Weekend away: Culloden hotel Holywood Belfast
If your image of Belfast is one of huddled red-brick two-up two-downs populated by rioting youths, prepare for a shock. Rolling up at the Culloden, I felt that I had landed on the right side of Belfast's tracks. Holywood could be Belfast's answer to Dalkey.
Standing in its own wooded estate, the Culloden looks for all the world like a laird's castle that has been teleported from the Highlands of Scotland.
The hotel is posh in an understated, rather than glitzy, way. The Culloden is the sort of hotel to which tweedy genteel ladies have been coming for afternoon tea since the world wars. Your aunt would love it.
With its gilded fireplaces, stained-glass windows and ornate ceilings, it was previously a bishop's palace. One imagines the kind of prelate who liked his creature comforts rather than anything too monastic. On a rain-lashed afternoon, a fire roared hospitably in the grate.
Room to book
If you want to bed down in quarters once occupied by Tony Blair and Bono (not together, I should add), the Palace Presidential suite is yours for just €800. The bathroom has enough marble to make a Greek goddess blush.
For mere mortals, the standard double room is comfortable and humdrum, but nothing to write home about for a five-star. There are no bells and whistles or hi-tech gimmickry here. The Culloden is not the sort of place you come to in order to surf the internet on your TV, and it is none the worse for that.
The decor is perhaps a touch dowdy, but the comfortable bed and tranquil sylvan setting make up for this.
The vista from my window was one of the most pleasing features of the hotel. The Culloden stands high on the wooded slopes of the Holywood hills, overlooking Belfast Lough and the Co Antrim coastline.
The vast, tiered garden looks like one of those places where over-dressed Victorian madams posed in sepia-tinted photographs. Even today, one cannot amble among the shrubbery without stumbling across a smiling bride or two.
What to do
If your mission is to laze around for the weekend, you can remain in the grounds, lolling about in the pool and nursing a pint in the Chancel bar. It would be quite easy to let the weekend pass without venturing beyond the gates. Belfast city centre is a few minutes' drive away.
Inevitably, the middle-aged southern visitor is drawn to Belfast's somewhat morbid but compelling "terror tours". Taxi drivers, bus tours and even ex-paramilitaries themselves will all be happy to show you the city's former trouble spots (belfastblack cabtours.co.uk, 0044 289 061 8479, and www.belfastcity sightseeing.com, 0044 289 045 9035, both have details of terrorist highlights).
The keenly-priced city-centre shopping district spreads out from the domed City Hall building and Donegall Square. Locals have been known to remark of the Golden Mile -- the pub and restaurant area around Great Victoria Street -- that "it's not a mile and it's not golden", but it seemed pleasant enough. Step inside the famous Crown Liquor Saloon, Ireland's most ornate Victorian pub (crownbar.com, 0044 289 024 3187).
The hotel's Mitre Restaurant maintains the sort of standard you would expect from a five-star without astounding the tastebuds. I started with a cantaloupe melon sorbet followed by a tender fillet of beef and gratin potatoes, served in a neat circular column. The two-course set menu comes in at €36 per person.
The Ulster Fry does not disappoint at breakfast. The principal distinguishing feature is the potato bread.
Gourmets can head for the Michelin star-laden Deane's Restaurant on Howard Street in Belfast city centre (michaeldeane.co.uk; 0044 289 033 1134).
On the Sunday morning we had a dip in the tranquil pool. It may not be all that big, but it is relaxing. The extensive portfolio of spa treatments includes a 'Celtic Recovery'. Nothing to do with hangover cures, this involves a "luxurious tension-draining full-body massage using blended aromatherapy oils, followed by deep-cleansing facial".
Who goes there?
Well-to-do Dublin families on shopping trips and ex-premiership footballers at weddings. We came across the former England international footballer Sol Campbell, who posed obligingly for photographs in the lobby.
Visitors hoping to sample Belfast's colourful nightlife might prefer something closer to the centre. Some of the rooms are a touch pedestrian for a five-star.
A double room costs from €126 per night, including breakfast.
Culloden Hotel, Bangor Road, Holywood, Belfast. Tel: 0044 289 042 1066; hastingshotels. com/culloden.