The rich history of the Slieve Donard is something visitors are acutely aware of from the minute they enter the grounds.
A glance around reception confirms its place in the annals of Northern Ireland tourism with plaques erected to remember two of the hotels most distinguished guests - none other than king of silent comedy Charlie Chaplain and legendary songwriter Percy French.
The purpose-built resort, an old railway hotel, was designed as an end of the line luxury holiday destination and was officially opened in 1898.
Despite the passing of more than a century, the hotel - which overlooks the stunning seaside scenery of Newcastle, Co Down - has lost none of its luxury, grandeur or Victorian charm. No doubt that’s why it’s currently one of the most popular wedding reception venues in Northern Ireland.
The welcome we received at the hotel ensured that we felt right at home from the start. After being very promptly checked in we were shown to the impressively to the spacious Slievenabroc suite with its stunning views of the Irish Sea. But there was little time to waste indulging in the comfort of the suite, especially with the prospect of spending the day relaxing in the spa.
The facilities in the spa and health suite area of the hotel were top notch. Whether visitors are seeking to relax with a special treatment, unwind in the sauna, work out in the gym or enjoy a swim session in the family friendly pool, the spa and leisure area - which is spread across two floors - is the perfect venue. The top floor is billed by the hotel as a “pamper paradise”, where clients can enjoy a range of world famous ESPA spa treatments including hot stone therapies, facials, body wraps, pedicures, manicures and more. My wife, who was seven months pregnant at the time, was delighted to be able to enjoy some well deserved comfort at the hands of one of the expert masseuses as the spa offers specially designed treatments for expectant mothers.
The gym is well equipped and with a large pool, rock sauna, amethyst steam room, vitality pools and drench showers the spa area is an excellent haven in which to unwind, a world away from the everyday grind. We didn’t even have to leave the spa for lunch with a range of fresh healthy goodies including smoothies, salads and sandwiches (and, of course, the odd beer) available at the Lighthouse Lounge.
For something a little more challenging, there’s always the opportunity of playing a round of golf on one of Ireland’s best known golf courses. The globally acclaimed Royal County Down Golf Course is right on the doorstep of the Slieve Donard but I opted not to give it the once over, deciding I’d rather embarrass myself by spending hours looking for my ball in the rough somewhere a little less popular.
After the first day spent in the spa and taking in the sights of Newcastle - when the ever-present July rain decided to give us a welcome break - it was time to refuel.
And with two dining experiences available in the hotel grounds we felt spoilt for choice. As we were staying for two nights, we decided to try out the dining experience on offer at both the Percy French pub and bistro and the sophisticated sumptuousness of the Oak Restaurant.
They were two very different venues but both meals lived up to our expectations. The casual experience of the Percy French was perfect for a no-fuss evening meal but with award winning service. A Dexter rare Irish beef sirloin accompanied by chips cut into he shape of the Giant’s Causeway and washed down with a pint of beer was just the ticket. But the piece de la resistance was the Glastry Farm ice cream slider - a selection of locally made ice creams expertly fused by the Percy French head chef with the help of the Glastry Farm team.
The following evening’s dining was in altogether more formal surroundings of the Oak Restaurant.
Although a little pricier than the Percy French, it was perfect for the special occasion and my wife insisted we give it a lash as it was my birthday. It soon felt like a special occasion. Pan fried Kilkeel scallops and parsnip crisps with lemon and thyme velouté exploded with flavour while the perfectly cooked medium rare rib eye steak accompanied by a glass or two of crianza, made for a memorable main course. For dessert, once again, it had to be the glastry farm ice cream - I’m not an ice cream eater normally but this stuff is, quite simply, the best I’ve ever tasted.
The service was particularly impressive although that is a trait we’ve come to expect at Hastings Hotels.
They’ve simply got it right: the smile, the attentiveness and the ‘customers always right’ attitude - hospitality the way it should be.
Such dedication to providing great service, fused with the historic grandeur, fine dining and relaxation bliss offered at the Slieve Donard, make it the perfect destination for a well deserved escape.