In this year like no other, Discover Northern Ireland is celebrating Valentine’s Day with a difference…by highlighting successful and experienced hospitality couples who pride themselves on the giant welcome they give to the guests at their restaurants and places to stay. Even looking beyond Valentine’s day, it’s important to celebrate the strength of our life partnerships, business partnerships and even combinations of the two.
These couples have faced everything together. From juggling the demands of operating a successful business to raising families and finding time to share life’s joys. Here they give a little insight into their lives and reveal how they strike a work/life balance.
Eugene & Gerardine Kielt
Laurel Villa Boutique Guesthouse & Tours (4*), Magherafelt, Co. Londonderry
- Eugene and Gerardine Kielt run a guesthouse in Magherafelt which has become the holy grail of places to stay for fans of Seamus Heaney. Eugene provides bespoke tours of the Heaney home country while the walls of Laurel Villa are adorned with unique and fascinating memorabilia relating to the poet.
- Gerardine will be busy this Valentine’s weekend providing delicious takeaway afternoon tea boxes.
- “We met in 1982 after we had been invited to a friend’s 21st birthday party in the Cranfield Inn on the shores of Lough Neagh. We were married in 1988 but after renovating our home we both went full-time into the business.
- “Working together means it can be hard to switch off but as a couple and within business we complement each other very nicely, which for us is the key to our successful relationship. Visitors to the guesthouse enjoy the homely and warm atmosphere we provide.”
Chris & Davina McGowan
Wine & Brine Restaurant, Moira, Co Armagh
- Chris and Davina McGowan run the excellent Wine & Brine Restaurant in the heart of Moira. Chris, a three-time contender on the Great British Menu, honed his skills working with chefs such as Richard Corrigan, Pierre Koffman and Gary Rhodes. The couple opened Wine & Brine in 2015 and it was named Waitrose Good Food Guide Local Restaurant of the Year 2017.
- “It’s hard to believe that it has been 29 years since Chris and I met. I was studying languages at the University of Ulster in Coleraine and Chris was working in the Ramore Restaurant in Portrush.
- “Since then, we moved to London and ten years later we got married and had our twin girls, Maddie and Emily, shortly after. It had been our intention to just stay in London for six months to a year, but we ended up being there for 20 years in total.
- “It was always the plan to return home to Northern Ireland with the girls and to achieve some quality work/life balance. We opened Wine & Brine in Moira in 2015 and have had no regrets at all – we love working together and really haven’t looked back.”
Jennie & Ronan Sweeney
Balloo Inns, Co. Down
- Jennie and Ronan Sweeney run four excellent restaurants in County Down. Balloo House, Overwood, The Poacher’s Pocket and The Parson’s Nose all celebrate Northern Ireland’s fantastic produce which is exquisitely prepared by their chefs and served in a warm and friendly atmosphere.
- “2020 was a year like no other, but we are proud of what we have achieved together. There have been a lot of plates spinning and we have both been even more hands-on than usual, but we’re a good team and we problem solve well together.
- “With both of us working long hours in the businesses, it is so important for us to consciously create some family time together. Thankfully we live near the shores of Strangford Lough which, for us, is just one of the most beautiful places you could live. We are surrounded with the unspoilt beauty of the lough and it’s a great place to go for long walks together and completely switch off.”
Colleen & Nicholas Lowry
Blessingbourne Estate (3*4*5*), Fivemiletown, Co. Tyrone
- Colleen and Nicholas run the beautiful Blessingbourne Estate. The 550-acre country estate is a tranquil and unique destination perfect for relaxing breaks. The pet-friendly self-catering accommodation is set on the edge of woodland and perfect for long walks. For cyclists, the estate boasts 13kms of mountain bike trails.
- “When you know, you know. We met almost 27 years ago after being introduced by a match-making friend. We were engaged and married within the year.
- “Our first project at Blessingbourne was transforming the Gate Lodge into a five-star apartment and since then we have become ‘project junkies’. The tourism offering on the estate has grown organically and we are delighted. Working together can be very demanding but we both take the view that the customer comes first and we are both very giving of our time. We love working together. When you marry someone, it is because you love their personality, so it’s not a problem for either of us to be spending so much time together.”
Joyce & Steve Brownless
Blackwell House (5*), Scarva, Co. Armagh
- Steve and Joyce Brownless gave up the corporate life to follow their dream of opening a boutique guesthouse. Blackwell House has become a haven for those wanting to enjoy complete relaxation in opulent surroundings where great attention has been paid to every detail and the quality of the food served is only matched by the warmth of the welcome guests receive.
- “We are best friends which makes working together easy, but we make sure we take breaks for ourselves a couple of times per year – we both feel this is very important.
- “The business has made us look at life in a different way. Our time off usually comes at the start of the week and we love visiting some of the great places to eat nearby. It’ll be strange not having guests this Valentine’s Day, but we will enjoy the day cooking together and enjoying a glass of wine.”