Ever since it became Northern Ireland’s first five-star hotel back in the late 90s, the Culloden Estate & Spa has attracted an international, well-heeled kind of traveller. But while its guests may hail from various parts of the globe, the hotel’s charm lies in its roots and its dedication to the local region’s culture and heritage.
The property – which is found just a short drive from Belfast city centre, in the Holywood hills – dates back to 1876 and was for many years the official palace for the Church of Ireland’s bishops. Decorative archways, grand marble fireplaces and stained-glass windows all reveal this ecclesiastical past. Wander around the public rooms – there are a series of cosy drawing rooms and lounges to tempt you – and you’ll also spot an impressive collection of art.
This private collection ranges from oil portraits by artists of the 19th century Irish School – such as Sir William Ewart, an illustrious Irish Linen manufacturer – to modern-day pieces, such as Morning Stag by Con Cambell and Ninth Life, a bronze sculpture by Barry Callaghan, found in the grounds. Ask the concierge for the hotel’s handy art guide to learn more about each piece.
Meanwhile, the two restaurants may have a different focus, but locality is also a passion of both chefs residing over the kitchens. In the recently revamped Mitre Restaurant – which has velvet dining chairs, crisp white linens and a refined china-blue and gold décor – chef Paul McKnight brings a sense of haute cuisine to Irish fare, with his elegant dishes showcasing local ingredients. Starters include Belfast-based Ewing’s Smoked Salmon and freshly-baked soda bread, and the mains include Irish beef, Venison from Baronscourt Estate (in County Tyrone) and Thornhill Duck from County Cavan.
A wander along a tree-lined path in the grounds will bring you to another dining spot: the Cultra Inn. Log fires, traditional Irish music and bistro food gives a relaxed vibe to this version of an Irish pub. Here, head chef Mark McMahon also places importance on provenance, with a choice of light starters incorporating the best of local flavours, such as the Fivemiletown Goats Cheese, Comber Beets, Candied Walnuts and Honey Clandeboye Yoghurt Dressing. For the main course, there’s Hannan’s Glenarm Burgers or Aged Sirloins, from the same prestigious butcher, County Down Pork and Leek Sausages with Champ and Red Onion Bordelaise Sauce or locally-caught fish.
Breakfast, meanwhile, takes it a step further with diners even being provided with their own little book of ‘stories’ about the local suppliers of their meal – bacon from Derry-Londonderry, mushrooms from mid-ulster and eggs from county down.
While food is a highlight – the Afternoon Tea served in the Crozier Lounge with a roaring fire and views over Belfast Lough is another must – the hotel has also made much of its guests’ comfort with a recent £4.8m renovation of two floors of bedrooms and the spa.
While the public spaces have been carefully maintained to preserve their character and history, bedrooms are lighter, fresher and more modern. The Amethyst Suite is perfect for families and has two bedrooms and bathrooms spread over two floors so there’s enough space for me-time. Bathrooms are huge with glitzy chandeliers, shimmering mosaic tiles and rainfall showers. If you didn’t have the standout breakfast to get up for, you’ll find it very hard to leave the ridiculously comfortable King Coil Cloud beds. Fine linens, velvet bedspreads and touches – such as fresh macaroons and a range of local teas to greet you – give an air of thoughtfulness that elevates Culloden from just another country-house hotel.
The five-star Grand Dame is the flagship property of Hastings Hotels, which also counts five other luxury properties across Northern Ireland under its umbrella. While it’s the perfect spot for exploring Belfast – the Titanic Quarter, St George’s Market and the Giant’s Causeway should all be on your list – it’s just as tempting to simply stay put. From mooching around the 12 acres of grounds to diving into the swimming pool, there’s enough to keep you busy for a luxurious weekend away. The new renovations at the spa include a glamourous chill-out room, a huge menu of ESPA treatments and a state-of-the-art gym. It’s the perfect place for a spot of quiet reflection. The bishops would approve.
Hastings Hotels (hastingshotels.com, 028 9042 1066) offer nightly rates at The Culloden Estate & Spa from £125 per person on a B&B basis.