One of my favourite weekends last year was spent in Belfast with my best friend from school who'd just got back from nine months of travelling. A big catch up was in order. We visited the Northern Irish city in late November for a wintry break when the Christmas lights were being turned on, the temperature stayed consistently low and it flit between cold rain and blue skies the whole time we were there.
Firstly, the hotel we stayed at, The Culloden Estate and Spa, was perfect. It's a luxury five star hotel about ten minutes in a taxi from the city centre, which sits in the Holywood hills above the beautiful Belfast Lough, laid out in grounds filled with 12 acres of gardens, 160 sculptures and bronze statues, a little pub called The Mitre and an ESPA Spa. What more do you need when you're holed up for a weekend?
vivid, autumnal hydrangea in the hotel grounds
I spent a leisurely afternoon in the spa, detoxing in the marble steam room, swimming in the pool, chilling in the jacuzzi and indulging in an ESPA treatment. I chose the Detoxifier massage which helps to improve circulation, speed up the elimination of toxins and cleanse the system.
You know when a massage is so good you want to give the masseuse a hug? It was one of those. I emerged at dusk feeling refreshed, relaxed and seriously in need of a coffee before heading into the city.
We braved the cold to watch the Christmas lights being turned on and sipped mulled wine whilst taking a look around the German market outside the City Hall, before moving onto our very exciting dinner plans: the Titanic tasting menu.
Rayanne House is an award-winning guest house run by a lovely lady (in fact, AA Friendliest Landlady in the UK Award winner) with a specially recreated menu of the last meal served in the Ritz restaurant aboard the Titanic before she sank. The attention to detail here is great; tables are tastefully laid with the ship's replica crockery, heavy silverware, crystal cut glassware, fresh flowers and White Star Line printed boarding pass menus.
We spent four hours eating the incredibly rich nine courses (no wonder they sank) - decadent dinners must have been something else back in the day! My favourite course was the rose water and mint sorbet - more places should serve palate-cleansers, especially in between courses like pan-seared filet mignon topped with foie gras and truffle drizzled with cognac, madeira and red wine reduction. It's making me feel full again just typing that... Anyway, it was a fantastic dining experience.
We retired to the Culloden for a nightcap before falling asleep like babies in the huge, soft beds. We woke early for a traditional Irish breakfast (and the best apple juice I've ever had, made from freshly pressed Co. Armagh apples) in the traditionally-decorated dining room with large windows, grand fireplaces, high ceilings and smart, attentive staff. It was like a stately home breakfast.
our pristine suite at the Culloden
breakfast with a view
We walked around the city until we got cold and nipped into various watering holes to warm up, my favourite being The Crown Saloon.
The Grade A listed beautiful Victorian gin palace has been lovingly restored to its former glory; patterned tiles, coloured stained glass, carved dark woodwork, decorative mosaic, etched glass cover every surface and there are enclosed snug booths with antique bells for bar orders. I don't know how a building so masculine, dark and grand can be quaint, but it is. A must when you're visiting Belfast.
We had a great, warming lunch and tasted the most delicious scones at the cheerful, brightly decorated Conor Cafe opposite the Ulster Museum after exploring a bit more about the city's fascinating history.
Irish sausages at Cafe Conor
In 1962 the institution became a national museum and held an architectural competition for the design of the new extension, which was built in 1971. The award-winning extension merges old with new as the modern design is spliced on to the old building in a series of rocky forms.
I'd been to Northern Ireland before, but not for many years and it was better than ever. If you fancy a weekend getaway, The Culloden is the perfect base for a city and spa break and it comes heartily recommended. Hope to see you again soon, Belfast.