Tuesday 16 October 2018

High Life: Inside Belfast's Grand Central Hotel and the tallest bar on the island of Ireland

Belfast's new hotel is located in the tallest commercial structure on the island of Ireland, writes Tom Sweeney...

Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, aerial exterior of the hotel
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, aerial exterior of the hotel
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, afternoon tea in the 23rd floor Observatory
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, reception and lobby area
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, Sir William Hastings Suite
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, cocktail in the 23rd floor Observatory cocktail bar, the highest bar on the island of Ireland
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, exterior
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, view from roof, of Belfast City Hall (green dome) and, in the distance, the yellow Harland & Wolff cranes, Samson and Goliath
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, Sir William Hastings Suite
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, Seahorse Restaurant
Belfast Christmas market in the grounds of City Hall

Tom Sweeney

Room with a view?

 If you have a head for heights, you’ll be spoilt for choice in Belfast’s new 23-storey Grand Central Hotel. At 80 metres (260 feet), it’s the tallest commercial structure on the island of Ireland.

In its previous existence, it was Windsor House, a long-abandoned office block regarded as the ugliest building in all 32 counties  ̶  even uglier than Dublin’s Hawkins House, which is saying something.

Now, it’s a thing of beauty.

The 300-room Grand Central, which opened in June, is the latest addition to the Hastings Hotels stable of thoroughbreds which includes the ultra-posh Culloden in Cultra, just outside Holywood, Co Down.

Van Morrison lives a stone’s throw from the Culloden, but last week he was in Belfast, entertaining 350 fans in the ballroom of Hastings’ Europa Hotel  ̶  and I had a front row ticket in my pocket.

Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, Sir William Hastings Suite
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, Sir William Hastings Suite
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, afternoon tea in the 23rd floor Observatory
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, reception and lobby area
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, cocktail in the 23rd floor Observatory cocktail bar, the highest bar on the island of Ireland
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, exterior
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, view from roof, of Belfast City Hall (green dome) and, in the distance, the yellow Harland & Wolff cranes, Samson and Goliath
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, Sir William Hastings Suite
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, aerial exterior of the hotel
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, Seahorse Restaurant
Belfast Christmas market in the grounds of City Hall

First, though, a pre-dinner and concert drink in the Grand Central’s 23rd floor cocktail bar, the Observatory, which offers eye-popping panoramic views of the northern capital. As the high-speed lift zooms ever-upward, your ears pop too.

Way down below is City Hall, which opened in 1906 and in whose grounds the hugely popular international Christmas market will run from November 17 until December 22.

A magnificent mass of dazzling white Portland stone, the home of the city council cost £369,000 to build  ̶  the equivalent of €144m today. Transforming Windsor House into Belfast’s newest hotel cost £53m (€60m).

Looking beyond City Hall, Samson and Goliath  ̶  the two giant yellow cranes that tower over the Harland & Wolff shipyard where Titanic was built  ̶  are Belfast’s most instantly-recognisable landmarks.

Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, Seahorse Restaurant
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, Seahorse Restaurant
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, afternoon tea in the 23rd floor Observatory
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, reception and lobby area
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, Sir William Hastings Suite
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, cocktail in the 23rd floor Observatory cocktail bar, the highest bar on the island of Ireland
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, exterior
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, view from roof, of Belfast City Hall (green dome) and, in the distance, the yellow Harland & Wolff cranes, Samson and Goliath
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, Sir William Hastings Suite
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, aerial exterior of the hotel
Belfast Christmas market in the grounds of City Hall

The pilots of planes coming in to land at George Best Belfast City Airport delight in telling passengers that the big black H&W initials on the cranes stand for “Hello & Welcome”.

There’s a lot more to see from the Observatory’s floor-to-ceiling windows. Just to the left of Samson and Goliath is Titanic Belfast, voted the world’s number one visitor attraction in 2016.

Farther left is Cave Hill with its distinctive rocky formation known as Napoleon’s Nose because of its perceived resemblance to the French emperor’s profile. The same formation is said to have inspired Jonathan Swift to write Gulliver’s Travels  ̶  he imagined it to be the head of a recumbent giant.

Shania Twain stayed in the Grand Central when she played Belfast’s SSE Arena two weeks ago and enjoyed a late-night cocktail in the Observatory.

Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, reception and lobby area
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, reception and lobby area
Belfast Christmas market in the grounds of City Hall
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, Seahorse Restaurant
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, aerial exterior of the hotel
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, Sir William Hastings Suite
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, view from roof, of Belfast City Hall (green dome) and, in the distance, the yellow Harland & Wolff cranes, Samson and Goliath
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, exterior
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, cocktail in the 23rd floor Observatory cocktail bar, the highest bar on the island of Ireland
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, Sir William Hastings Suite
Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, afternoon tea in the 23rd floor Observatory

The bar is principally for hotel residents, but visitors can enjoy a taste of the high life  ̶  and those amazing views  ̶  if it isn’t too busy (phone ahead).

It’s not all cocktails, though. The Observatory is the only place north or south that offers Inedit Damm, a fruity wheat beer brewed with a blend of coriander, orange peel and liquorice and served in black glasses.

The recipe was concocted by Ferran Adria, the superstar Spanish chef behind El Bulli on the Costa Brava, which was five times voted the best restaurant in the world before it closed in 2011.

It’s not all booze either. Afternoon tea (£40/€46.60) is served in the Observatory from 2 to 5pm, but if you want to save yourself a tenner, the first-floor Seahorse Lounge offers the same treats for £30/€34 but without the views.

Twain slept in the 21st-floor Sir William Hastings Suite, named in honour of the late hotelier who died aged 89 last December.

It’s one of 10 suites in the Grand Central, but they were all occupied by wealthy Van Morrison fans last Tuesday night, so after the concert I had to make do with a 14th-floor Deluxe Double room, which was bigger than most apartments I’ve lived in.

Regular Hastings Hotels guests often have trouble sleeping, which is no reflection on the beds  ̶  rather, it’s the tantalising prospect of the fry in the morning.

The award-winning cooked breakfast has for years been served in Hastings’ five other hotels. Now it’s available in the Grand Central which, going by my experience, will soon be picking up awards of its own  ̶  especially for those unrivalled views.

How to do it

Rates at the Grand Central Hotel start from £180/€205. See grandcentralhotelbelfast.com (00353 2890 231066), visitbelfast.com and discovernorthernireland.com.

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