The WIFI code is love1066. For those of us not au fait with history, 1066 was the year of the Battle of Hastings, between the Norman French Army of William, Duke of Normandy and English Army under the command of Anglo Saxon King, Harold Goodwinson.
Bear with me, there is a point. The Culloden Estate and Spa is a luxurious five-star hotel in the triumphant Hastings Hotel Group.
Led by another William, Sir William Hastings, 88, the chain was born in Belfast. Today the Hastings Hotels portfolio includes the Europa in Belfast and the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa in Co Down. There is another one on the way, Grand Central in the centre of Belfast. His four children all joined the company and he remains at the helm of this family empire.
You can tell, homely attention to detail surrounds you from the minute you step of the train and gaze up at the marvel on the hill. The train leaves the city centre passing by Titanic Belfast, a town called Hollywood, aptly named, for its many affluent residents and along Belfast Lough to the Culloden. Here you alight to enter the Culloden grounds and the Cultra Inn.
The bright white facade of the Inn contrasts with the red brick of the hotel. Its younger sibling, more wayward and fun, offers live music and a bustling atmosphere, along with comforting food. Wines and spirits lift your soul before you meander up the pathway to the centrepiece. Through the landscaped gardens dotted with deer statues, a gate left behind from a bygone era, and a giraffe like sculpture called Ninth Life by Barry Callaghan.
Let the experience of staying here be a gift to yourself. A gift that you can’t wait to unwrap, layer by layer, unearthing the delicious splendour of the Estate.
Follow the tawny brick road. The first thing that strikes you is the building. I say building, I mean castle. Built in 1876 by William Auchinieck Robinson for his wife, it took two and a half years to complete, painstakingly bringing the stone from Scotland on a boat. The boat didn’t dock in Belfast though, it came into Portaferry, twenty-five miles up the road, horse and cart hauled the masonry the rest of the way.
What a perfect spot to impress your other half. The site is six miles from Belfast, with enchanting views over Belfast Lough. When Mr Robinson died young, his heart broken widow Jane Culloden, too distraught to remain in Culloden House bestowed it to the Church of Ireland.
At the end of the 19th century the house became the official residence of the Church of Ireland Bishop of the Diocese and was known as Bishop’s Palace. Many Bishops resided here, during Bishop John Croziers tenure a private chapel was built, it is now an integral part of the hotel, used as the lounge. A small section houses the manager’s office, still holding a God like position.
In June 1967, The Hastings Hotel Group purchased the premises and transformed it into the icon that it is today. This year they will mark 50 years, and they intend on celebrating in style. Starting with a new wing, refurbishment and extensions that are coming in just short of £6 million.
If you have the means to bypass the train you can land your helicopter at the foot of the hotel. Many famous guests have done so. Never the less, each guest is treated like royalty. A doorman awaits your arrival and escorts you through the archway entrance.
This is when you step into a wondrous ecclesiastical realm, sunlight streams through an arch braced roof, the scent of fresh flowers fills heightens your senses and a welcome smile greets you. Stop, drink it in.
You can tell you are in heavenly presence. Modern décor meets ancient charm. The archways and stained glass windows exude a dreamlike glow. Strategically positioned artworks, ornate mirrors, chess boards, and furniture that would throw the Antiques Roadshow into a spin are tastefully selected. One such piece is of Anne and Maria Bronte. The Bronte sisters had a strong County Down connection, they had good taste.
The fires dance in fireplaces the size of an average house. Chandeliers twinkle and the soft sofas beckon you to rest, be transfixed by the views and the promise of a mouth-watering meal.
Before dinner, relax in the Crozier Lounge. A statue of him presides. The bar provides a multitude of local beers and spirits, overlooking the sin, I’m sure he would approve. Dazzling circular lights add to its airiness. For a former chapel, its thoroughly modern and uplifting. An order of service hangs on the wall. A piano in the corner tinkers melodic sounds that capture the essence of this Holy room.
Speaking of Holy rooms, the accommodation is perfected in keeping with history and embrace new age. We stayed in the Craigavad Suite, named after the local area. Following the stained-glass window up the winding staircase, you reach the suite with arguably one of the best views.
A slate welcoming you to the Culloden Estate and Spa with macaroons immediately draws your attention. The crisp clean lines and large bay windows promise a night of restful sleep. The beds are carefully selected for this purpose. Espa products are plentiful in the bathroom, the same used in the spa. Again, artwork commissioned by local artists is hung pride of place. Hastings supports local artists and it’s a perfect finishing touch.
The food is prepared in the Mitre Restaurant by chef Paul McKnight, sourcing local and seasonal produce, he has been conjuring up dishes here for more than thirty years. Scallop, cauliflower, walnut and capers, followed by Carnbrooke filet of beef. Topped off with a lime tarte, coconut ice cream and a local cheeseboard, with homemade Ditty oatcakes.
Everything that can be is homemade. At breakfast, there is an Apple Scuffin, a take on a muffin and scone made from Armagh apples. A must try.
The spa offers a pool and whirlpool, Zest Juice Bar and Espa treatments, accessible from the hotel, meander down in your robe for a bit of pampering.
There is a vast range of conference facilities to choose from and technology that would make Steve Jobs proud. The Cumberland Suite and reception area have just been upgraded, one of the best on the island.
The Estate and Spa was reportedly ‘built for a Bishop, fit for a King’. King William conquered in 1066, and Sir William has conquered here. Love 1066. Exactly. And you will too. Remember as Dorothy did, there’s no place like home and I would wager you’ll make this your second one.
Prices at the Culloden Estate & Spa start from £180 per night for an Executive Single room or £207 per night for an Executive Double room (02890421066 / www.hastingshotels.com/culloden-estate-and-spa)