History meets modern-day luxury at this iconic hideaway on the outskirts of Belfast
It may be just five miles outside of Belfast, but The Culloden Estate and Spa, surrounded as it is in acres of mature gardens, feels a million miles from the bustle and noise of the city centre. Perched atop the enchanting Holywood Hills, with its gaze cast over Belfast Lough and the Antrim coastline, The Culloden is much, much more than just your run-of-the-mill luxury hotel – it’s an icon. Blending dramatic, instantly recognisable Gothic architecture with rockstar allure, it boasts a clientele that includes legends like Elton John, Van Morrison and even ex-England football players – including David Beckham and Wayne Rooney. If ever there was a place to channel your inner superstar, this is it.
Originally built in the 19th century for the Lord Bishop of Down, The Culloden was designed in a Scottish Baronial style by the ingenious minds at Young & MacKenzie, the renowned Ulster architectural practice that was pivotal in the architectural development of Belfast. Here, they weren’t just building a residence, they were crafting a lifestyle. Now the area’s longest established five-star hotel, it manages to simultaneously give the impression of being both grand and intimate. Set amidst 12 sprawling acres of sloped forest and secluded subtropical gardens, this hidden oasis has been part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World portfolio since 2021. Beautifully and sensitively renovated and extended over the years to bring it into the modern world, The Culloden has aged like a fine wine, evolving into the undisputed crown jewel of Northern Ireland. Accommodation at The Culloden is provided across 98 rooms and suites; all housed within the gorgeous Glaslough sandstone building. The charming hotel embraces its historic setting, creating an opulence that recalls the Victorian era. And the facilities more than match appearances: here, you’ll find prestigious dining spot, Vespers, the pinnacle of Northern Ireland’s culinary scene; an award-winning spa with an indoor swimming pool and gym; and a handsome bar area complete with a large crackling fire – a grand piano takes centre stage and talented pianists perform to guests, greeting passers-by with a ‘hello’ without missing a note, creating an atmosphere that is as elegant as it is soothing.
A gold glass elevator whisks us up to our floor, where we make our way along the wide, plushly carpeted corridor, eagerly unlocking the door to discover our suite. It is bright and spacious (a generous 65 sq m, to be exact). With large picture windows, it appears to hover above the hotel’s pristine gardens, where we spy sculptures displayed among the mature trees. Indeed, it is an art lover’s dream – the walls have been uniquely adorned with antique treasures and curated artworks that could rival the Louvre. A realistic looking gas fire flickers invitingly in the living area, while a dining table for up to six people promises evenings of lavish entertaining in the privacy of our suite, should we fancy it. And let’s not forget the pièce de résistance: the King Koil ‘cloud bed’ complete with luxurious bed linens, assuring a slumber worthy of royalty, or at least musical royalty.
We have made a dinner reservation at Vespers, where breakfast, lunch and dinner are served against a backdrop of The Culloden’s enchanting gardens. Ensconced at a prized window table, we are perfectly placed to enjoy those bucolic views. As the sun slowly fades, the room takes on a cosy, intimate feel. That said, it is the very definition of lavish – there is an exquisite gold and glass domed ceiling, original plaster cornices, and sumptuous brocade furniture. Amidst all this luxury, a succession of stellar dishes grace our table. Tapioca crackers topped with salty green sea fingers and tantalising Kilkeel crab are devoured with joyful abandon. The indulgence continues with freshly caught monkfish dressed in a glistening Champagne and garlic sauce, and slices of succulent beef fillet come paired with delicate pickled mushrooms. It is a truly wonderful evening – simple fare, perfectly executed, in beautiful surroundings, all washed down with paired wines and accompanied by spirited conversation.
From drinks by the roaring fire, to delicious dinners at Vespers, evenings here are well spent
The next morning we make for the spa – what is an A-list style escape without a little pampering? The focus on nature that is evident throughout The Culloden gracefully extends to the spa: from the treatment menu and the food to the architecture and interiors, every inch of this space has been designed in such a way as to bring you closer to nature and bridge the gap between humanity and the environment. With earthy tones, woody textures and stone accents, the spa feels like an extension of the grounds, reflecting the serene garden vistas framed in the large floor-to-ceiling windows. For more than a century, The Culloden has played a starring role in Belfast’s history, and it is easy to see why. An emblem of luxury and sophistication, it promises a Northern Irish escape that is truly fit for royalty. I’m certain I’m not the first, and I know I won’t be the last to be so taken by it.
Suites at Culloden Estate & Spa start from £650 per night, Garden Rooms from £350 per night and The Palace Suite £2,500 per night, including breakfast (028 9042 1066; cullodenestateandspa.com)