In the footsteps of the stars at The Culloden Estate and Spa

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The Hastings Culloden Estate and Spa has every right to be billed as one of Northern Ireland’s finest and most distinguished hotels.

At a fleeting glance, it’s easy to see why the five star accommodation has been the hotel of choice for visiting VIPs from around the world and understand why it’s one of the most sought after wedding reception venues around.

And when you indulge in the luxury of a state suite at the famous building you could be forgiven for thinking you are a world away from nearby Belfast city centre. Nestled in the Hollywood Hills and just a few miles from Belfast city centre, the Gothic mansion has the relaxing feel of a rural escape but just minutes from the heart of the action in the Titanic city.

On arrival at the hotel, a welcoming porter showed us to reception after picking up our bags while the finely polished hospitality of the reception staff ensured our first impressions were more than just a little positive. With such attention to detail in terms of customer service it’s not hard to imagine why famous visitors such as Tony Blair, Bono and Dolly Parton made it the Culloden their base during trips to Northern Ireland.

After being shown to the luxurious Carnoustie Suite - overlooking the sweeping gardens of the hotel’s expansive grounds - we decided it was time to begin our two days of unwinding with a trip to the enticing Spa. What a haven for relaxation it was with its naturally sky-lit pool and jacuzzi, the the soothing warmth of the eucalyptus steam room. The Spa was just what the doctor ordered after three days of spring cleaning around the house on our first week off work in many months. Of course there was a spacious and fully equipped gym as well, although a sweaty workout was put on the long finger in favour of good rest - well at least until the following morning.

The Culloden’s ESPA Spa treatment portfolio offers a host of specifically designed treatments for men as well as women including luxurious tension-draining full body massages, reiki, reflexology, chakra balancing hot stone therapy and even pre and post natal indulgent treatments.

With optimum relaxation achieved, the hunger was on and we headed for the Cultra Inn bistro and bar - a cosy and contemporary restaurant with a no-nonsense menu nestled in beautiful grounds of the hotel. The food was great and the hospitality matched the cuisine. Locally produced breads, followed by mussels in a mouthwatering sauce and a fillet of Dexter beef - all washed down with a fine bottle Bordeaux made for simply sumptuous dining. And that’s not to mention the chef’s special creme brulee, topping off a thoroughly enjoyable meal.

Of course for those who prefer more formal dining with a traditional cuisine experience there’s the Mitre restaurant, which is located within the hotel building and overlooks the fabulous gardens. Breakfast at the Mitre restaurant treats the diner to a wide choice of dishes from smoked salmon and eggs to freshly prepared pancakes or, of course, the traditional full Ulster breakfast. However, the most striking of the breakfast items available - and something I just had to try before my full Ulster in order to scratch a curiosity itch - was the porridge served with Bushmills whiskey. At first I thought the old fire water was a strange accompaniment for freshly cooked porridge oats but after a little tipple in the bowl I was instantly converted, although it’s not something I’d recommend enjoying on a daily basis - strictly holiday fare only for me, I’m afraid.

One look at the Culloden Estate and Spa conveys the fact that it is steeped in a rich history. The Culloden was built in 1876 by a Mr William Auchinleck Robinson, Justice of the Peace and MP. Mr Robinson died in 1884 and the property which he had named ‘Culloden House’, in honour of his wife, was conveyed by his widow, Lady Elizabeth Jane Culloden, to the representative church body of the Church of Ireland.

At the end of the 19th century, Culloden House came to be the official residence of the Church of Ireland Bishop of the Diocese when it was passed on by Mr Robinson’s widow and it became known as the Bishop’s Palace

The church sold the residence in the 1920s and in 1962 Mr Rutledge White of White’s Home Bakery Limited, opened the building as a hotel for the first time.

According to the hotel’s website, Mr Robinson carefully chose his site to build Culloden House as he was conscious of the fact that its situation on the Eastern side of Belfast Lough had certain climatic advantages.

“The site benefited from the shelter of the Holywood Hills, and the cold North and North-easterly winds seemed to lose their strength as they crossed the expanse of the Lough before reaching Craigavad. Consequently the locality’s temperature was about 3 degrees higher than in Belfast,” the story goes.

Regardless of the alleged higher temperature and whatever the wether, it is always worth making the extra journey to the Holwood Hills when seeking luxury accommodation as the Culloden is simply a great place to unwind. That’s no doubt one of the main reasons that over the past 50 year as a hotel, the Culloden - which became the North’s first five star hotel in 1996 - has proved to be one of Ireland’s most popular and distinguished accommodations.