Friday 24 January 2020

Say yes to kingly Culloden: 'Built for a bishop, fit for a king'

Ian Gaughran took a romantic trip to the five-star Culloden Estate and Spa, where magic was in the air

Culloden Hotel, Belfast
Culloden Hotel, Belfast

Ian Gaughran

It's the little things that can mean the most, leave the longest-lasting impression and make us yearn for more.

When those little things come as standard, it’s easy to agree with the Culloden Estate and Spa’s claim that it is fit for a king. ‘Built for a Bishop — Fit for a King’ is the tagline of the Belfast hotel; the jewel in the Hastings Hotel Group’s crown.

The five-star luxury estate comes into sight from high in the Holywood Hills, and with its breathtaking views of Belfast Lough, romance will most definitely be in the air.

Originally built as an official palace for the bishops of Down, the Culloden boasts acres of beautiful, secluded and perfectly manicured gardens and woodland, perfect for a little lovers’ stroll.

Palatial surroundings, exquisite decor, fine antiques and exceptional service combine to give the Culloden Estate and Spa a unique air of elegance.

With sumptuous cuisine, luxurious spa and, for good measure, roaring open fires, the estate provides everything needed to really impress that someone special — make them feel like royalty among regal settings.

There is no surprise that the Culloden was chosen by the England football team as their base for an international game against Northern Ireland, or that visiting world leaders such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair have chosen the estate as their northern base.

From long before our arrival, no request was too big, small or ridiculous as I looked to plan a special breakaway for my pregnant partner Nicola — a ‘baby moon’ (no, I hadn’t heard of it either).

Yes, it was indulgent and, most likely, something concocted by pregnant women around the world in recent times as an excuse to be spoilt. Yet spoilt they should be, and when the Culloden was recommended, plans began to take shape.

The stay involved an overnight in the Blackwood Suite, with dinner in Vespers and what was described by a friend as the “best breakfast in Ireland”.

An extremely bold claim, but more of that later, and after checking in and touring our spectacular suite overlooking the lough, we made our way to the spa for a dip in the pool, a spell in the steam room for me, and a pair of massages.

The discomfort that comes with seven months of pregnancy soon disappeared as we relaxed in the pool. During our visit, the Jacuzzi was unfortunately out of service, but our treatments — a mum-to-be massage and a full body — provided any tension relief we might have needed... and fresh fruit and a peppermint tea were also enjoyed in the peaceful spa.

What added to the tranquility was the fact that the weather was not playing ball, with winds howling across the lough and rain battering the oversized sash windows in our Blackwood Suite.

But that relentless hard rain, allied with the gale blowing in, only added to our levels of relaxation as staff waited on us hand, feet and the rest of our bodies.

Looking back now, it is with such fondness that we remember our stay as, with just days to go before Christmas, it truly felt that magic was in the air.

From the fires to the gorgeous garlands and wreaths throughout the estate, not only were we relaxed and very much loved-up, but made to feel as though we were the most special guests, with that theme continuing through to dinner.

We had something to celebrate as the ‘baby moon’ continued to Vespers restaurant — with the team on duty only short of joining us as they seemed to bask in the joyous glow.

Restaurant manager Sam Denning and staff member Bailey Quinn were brilliant from the moment we arrived. Awaiting us were cocktails, mocktails and chocolate-dipped berries — which would have to wait as the pair took us through our dining options.

Nicola kept it seasonal, following the goat’s cheese starter with a turkey and ham Christmas dinner and sticky toffee pudding dessert, while I plumped for the parfait and succulent beef dish.

Everything was perfectly prepared, cooked and presented, while there was no emphasis on time with the staff as we continued to spend the evening in our own little bubble.

Tasked with recommending a red wine that would accompany both the beef and the cheeseboard I would order, Sam delivered in spades.

Perfectly set up for dessert, he gave us the option of enjoying our fondue berries in the magnificent drawing room in front of the fire before the arrival of my cheeseboard.

An exquisite selection of flavours, it certainly didn’t disappoint and brought an end to our unforgettable evening as we retired back to the Blackwood.

With best-laid plans having been scuppered the evening before, the weather gods thankfully obliged the next morning and we took a little stroll around the magnificent grounds of the estate.

It is all it’s cracked up to be and made for some excellent snaps, with the stretching of our legs working up the appetites for this “best breakfast in Ireland”.

As it turned out, a four-course breakfast was thoroughly enjoyed, with Bushmills-infused porridge followed by bacon and maple syrup pancakes and a perfect full-Irish.

Although we arrived relatively late for breakfast, again there was no hurry and Sam took us through the ingredients that made up our meal.

Everything is traced back to the finest local sources, down to the milking of the cows and the bees who provide the honey, making the food that bit tastier.

It will be a while before the award-winning breakfast will be topped. From minute one, the Culloden was perfect and made for a special setting on a special day.

The weather may have tried it’s best to throw a spanner into the works of my marriage proposal to Nicola, but thankfully our hosts went above and beyond to ensure I had the most incredible stay with my new fiancee.

And for that, we’ll always remember our magical trip to the Culloden.

NB: This feature originally appeared in The Herald.

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