The Culloden Estate & Spa, Belfast

Impressive in both looks, facilities and service, this premium-class hotel serves up understated luxury in what feels like the countryside home and estate of an earl or a duke - yet Belfast city centre is just minutes away.

THE HOTEL: A Hastings Hotel property and a Small Luxury Hotel of the World, the five-star hotel featured in the TV series The Hotel People in 2022, a six-part observational series following the team at Northern Ireland’s largest family-owned luxury hotel chain.

It is located three miles from Belfast City Airport and just six miles from Belfast city centre.

Although close to the city, the first impression on arrival was of a setting more akin to a tranquil rural retreat. With the wooded slopes of the Hollywood hills as its backdrop, the Culloden’s stately – even palatial – appearance, with its tower and turrets and 12 acres of manicured gardens, immediately provoke a sense of grandeur, history and serenity.

Inside, the stained-glass windows on the grand staircase, fine antiques, gilded artworks, dark-brown wood panelling, and high-backed lounge chairs and fireplaces throughout add to the timeless elegance.

The hotel used the enforced closures during two Covid lockdowns to put in place upgrades to its rooms, spa and restaurant.

TheCulloden Lobby 1 Jack Hardy 2018

THE CHECK IN: Just 25 minutes after leaving the airport I was at the hotel. The reception area is surprisingly small for such a large property but never felt crowded. Two staff members were friendly and efficient and all the registration formalities were over in a few minutes. I was given a verbal orientation of the property and informed of various activities taking place around the hotel, such as what turned out to be the biggest art and sculpture show to ever take place in Ireland, which filled the expansive grounds and several rooms in the hotel.

THE ROOM: I stayed in the wonderfully spacious and ultra-comfortable Bishop Suite, a corner space on the fourth floor. One of 98 bedrooms and suites, the one-level room had a partial dividing wall that separated the bedroom form the lounge area. Features included a King Coil ‘Cloud Bed’, a worktable, a couch and lounge chairs, two TVs, a dressing table, bedside tables and a Nespresso machine. I liked the artwork in the room, which included a lithograph commissioned by Hastings Hotels under its policy to support artists in Ireland, and the large vase with prairie grass. The very spacious bathroom had ESPA amenities. But the lasting memory is of the large bay window that offered views down to Belfast Lough and the County Antrim Coastline, with regular sightings of the Stena Line ferry travelling between Belfast and Arbroath.

TheCulloden Suite Bedroom 3 Jack Hardy 2018

THE FACILITIES: There are three eateries on site: Vespers restaurant, the Lough Bar and Cultra Inn.

The flagship Vespers is one of Northern Ireland’s top fine-dining restaurants, serving dishes with a modern Irish and European theme and using, where possible, ingredients sourced from local suppliers. There are lots of innovative menu touches with an Irish twist– such as porridge infused with Bushmills whiskey.

Open daily for breakfast – during my two-day stay, breakfast was served to my table on the first morning but switched to a self-serve buffet style the next day – it is currently serving dinner only from Wednesday to Saturday, although a three-course lunch is offered on Sunday (£55pp).

The newish Lough Room is a bar-cum-afternoon-tea area that serves up a good range of lunch items – I had pan-fried Glenarm salmon fillet, with buttery mash and seasonal greens – sharing platters, salads and sandwiches, along with cocktails and beers.

The generous daily afternoon tea features scones, preserves, cakes, pastries and finger sandwiches.

Culloden May2017 125

At the bottom of the estate – reached by a walk across a garden that, at the time I visited, was filled with the various sculptures of the art exhibition and fair taking place at the property (these included a dozen or so Andy Warhol paintings, worth over £1 million, in the hotel itself) – is the Cultra Inn.

The vibe here is pub-cosy and very relaxed. My bowl of clam chowder was packed with seafood and rivalled anything I have had in New England.

For guests with an eye on keeping up their fitness, there is a gym, Spa (with ESPA treatments), pool (with Jacuzzi), weight room, sauna and eucalyptus steam rooms.

THE VERDICT: This is a premium-class hotel with top-range facilities that offers a sense of peace and solitude that no city centre hotel could match – yet Belfast is just minutes away in a taxi or via the Culpa train station that adjoins the estate.

As The Hotel People TV show illustrated, in the post-Covid world servicing a five-star hotel – or more precisely finding the required numbers of staff and ensuring they are adequately and quickly trained to maintain the premium levels expected of a hotel with such a longstanding and trusted reputation for excellence – has been a challenge for most luxury hotels around the world. Yet smiles and attention to detail can go a long way and the Culloden has this in spades.

THE DETAILS: Bangor Rd, Hollywood, Belfast, BT18 0EX. A range of various creatively named package specials are currently available, such as a B&B overnight, Midweek Spa Escape, an Evening of Fine Dining, Peth Wetz Wine, a Sunday Stayover and a Cultra Inn Mini Break.