In a nutshell
An enormous red-brick Victorian pile, Slieve Donard sits in six acres of manicured grounds right on the shoreline in Newcastle. No, not that one — this Newcastle is a small seaside resort 30 miles south of Belfast. The spa, designed with ESPA, makes full use of the stunning setting; its 20m pool has a wall of windows looking out to the Irish Sea, while other rooms look on to Northern Ireland’s highest peak, the eponymous Slieve Donard (2,790ft, if you’re wondering), part of the Mourne Mountains. The chunky granite hills, which served as Belfast-born CS Lewis’s inspiration for Narnia, are a powerful presence — the cloud rolls in over the top of them and barrels down the hillside. As settings go, it is indeed a bit magical.
What’s it like?
The four-star hotel has 180 rooms spread over a warren of slightly baffling corridors. It’s relaxed and welcoming — the cavernous entrance hall has an open fire — and the staff are helpful and unswervingly polite. The decor is standard-issue country house — cream walls, plush furnishings and wood panelling — but comfortable. The spa is big and spread over two floors: downstairs, as well as the pool, you’ll find a sauna, a steam room and a spacious gym (with daily exercise classes). The upstairs is split into male and female areas, each with six treatment rooms, a vitality pool and a further steam room and sauna.
It’s predominantly Irish families and weekenders, plus groups of women on spa breaks. The hotel says that sterling’s woes are the Republic’s joy — visitors are flocking north across the border because their euros go so much farther in Northern Ireland. Slieve Donard is also next to the Royal County Down Golf Club, so in summer it attracts golfers, both amateur and professional — Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods have stayed there, along with a hotchpotch of famous names from Charlie Chaplin to Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
The spa does a wide range of facials, massages, wraps and scrubs, as well as pre and postnatal treatments, and specials for men, but I went for a new treatment, the ESPA Bamboo Ritual. This is essentially a massage that uses lengths of bamboo to relax knotty muscles. I had visions of being kneaded with a bit of gnarly garden cane, but the kit is about 20 different-sized batons of polished, smoothed bamboo. It starts with a foot soak, followed by a top-to-toe salt scrub and a full-body massage using the bamboo and essential oils, and concludes with a scalp massage. The bamboo is heated — the sensation reminded me of a hot-stone massage — and gives tense muscles a real going-over. It’s marvellously relaxing. By the end I was zoned out and very bleary.
What are the rooms like?
The only thing Victorian about them is their high ceilings. Mine was enormous, with an all-encompassing view of the mountains, sea, and the helipad in the front garden. The memory foam “cloud” bed ensured a good night’s sleep despite a gale blowing off the Irish Sea that was catapulting teeny bits of shingle off the beach straight at the windows. As with the rest of the hotel (and the en suite), the decor was traditional but homely.
What about the food?
It’s satisfyingly hearty. The hotel has two restaurants — the Lighthouse Lounge, which is attached to the spa and has a menu of soups, salads, sandwiches and main courses such as chicken curry and seafood pie; and the main dining room, the Oak Restaurant, which is old-school: big open fire, a pianist playing The Mountains of Mourne, and the orchestrated removal of the shiny cloches over the main courses. Slieve Donard is big on local provenance — there’s a booklet on the table that tells you exactly where the ingredients for your dinner came from — and local flavours. I had crab and cucumber cannelloni as a starter (little stacks of crab that was landed just down the road, wrapped in cucumber, £11), followed by a good plateful of Mourne lamb with root vegetable gratin, minty pear purée and shallot tarte tatin (£24).
Amanda Linfoot was a guest of Slieve Donard Resort & Spa, where rooms start from £125 per night (028 9047 1066, hastingshotels.com). The ESPA Bamboo Ritual is £160 for 110 minutes. A 55-minute aromatherapy massage is £80. For more information about travel to Ireland, go to ireland.com