with ease, effortlessly taking us to our next pit stop, the Sunflower Pub, where we received a particularly warm welcome from one of the bar managers.
Sitting inside the warmth, we had the place to ourselves as Jo talked us through a delicious platter of local food ranging from mouth-watering freshly made Focaccia bread from the Yellow Door and Charcuterie meats from Ispini Charcuterie in Aughnacloy in Armagh. This included Lomo; cured pork marinated in a blend of black strap molasses, craft Irish stout, dark rum, juniper and pepper for three weeks, which is then dried and hung for at least two months; beer sticks and fennel salami, local cheeses and olives.
The Sunflower boasts a wide variety of craft ales and beers from Northern Ireland, with many people on our tour sampling the Yardsmen lager by local brewery Hercules in Belfast. Myself and a few others opted for a refreshing glass of MacIvors Cider made fresh from apples in County Armagh.
Meanwhile, our four legged pals were beside themselves, wondering what on earth they had done to deserve this fantastic excursion as they tucked into water and treats.
After our delicious and generous helpings over friendly chat, we plodded off to our next destination.
Once inside the Hudson, which has received a sleek Peaky Blinders themed makeover, we were promptly served fresh local cod coated in a crispy chilli crumb and served with homemade tartar sauce, and Maggies Leap Beer from Kilkeel.
Warm and attentive staff once again ensured our canine companions were well catered for, with generous portions of food and water.
Meanwhile, the team at The National went out of their way to impress man’s best friend, bringing out a platter of pig’s ears and Schmackos dog treats whilst we tucked into a selection of delicious hot food and Farmageddon beer from outside Comber.
Finally, after stopping off at a secret Belfast location where we discovered yet another hidden Belfast gem, we ended up back at our final destination, The Dirty Onion, for some delicious hot wings and fries for lunch, washed down with Samuels Wheatgrass beer from Belfast, paired with a Redbreast Whiskey from Cork.
The final stop was the icing on the cake of what was such a tremendous day, with the roaring fire and live traditional music adding to the atmosphere of the buzzing bar as our doggos delightedly tucked into their bones from Kaffe-O.
Made bespoke for the Dirty Onion, these aren’t just any dog bones they were tucking into.
Dougal horsed down his homemade treat, made with rye and carrot, with a donation made to Lucy’s trust for each purchase in the bar.
Meanwhile, our doggos weren’t jealous of our delicious wings, as they guzzled down a well-deserved Frozzys lickable Frozen Yoghurt.
The conversation - between both the humans and our dogs - never stopped flowing, and Jo explains that’s why a Dog Friendly Tour is so ideal.
“One of the things that has been really good to see is that no matter what age you are, everyone enjoys sitting round a table chatting as everybody’s got their dogs with them,” Jo explains.
“People on the tour range from their 50s and 60s, to people in their 20s, and the dogs just make people smile.
“It’s a great way of making intergenerational conversation, celebrating local food and drink, and everybody’s just out enjoying themselves.”
Jo adds, “I find because I run the two tours (with more coming soon), that people on the Belfast tour want to do the Portrush one in the summer, and vice versa. It’s all taking off so well and people really enjoy it.
“A lot of thought has gone into the tour, in terms of the food and the craft beer. It’s all about Northern and Republic of Ireland food and drink, and making sure everyone has a good experience. And so far, that’s what’s happened!”
And Jo reveals it is certainly a unique experience for Northern Ireland, “I’ve been in touch with the local Tourist Board, and it turns out we could be the only Dog Friendly Food Tour in the world. Certainly for the UK and Ireland, we are the only one, and maybe even in Europe.
“It is a real unique selling point in that respect, but I didn’t do it for that reason.
“The plan is to do more tours, I am planning my second Belfast one, and I have another one on the North Coast and a whole new pile of branded clothing and things like that.
“I just love seeing all the dogs and people’s faces when they are on the tour trying different food and drink.
“I love hosting people and showing them around because I am so passionate about Northern Ireland.
“Ultimately, I hope people will be coming to visit us from England, Scotland and Wales as they realise there are so many places to stay and hotels where they can bring their dogs, come on the tours, and be a reason for people to come to Northern Ireland.
“If we’re the only ones doing this, it’s a real kudos for us in Northern Ireland.”