A five-star retreat from bustling Belfast

At the Culloden Estate and Spa the food is fab, rooms are large and the focus is on relaxation

 

Belfast has been drawing visitors north of the Border for a while now with its vibrant restaurant and bar scene and good value on quality hotels – although many city centre venues took a hit last year following a three-day fire that completely gutted the landmark Primark building in the city centre. The subsequent “safe zone” cordon around the area saw a drop of up to 90 per cent in footfall on some adjoining streets – a real hit to the hospitality sector.

However, traders are doing what they can to breathe new life into the city centre, and a weekend break on the banks of Lough Belfast is a perfect way to make the most of the city’s bustling nightlife, while also enjoying the peace of the surrounding countryside.

Culloden Estate and Spa sits in the Holywood Hills, looking down on to the lough and situated beside what must be in the running for Ireland’s most picturesque train station at Cultra – a short 15-minute hop along the coast from central Belfast.

Ecclesiastical past

The hotel, built in 1876 and subsequently used as the Bishop’s Palace by four bishops, changed hands several times in the 20th century until it was bought by Sir William Hastings of the Hastings Hotel group (the current owners), who developed it into Northern Ireland’s first five-star hotel.

Today, the extended stone villa houses 98 bedrooms and suites, and the decor varies from French furnishings to remnants of its ecclesiastical past and it holds a large collection of contemporary Northern Irish art.

Rooms are large (ours is spread over two levels) with many enjoying views across the lough. The focus here is all on relaxation, and the spa, which includes a swimming pool, gym and health club, is a popular spot for residents and locals alike.

Food wise, there’s the fine dining Mitre restaurant, where executive head chef Paul McKnight’s team focus on the best of local produce – and where you can also have your Ulster fry or Bushmills whiskey-infused porridge in the morning. For those in celebration mode, the newly opened Robinson Suite offers McKnight’s personal touch on a fine dining tasting menu.

There’s also the more laid-back Cultra Inn on the edge of the estate, where we had an excellent seafood chowder for lunch – a great way to warm up after a walk along the coastal path from the hotel into nearby Holywood.

And if you can tear yourself away from the roaring fires for a trip into town, the Observatory Bar at the Grand Central Hotel on Bedford Street is a must for cocktails. Ireland’s “tallest bar” (the title of “highest bar” is hotly contested by a number of establishments) offers fantastic views of the city, with an interesting range of drinks and nibbles. Booking essential as it fills up quickly, grandcentralhotelbelfast.com/observatory.

The ‘Luxury on the Lough’ experience includes one night’s bed and breakfast, plus £10 credit per adult each towards lunch at Cultra Inn, dinner at the Mitre restaurant and a 50-minute spa treatment, plus full use of the spa and health club, from £199 (€227) per room. See hastingshotels.com

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