“It’s such a peaceful place, I wouldn’t live anywhere else.” These were the slightly unexpected words of the taxi driver who picked me up at Belfast City Airport and drove me ten minutes down the road to the Culloden Estate in Cultra, County Down. Northern Ireland doesn’t usually have the reputation of being peaceful. But it turns out preconceptions about this place can be quite wrong.
Just six miles from the centre of Belfast, the Culloden sits in a lovely park full of stately trees and views of Belfast Lough, the water itself just a ten minute walk away. The main hotel was originally a bishop’s palace built in Victorian Gothic style and its first resident was the Bishop of Down, Dromore and Conor who arrived in 1898. The church sold it in the 1920s and it first became a hotel in the 1960s – the first in Northern Ireland to have five stars.
While it has been extended (sympathetically) the original house is still at the heart of Culloden and its quirkiness is part of its charm. There is a grand stairway with a huge stained glass window. Massive fireplaces are filled with roaring log fires in winter in the various sitting rooms dotted around the place. They celebrate Irishness here and there’s a substantial number of Irish paintings, collected by the owners, the Hastings family over the years.
The hotel even has its own pub, the Cultra Inn, across the park from the main building, the place to go for a long, thirst-quenching drink after a bracing walk (along the coast of the Lough or in the nearby country park), perhaps. Or you could have a traditional high tea in front of one of those roaring fires. You see where I’m going with this? If it’s a properly cosy autumnal or winter weekend break you’re after, this place is ideal.
There is some very fine dining in the hotel’s Mitre restaurant, too, featuring local specialities such as scallops and salmon, lamb and beef, all very locally sourced. At breakfast, you’ll even find a little booklet on your table telling you exactly where all that food comes from and featuring smiley photos of the honey man with his beehives and the bakers with their bread, all of them just down the road a wee way.
So it’s all very relaxing and that’s before you even hit the spa. The Culloden’s spa has a circular central pool with various saunas and steam rooms around it. Its main focus, though, is its ESPA treatments. I am a big fan of ESPA – all of their products feel lovely and smell sensational. And this spa uses them creatively, combining them to suit the season and the place itself. So in July, their summer special was the Sea Salt Elixir.
It begins with a foot ritual – the Laminara Seaweed and Bora Bora Sand Foot Ritual to be precise. So I sit in a chair with my feet in a footbath being gently exfoliated and massaged before I lie down on the bed and Zamo, my lovely South African therapist, dims the lights. This is a long and developing treatment so next up is where the sea salt comes in, with a back exfoliation using grapefruit essential oils and sea salt. This is followed by a long, slow back massage with hot patchouli and rosehip oils. I talk to Zamo for a bit (it was love, inevitably, that took her so far from home) but I’m soon so overcome with scents to become almost insensible (as it were).
By the time I roll over for my facial, I’m feeling very relaxed. This is a facial combined with a scalp massage and it consists of wave after wave of products, all smelling gorgeous, in a sensory overload. So there are three rounds of cleansing – with hydrating cleansing milk, nourishing cleansing balm and refining skin polish – followed by a spray of hydrating floral spafresh. My eyes have their own routine – bio-active eye cleanser, soothing eye lotion, lift and firm intensive eye serum, lift and firm eye moisturiser.
There’s a different serum for my face, hydration therapy, an ultra-rich hydrator and an advanced “instant facial” for revitalised, glowing skin. Everything is massaged in (even my ears and eyes got a massage) and, while the 24-hour hydration mask is doing its stuff, Zamo works on my scalp massage. The whole thing takes around two hours and then you can lie down for a bit longer in the relaxation room with a herbal tea on a bed that moves to the perfect angle at the touch of a button.
So if you’re looking for a truly peaceful and relaxing break? Try Northern Ireland. Really.
Hastings Hotels (hastingshotels.com, 028 9042 1066) offers rooms at The Culloden Estate & Spa from £125 per person on a B&B basis.