There’s an aura of serenity that permeates the Culloden Estate – a grand country-house hotel on the outskirts of Belfast. It’s not just the hushed reverence of five-star service that you’ll pick up on, for, in fact, the property was once a palatial home for Church of Ireland bishops.
From the grand staircase, with its cathedral-style stained glass windows, to the vaulted ceilings and carved wood balustrades, much of the ecclesiastical detailing has been left intact and adds to the traditional feel of the property, which dates back to 1876.
These days the bishops have departed and the Culloden Estate and Spa is the jewel in the crown of Hastings Hotels, a group which also boasts five other luxury hotels across Northern Ireland. It bought the historic palace in 1967 and set about transforming it into a country-house idyll. By 1996, it was Northern Ireland’s first five-star hotel, and, while it’s no longer the only top-end property in the region, it is still counted as one of area’s most-loved luxury boltholes. For well-heeled locals and visitors alike, Culloden is a veritable institution for weekends away, special events and memorable meals.
While the period feel has been lovingly preserved in the heart of the property – from the cosy lounges with their original marble fireplaces to the impressive, central lobby area – there have been many modern additions and permutations over the years. Recently completed is a £4m renovation, which has seen bedrooms revamped, The Mitre restaurant redeveloped and the spa updated with a gorgeous relaxing room, top tier fitness facilities and octagonal swimming pool.
Bedrooms are classically luxurious: from the ‘can’t get out of it’ King Coil Cloud beds to the glamourous bathrooms with rainfall showers and marble detailing. Each of the suites are individually decorated – some more contemporary than others – and with a good variety of options to suit everyone. Whether you want a romantic weekend away, a family trip to explore Belfast (which is just a 10-minute drive away) or a welcome break with friends, there’s a room style to suit.
The Amethyst Suite – with its split-level living – is perfect for families and friends alike. With one bedroom and an en suite on a mezzanine level and another bedroom and bathroom downstairs, the feel is of a mini apartment – giving just the right amount of privacy so you don’t get under each other’s feet. Thick fluffy towels, fine linens and views over the gardens add a layer of panache. For something extra special, book the Palace Suite, found in the garden wing of the hotel and which boasts views over Belfast Lough. It comes with a separate living room – decorated in a regal colour scheme of gold, purple and green – and has a dining area, large bedroom and its own artwork.
Talking of which, walk around the hotel and you’ll notice an impressive art collection. From 19th century oil portraits of leading historical figures, from Belfast and the local area, to original pieces from local Northern Irish artists, such as Con Campbell’s Dancing Horse, the art is one of the ways the hotel focuses on its local culture and heritage.
The other way is in the restaurants. In The Mitre, a sophisticated and cosy china-blue dining room, chef Paul McKnight brings a haute-cuisine touch to local produce. Among the classic dishes, highlights include the refined White Onion and Thyme Soup with Pistachio and White Truffle and the light, Asian-inspired Grilled Stonebass, Sticky Rice, Pak Choy and Sesame Butter. Happily there’s also more than the usual imaginative vegetarian options. Kearney Blue, Spiced Pear, Walnut and Port is a moorish starter while the Tempura of Halloumi, Peas, Sweet Potato, Sea Salt and Vinegar is a modern take on ‘fish and chips’.
As well as fine-dining, the hotel also has the more relaxed Cultra Inn – a take on the traditional Irish pub found in the grounds of the hotel and just a short stroll along a pretty, tree-lined path. Visit on a Sunday and there’s also live traditional music.
But it is the breakfast table where the local focus really comes into its own with nearly every ingredient the restaurant uses being sourced from the surrounding area. There’s milk from Farmview Dairies, located in the Castelreagh Hills, and McCann’s Apple Juice, made in Portadown; Waggle Dance Honey for your toast is by beekeeper Lyndon Wortley in County Armagh, while Malachy McKenna Mushrooms are grown in Ulster. Tuck in for a religious moment.
Hastings Hotels (hastingshotels.com, 028 9042 1066) offer nightly rates at The Culloden Estate & Spa from £125 per person on a B&B basis
This article was also published in The Jewish Chronicle Newspaper on 20 April 2018 and can be read here