THE HOTEL: A Hastings Hotel property and now a Small Luxury Hotel of the World, the five-star hotel is located three miles from Belfast City Airport: I was checking in 20 minutes after leaving the airport. It is also just six miles from Belfast city centre – yet the first impression on arriving is of a setting more akin to a tranquil rural retreat. With the wooded slopes of the Holywood hills as its backdrop, the Culloden’s stately, even palatial appearance – with its tower and turrets – and 12 acres of manicured gardens immediately lend it a sense of grandeur, history and serenity. Inside, the stained-glass windows on the grand staircase, many fine antiques, gilded artworks, dark-brown wood panelling, and high-backed lounge chairs and fireplaces throughout give it a sense of timeless elegance. The hotel emerged from its most recent lockdown in late May and its rooms, spa and restaurant have all had recent refurbishments.
COVID STRATEGY: The Culloden reopened with a raft of health and safety protocols and social distancing measures, implemented in line with the industry-wide ‘Peace of Mind Policy’ guidelines. This is an industry standard established in association with the National Tourism Organisations of Great Britain and Northern Ireland that confirms hotels have followed government and industry Covid-19 guidelines that ensure processes are in place to maintain cleanliness and aid social/physical distancing. There are plenty of hand sanitising stations throughout the hotel, lifts are for a maximum of two people (or one family group) at any one time and a chemical-free disinfectant system using ELSEA Ozono3 Ozone generators works in both guest room and common area surfaces.
THE CHECK IN: The reception area is surprisingly small for such a large property but never felt crowded. Two staff members, wearing masks, were friendly and efficient, with check-in procedures adjusted to ensure minimal time is spent at the front desk.
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 a 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.
THE BUSINESS: The Culloden is one of the premier business hotels in Northern Ireland: I noticed a number of meetings taking place around the property and (try as I did) couldn’t help but overhear a few others engaged in the same on their mobile phones. There’s a dedicated business reception area, with secretarial services, and a plethora of conference facilities and meeting rooms of various sizes, with audio-visual aids, data projectors, screens and microphones available. The hotel says its gardens can be used for team building exercises and activities like archery, laser clay pigeon shooting and target golf. WiFi throughout the hotel was free and speedy. ‘Hotel Office’ day workation packages, for those who need a break from working at home, are available.
THE FACILITIES: The main restaurant, Vespers, is serving dinner only on a Friday and Saturday but is open daily for breakfast. This was served to the table on my first morning but switched to a self-serve buffet style the next day. The hotel works with local product suppliers and there were lots of innovative menu touches – such as the Bushmills Whiskey infused Porridge. The newish Lough Room, which will revert to a residents’ bar once Covid rules allow, was offering a limited but wholesome menu and drinks served to the table. At the bottom of the estate – reached by a walk across a garden that was filled with the various sculptures of a major 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) – was 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. New for this summer is a double-decker ‘Bollinger Bus’, parked just outside the Cultra inn, where at weekends guests can enjoy a glass of the premium bubbly.
Afternoon Tea is available in the Drawing Room – including a Bridgerton-themed option (no corsets required). The gym, Spa (with ESPA treatments), pool (with Jacuzzi), weight room, sauna and eucalyptus steam rooms were all open, although guests currently have to book a time slot for these to limit numbers.
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. It is currently tackling head on the challenge facing hotels and resorts all over the UK after reopening: how to get a wave of new, mostly, young staff quickly up to speed to be able to deliver the service levels expected of a property with a longstanding reputation for excellence.
THE DETAILS: Bangor Rd, Hollywood, Belfast, BT18 0EX; hastingshotels.com Rooms start from £300, including breakfast.