Culloden Estate and Spa is a gorgeous base from which to explore Belfast, writes Paul Wilson
On 26 September 2005, the head of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning announced that he was satisfied the IRA had given up all its arms.
Flanked by a Catholic priest and a Methodist minister, General John de Chastelain heralded a historic step in the Northern Ireland peace process to help resolve decades of bitter conflict.
The venue the commission chose for this historic announcement was the Culloden Estate and Spa in Belfast. Set in 12 acres of woodland on the slopes of the Holywood hills, the hotel enjoys commanding views across the Belfast Lough to the County Antrim coastline beyond.
Gen de Chastelain would be hard pressed to find a more peaceful setting for the declaration of such an important milestone in the peace process. Built from imported Scottish stone in 1876, the Gothic mansion became the official palace of the Bishops of Ireland in the late 19th century. The Church of Ireland sold the building in the 1920s. In the 1960s it became a hotel and in 1996 it became the first in Northern Ireland to be granted five-star status and the destination of choice for VIPs visiting the city. Former guests include Dolly Parton, Sir Tom Jones, Robbie Williams and Sir Cliff Richard.
The style is old-school traditional, with impressive stained glass windows, large original marble fireplaces, ivory white woodwork and sage green walls. The rooms are spacious and well-appointed, and ours looked out across the Lough. Without exception, all the staff were attentive, friendly and polite.
The hotel is also baby friendly, without being overtly so. Our ten-month-old daughter’s favourite part of the hotel was the luxurious pool. The kitchen prepared small dishes specially for her dinner and waiting staff and guests alike had (I think) no qualms about her rolling around on the floor and gurgling.
The Crozier Lounge, a reference to the bishops who used to live here, is the perfect place to relax by the fire with afternoon tea or drinks.
The main restaurant the Mitre offers à la carte and four or seven-course tasting menus overseen by executive head chef Paul McKnight, who prides himself on using local and seasonal produce.
The hotel is on the outskirts of the city with the centre of Belfast around six miles away. We travelled into the city by car to take in the sights, but ended up spending the best part of the day at Titanic Belfast, a gleaming monument to the city’s shipbuilding heritage and the tragic story of the best known vessel to be built here. It is hugely impressive, erected beside the slipway where Titanic was built long before health and safety rules and regulations.
The attraction opened in 2012 to mark the centenary of the ship’s maiden voyage and visitor numbers have exceeded all expectations. It forms the centrepiece of its own Titanic Quarter, a thriving beacon of urban regeneration. The city takes a fierce pride in its shipbuilding history and in the Titanic. “There was nothing wrong with her when she left here,” locals are fond of saying. More than 100 years on from a tragedy on such a vast scale, it is befitting that part of the ship’s legacy has been the transformation of the derelict wasteland her birthplace had become.
Fascinating though it undoubtedly was, an immersion in all things Titanic was perhaps not the most propitious thing to do ahead of a ferry journey back to Scotland. Of course, we need not have worried or reassured ourselves repeatedly that there are definitely no icebergs between Belfast and Cairnryan.
Travelling by sea can be so much more peaceful and relaxing than flying. Aside from taking in the sea air on deck, there are an array of shops, restaurants, bars and cafe on offer and even a soft play area for children to let off steam. It is well worth taking advantage of the suites if possible. They come equipped with a double bed, en suite showers and toilets, free wifi access, a fridge and tea and coffee making facilities. For families with younger children or babies, the suites are ideal for making sure they get much-needed rest. And there is even a spa next to them on the top deck, for passengers who want to completely unwind on the crossing back, the perfect end to a city break that isn’t on the other side of Europe but still feels like a trip abroad.
Fact box: Hastings Hotels (hastingshotels.com, 028 9042 1066) offer nightly rates at The Culloden Estate & Spa from £125 per person on a B&B basis.
Stena Line sails from Cairnryan to Belfast on the Stena Superfast VII and Stena Superfast VIII from £79 single for car and driver, www.stenaline.co.uk, tel: 08447 70 70 70, or visit your local travel agent.