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Hotel Review: The Culloden Estate & Spa, Holywood in Northern Ireland

The Culloden Hotel & Spa

While many hotels have a story to tell, few are as rich as that of The Culloden Estate & Spa. Having celebrated its fiftieth anniversary under the ownership of the Hastings Hotel group, the Culloden is one of Northern Ireland’s flagship hotels and the perfect base to explore the region, says Julianna Barnaby.

We drove through the gates and the property stood before us. The Culloden Estate & Spa is many things but the thing that struck me at first sight was the grandness of the property. Statuesque and imposing, from the outside the stone architecture of The Culloden looks every inch the grandee of the British hotel scene that it is.

The Culloden Hotel & Spa
Standing high on the slopes of the Holywood Hills, overlooking Belfast Lough and the County Antrim Coastline, is the magnificent Culloden Estate and Spa, the most prestigious luxury five star hotel in Northern Ireland

If anything, the inside is even more impressive, thanks to a £4.8m, three-year revamp that finished earlier this year. The design retains many of the original elements of the Victorian Gothic building (which was first constructed in 1876) – soaring ceilings and intricate stained glass windows being two examples, and pairs them with the clean design and contemporary fittings of a modern five-star hotel property.

Add to this extensive grounds, complete with landscaped gardens, a high-end spa and stellar dining options and you can begin to understand why the hotel continues to win award after award, year after year.

When William Hastings purchased The Culloden in 1967, the property was a mere 13 rooms. Today, guests can opt to stay in one of the hotel’s 98 bedrooms. But while the hotel has grown in size, it has not sacrificed any of the quality and standards that have kept visitors coming back to it again and again throughout the past 50 years.

The Culloden Hotel & Spa
Bright, spacious and individually decorated, each of the 105 bedrooms and suites in the Culloden Estate and Spa are comfortable and inviting

The Best of Both Worlds

Looking out to the manicured grounds and stellar view from my bedroom, I found it difficult to believe that we were less than five miles away from Belfast’s city centre. The hotel is surrounded by 12 acres of gardens and woodland, and many of the rooms boast views of the Belfast Lough and County Antrim coastline. That’s part of the beauty of The Culloden: it’s a secluded getaway that’s only a stone’s throw from the city and easily accessible from the airport.

Still, there’s always time for another city break – my main focus for my stay at The Culloden was exploring the hotel itself. This meant two things: spending some time getting to know the spa, and sampling the excellent cuisine for which the hotel is famed.

The Culloden Hotel & Spa
The Spa at the 5 star Culloden Estate and Spa, is Northern Ireland’s premier sanctuary for both body and mind

Spa Escape

The Culloden’s Spa is a real draw itself. So much so that it’s building a loyal following of visitors from across the UK and Ireland who are using it as the base for an easily-accessible and high-end spa getaway. Not only does the spa look spectacular, it features a well-thought out and comprehensive menu of treatments using the ESPA range for visitors to choose from.

I opted for the hot stone massage: otherwise known as 80 minutes of bliss. Luxury isn’t only found in the trappings of opulence – it’s having the time and resources to escape from it all in an appropriate setting: something that The Culloden excels at. It’s rare when you find it, and memorable when you do.

The Culloden Hotel & Spa
The Mitre Restaurant is one of the finest restaurants in Northern Ireland, run by top chef Paul McKnight

Feast Local

The Culloden prides itself on offering guests the best of everything, and naturally this extends to their dining options too. I’d noticed a small booklet on the table at breakfast, and, on picking it up, saw that it detailed the heritage of the food served within the hotel. Eggs from County Down, handmade muesli, locally-produced sausages and bacon, it was a real Irish breakfast in the truest sense of the word. Dinner was no less appetising: chef Paul McKnight works with local ingredients to create a contemporary Irish menu that is big on flavour and that has established The Mitre as one of the best restaurants in the region.

Baking Up a Storm

Tempting as it is, it would be a shame to go to The Culloden and miss out on exploring the area. As Northern Ireland is being increasingly recognised as a stellar culinary destination, it was only fitting that I go and learn how to make a few regional specialities.

Local resident Tracy Jeffery is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to Northern Irish cuisine and runs classes and demonstrations from her home. That was how I found myself waiting as some newly-made soda bread cooked on the griddle, a smear of flour on my cheek and somewhat impatient for it to cook so I could taste the final result. Tracy talked us through the stages of making soda and potato bread, guiding us until we’d all produced something tasty and delicious to eat.

The Culloden Hotel & Spa
The Mitre Restaurant offers breathtaking views across Belfast Lough, and serves modern Irish Cuisine using only the finest and freshest local ingredients

Royal Residences

There’s so much to see in the Culloden’s surrounding counties County Antrim and County Down that it’s impossible to fit it in during a relatively short stay. We went to Hillsborough Castle, a Georgian mansion and the official royal palace of the Royal Family when they’re in Northern Ireland.

Walking around and hearing about the events, tales and gossip from the centuries of aristocrats and royals who have frequented and lived in the castle was a real highlight of my trip. The castle’s decor is fittingly decadent and complemented by a portrait collection featuring masters such as Gainsborough and Van Dyck.

Exploring the castle’s grounds is a must – they’ve been cultivated and added to by each generation and owner since the 1760s. The result? 100 acres of rose gardens, formal gardens, pinetums and a lake that together make for a perfect few hours of exploration.

A recent renovation programme has ensured that the Culloden Estate and Spa remains one of the top hotels in Ireland

World-Famous Gardens

Garden lovers shouldn’t miss a trip to nearby Mount Stewart whose world-famous gardens draw visitors from around the world. First planted by Edith, Lady Londonderry in the 1920s the gardens were Edith’s haven from the demands of London life.

Today they stand as one of the finest formal gardens in the UK and are managed by the National Trust. If you have a chance, take a tour of Mount Stewart House, the neoclassical mansion at the heart of the estate to learn more about the history of the estate.

The Culloden Hotel & Spa
TWith all its tranquil opulence you could be forgiven for thinking the Culloden is a rural retreat, however this beautiful property has the added advantage of being just 10 minutes from Belfast City centre and is conveniently located to many of Northern Ireland’s major visitor attractions

Moving On

Whether you go as an escape away from it all, or use it as a base from which to explore the local region, The Culloden really felt like a home away from home – one that will continue to welcome luxury travellers to Northern Ireland for the years to come.

Hastings Hotels (, 028 9042 1066) offer nightly rates at The Culloden Estate & Spa from £125 per person on a B&B basis. To visit or find out more go to

Address: 142 Bangor Rd, Holywood BT18 0EX
Phone: 028 9042 1066