Culloden Estate & Spa, overlooking Belfast Lough, plays host to statesmen and megastars, and makes the perfect five-star base to enjoy this party city’s legendary hospitality
Words by Libby Norman
Belfast is a city that knows how to party, and we’ve been invited to a special craic at Culloden Estate & Spa, a hotel that is, quite simply, the place to stay in the Northern Irish capital. The roll-call of statesmen, rock icons and sporting legends who have checked in is impressive. And the manicured grounds and lofty towers might be a little intimidating were it not for the extremely warm welcome. A concierge races out to greet us while we’re still in the car park. Within minutes we are transported along deep-pile-carpeted corridors to our room. There, a black slate tray bearing delicate patisserie and plump strawberries bears white icing with more warm words of welcome.
“We feel as if we have landed at a very glamorous country-house weekend, yet Belfast city centre is just minutes away”
Our room is deluxe and modern, with views over the lawns already dressed for the garden party to mark Culloden Estate & Spa’s 60 years as part of Hastings Hotel Group. The hotel has a fascinating history. It was built in the 1870s in the Victorian Gothic style by a local worthy, with much of the stone shipped here from Scotland. Its location – in the Holywood hills overlooking Belfast Lough – was chosen for both views and shelter. It’s said it’s sometimes a good three degrees warmer here than in the city centre. Later it became a bishops’ palace, before finally being reborn as a hotel.
Weathered over time like a stately liner, Culloden Estate & Spa has also been painstakingly renovated and expanded to include over 100 luxury bedrooms. While it sits in 12-acres of rural idyll, it makes a great base for exploring both Belfast and the magical countryside and coastline that surround it. Cultra station, two minutes’ walk away, can whisk you downtown in minutes. Belfast City Airport (aka George Best Airport) is ten minutes by car.
We get our bearings before the party and feel as if we have landed at a very glamorous country-house weekend. It’s all cosy sofas and quiet corners where you can enjoy a roaring fire and afternoon tea with a view to the Lough. Later on, we have an official tour taking in the awesome A-Listers’ suites in the Gothic towers that the likes of Lady Gaga and Eminem call home when they are passing through. My companion reserves his star-struck moment for the DeLorean DMC-12 parked in the grand ballroom for the afternoon and has a Back to the Future photo captured behind the driving wheel.
After the party proper, we head out to Belfast – after all, it is Saturday night in a city that we’ve been reliably informed understands partying. Although it’s late and raining, the city is alive. We stop off at the bar of the iconic Europa Hotel (also part of the Hastings family) and then head across the road to the gas-lit and National Trust-owned Crown Bar.
Belfast is packed with treasures, and one weekend won’t even start to do them justice, but the next day we scratch the surface, taking in Titanic Belfast, a stunning contemporary visitor attraction that tells the story of the doomed liner and the city that created it. We stroll round the Cathedral Quarter, an atmospheric hotchpotch of contemporary vibes and historic architecture, and with more than its fair share of photogenic bars that look like something dreamed up by a Hollywood prop department.
We dine that night at The Mitre, the Culloden’s celebrated restaurant. Chef Paul McKnight focuses on seasonal and local and, since Ireland has fantastic produce to work with, this is a menu to savour. I simply have to start with scallops, a local speciality and fished by hand from waters close to the hotel in season. My companion chooses the compressed ham hock with apple. For mains, I stay in marine territory and order the halibut with crushed potato. Pomegranates and capers add zing to this comfort-food combination. My companion chooses short-rib beef. Cooked slowly and served with shitake mushrooms and caramelised onions, he declares it melt-in-the-mouth perfection. We had an amuse bouche before our starters, so are just too full to manage a dessert, even though I do have a yen to try the peanut butter with chilli and banana and the cheeseboard looks like a roll-call of Ireland’s finest.
“Breakfast at the Culloden is another festival of local produce, from jams and honeys through sourdough bread to plump dry-cure bacon”
We should have starved ourselves to do justice to the following morning’s breakfast – another festival of local produce, from jams and honeys through sourdough bread to plump dry-cure bacon. Even the tea is from a local merchant.
We work off a few of the calories doing lazy laps in the spa, a haven of zen-like calm and ESPA restoratives, before regretfully saying goodbye. We promise ourselves on the drive to the airport that we will return, to see more of this Game of Thrones landscape, to explore more of this city that built so many mighty ships and – most of all – to enjoy the warmest welcome at its grandest hotel.