Review: The Merchant of Belfast, BT1's most decadent hotel
Thomas Breathnach checks-in for showtime grandeur. If every city claims to have its grande dame hotel, then The Merchant, draped in all her gilded finery and sipping on vermouth with a twist, is surely Belfast's ultimate showgirl. Formerly the salubrious HQ of Ulster Bank, today the 19th century treasure is a Grade-A listed building and Laganside's most illustrious five-star bolthole. I checked-in to the Northern belle in search of swing and swagger in champagne bucket loads.
Overlooking the Cotton Court square in Belfast's artsy Cathedral Quarter, The Merchant, with its gold-dusted sandstone façade immediately impresses as one of Ireland's most handsome hotels. As I made my entrance from Waring Street, the resident Rolls Royce Phantom parked up front simply added to the pomp - as did the vitrine of the hotel's designer boutique (stocked with Christian Louboutin et al). Inside, the air was just as decadent: hushed, dim and velvety - and after a friendly check-in, I was promptly ushered to my room by sprucely tailored concierge, Dean.
Located in the swish Art Deco wing of the hotel (versus the original Victorian hub), my Decadence suite was a heyday homage to 1930's luxury. Flanked by floor-to-ceiling windows, the room was a fresh and feminine geometric affair where a sink-in king bed with glitzy glass headboard complimented a lux living area with mirror cocktail table and classic Bibendum armchairs. The ensuite, with stand-alone bath tub in a sea of turquoise tiles, was comparatively understated but arguably more sympathetic to the era. And for a spoiler alert: padded double-doors led to a secret walk-in wardrobe, complete with Broadway light vanity mirror. It may have been wasted on me but did add some novelty Minnelli pizazz nonetheless.
Beyond the bedroom, The Merchant continued to showboat its Laganside largesse. The hotel's spa menu features a range of decadent treatments (champagne & caviar facials, par exemple) but I headed for the roof-top wellness centre which featured a well-kitted panoramic gym, rock sauna and aromatherapy steam room. With summer temps searing the city skyline, I stayed outdoors, dipping my toes in the outdoor hot-tub while soaking in the vistas of the Albert Clock and the Samson and Goliath towers. They could have made it an ice-bath on a day like this!
THE MERCHANT TASTE TEST
Breakfast the next morning was served in The Great Room; the building's one-time banking hall, now a jaw-droppingly sumptuous dining aula. I opted for my epicurean litmus test of the Full Irish which, without any imaginative divergence, felt a little anonymous considering its stand-out surrounds. Come evening, the hall becomes The Merchant's fine dining restaurant, but I took the more casual option at the hotel's The Cloth Ear pub. My gluten-free brisket burger (a double patty with a slab of freshly roasted beef) went done well - as it did with the American new-arrivals dining next to me. "What's a rasher, Honey?"
"MAKE MINE A MANHATTAN"
The Merchant's dimly-lit vestibules are home to a deceptive labyrinth of no less than five swanky watering holes, among them Bert's jazz bar and the Veuve Clicquot champagne lounge. The most frequent of them all is The Merchant Bar itself, where a plush colonial décor beneath antique chandeliers lures guests with its "come Daquiri with me" eyes. I ordered a Bushmills and lay back as The Merchant's cozy grandeur grew all the more toasty with every silky sip. "Now, anyone for billiards?".
The Merchant is a stunning property and while a moodier Art Deco room might be more to my personal geshmack, the hotel well merits a place on the romantic Irish break hit-list. Should a five-star stay stretch the budget, the hotel's best assets (The Great Room for tea and The Bar for cocktails) are also open to non-residents and should really rank as standalone Belfast attractions in their own right. This grande dame is ready to Charleston with everybody.
STAYING THERE: Rates at The Merchant start at £70pps (www.themerchanthotel.com).
GETTING THERE: As an Air Coach evangelist, I made my trip north from Cork on the fleet's intercity services via Dublin. It worked out not only €50 cheaper, but also 20mins quicker than the rail option. Belfast suddenly feels a lot closer - and cheaper (www.aircoach.ie).
MORE INFO: www.visitbelfast.co.uk