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, dating to 1876.
These days the bishops have departed and the Culloden Estate and Spa is the jewel in the crown of Hastings Hotels, which 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 region’s only top-end property, it is still one of area’s most-loved luxury boltholes — a ten-minute drive from Belfast.
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 — but there have been many modern additions over the years. The recent £4 million renovation 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 glamorous bathrooms with rainfall showers and marble detailing. Each suite is individually decorated — some are more contemporary than others — and with a good variety of options. 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 plus another bedroom and bathroom downstairs, the feel is of a mini apartment with views over the gardens.
For something extra special, the Palace Suite in the garden wing of the hotel has views to Belfast Lough. It comes with a separate living room — decorated in regal gold, purple and green — and has its own dining area, large bedroom and artwork.
You’ll notice an impressive art collection everywhere in the hotel. From 19th century oil portraits of leading historical figures from 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 highlights its 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 choi and sesame butter.
Happily there’s also more than the usual unimaginative vegetarian options. Kearney Blue, spiced pear, walnut and port is moreish while 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 in the grounds, just a short stroll along a pretty, tree-lined path. Visit on a Sunday and there’s live traditional music.
But it is the breakfast table where the local focus really comes into its own with nearly every ingredient sourced in the surrounding area, from milk and apple juice to honey and mushrooms. Divine.