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The house on the hill that's fit for a king - Belfast

 

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Culloden Hotel and Spa

Culloden Hotel and Spa

Ulster Transport Museum

Ulster Transport Museum

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Culloden Hotel and Spa

Driving through the pristine tarmac entrance enveloped either side by beautifully manicured lawns, I couldn't help but hum the glorious tune Days Like This by Van Morrison - a regular patron here. After all, it wasn't raining, no one is complaining and everything was falling into place like the flick of a switch as we rocked up to the door of the first and finest five-star hotel in Northern Ireland.

We're greeted with a huge cead mile failte from manager Eamonn Elliott who gives us a brief tour of the sumptuous surroundings before showing us to our chambers - the most magnificent Palace Suite.

Aptly named and totally in sync with the Hastings Hotel slogan 'Built for a Bishop, Fit for a King' one can't help but gasp at the sheer vastness and opulence from the high-pile carpet, to the floor-to-ceiling marble bathroom, the rich oak furnishings, the crushed-velvet king-size bed, and the massive dining room with gargantuan HD TV.

The piece de resistance though is the breathtaking panoramic view from the balcony of the hotel which is nestled high on the slopes of the Holywood Hills, overlooking Belfast Lough and the Co Antrim coastline.

Steeped in history, the origins of the Culloden Estate date back to 1876 when wealthy Belfast stockbroker William A Robinson had a beautiful stone villa built on a magnificent wooded site at Craigavad, Cultra.

Named after his wife, Elizabeth Jane Culloden, it was designed in the Scottish Baronial style by Young and Mackenzie Ltd (the architects who built Belfast) using the finest Glaslough sandstone specially shipped in from Scotland.

At the end of the 19th Century, it became the official residence of the Bishop of Down & Connor but in 1996 was bought by the Hastings Hotel group who were the first to be granted five-star status in the North. The hotel now boasts 105 deluxe suites, 11 self-catering apartments, six private banqueting suites and a health club and spa.

After a brisk walk around the secluded gardens nestled in the 12-acre estate, we decided a dip in the pool was the order of the day followed by a session in the steam room and topped off with a bit of effervescent fun in the giant Jacuzzi.

That night we fancied a light supper so we headed to the pub at the end of the drive called the Cultra Inn. The burgers came highly recommended and the Glenarm Shorthorn with cheese went down a treat with my teenage son as did the house salad with grilled chicken (herself) and fresh haddock and chips for myself. A couple of creamy pints of Guinness later (just me, the other two are teetotal) and we were ready for sleep in that giant purple bed... bliss.

The following morning my fitness-obsessed better half insisted on heading to the gym, leaving the two couch potatoes to work up an appetite for the 'Best Breakfast in Ireland' awarded by none other than Georgina Campbell.

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Made from the freshest ingredients sourced locally, the full Irish certainly didn't disappoint and the lightly poached free range eggs were simply divine as were the handmade sausages and bacon. It set us up perfectly for a day out in Belfast where you can drive in less than 10 minutes (it's only 9km away) or you can catch the train straight into the city centre from the station at the foot of the estate.

There is so much to see and do whether a couple or family and it's all very reasonably priced. The world renowned Titanic Experience is a must-do for all ages. It now incorporates the SS Nomadic (the last of the White Star fleet which was used to ferry passengers to the doomed liner) where you can climb aboard, dress up and sail into your own little adventure.

There's shopping galore in the city with Castle Court and Victoria Square malls not to mention the Cathedral quarter and City Hall for those looking to soak up the atmosphere.

Closer to home in Bangor another absolute must-do is the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum where you can step back in time and discover what life was like 100 years ago.

Stroll into the bustling town filled with authentic, period buildings including a police station, an old-time picture house, post office and corner shop where you can buy a quarter of sweets served to you by people in period dress. Try your hand at basket weaving or see a blacksmith hard at work. Over at the transport depot, lose yourself in one of Europe's most comprehensive collections of steam trains, trams, buses, cars, vintage motorbikes and fire engines. There's even a pre Back To The Future DeLorean in all its glory!

Those looking to soak up the beautiful scenery should consider driving or cycling the coastal route along the Ards Peninsula then catching a ferry across Strangford Lough. I was lucky enough to navigate the 100km trek in a series of Maseratis at the launch of the Levante SUV a couple of years ago and it is truly breathtaking.

Famished by all that sightseeing, we were all looking forward to the gastronomic treat awaiting us in Vesper's restaurant.

Spoiled rotten again, the three amigos were ushered to the best seats in the house (with a fab view of the up-lit sculptures in the garden and the musical backdrop provided by the Victorian fountain).

I simply couldn't resist the ragout of Northern Irish seafood with tarragon, langoustine and vermouth bisque while my fellow diners demolished the ginger crusted boilie goat's cheese with piccalilli and pear chutney. The mains of fillet beef with potato gratin and mushroom fricassee and roasted monkfish with Jerusalem artichoke puree and leeks were equally delicious.

Dessert was sublime too with the tastiest sticky toffee pudding on the planet complimented perfectly with scrumptious Glastry Farm vanilla ice cream. It could only be topped by a glass of fine red wine and cheese board snuggled up in front of a roaring fire in the drawing room. I swear I could almost hear the angels singing.

Like Van says... "Mama told me there'll be days like this".

 

Getting there

* The magnificent Culloden Estate & Spa is just six miles from Belfast and the perfect location for a post-lockdown break, to completely unwind and relax, with roaring log fires and views over Belfast Lough and across Co Antrim.

* The Culloden Estate has 105 stunning bedrooms and suites, a luxurious spa and a range of dining options including Vespers Restaurant serving modern cuisine using only the finest and freshest local ingredients; The Lough Bar, offering light snacks and the hotel’s famous decadent afternoon tea; and the Cultra Inn, a cosy bar and bistro which nestles within the estate and is perfect for lunch, dinner, or a pint by the fire.

* For further information, see www.hastingshotels.com


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