Are there two lovelier words in the English language than ‘babbling brook’?
One such stream – in fact the River Maine, almost two beautiful and narrow to be real – lies at the foot of Galgorm Resort and Spa.
Galgorm’s sprawling, well-manicured grounds, immersed in 163 acres of rolling hills and charming woodland, are a 30-minute drive outside of Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland.
I sat listening to the gentle notes of this darting, dashing water for hours. Well, OK, 10 minutes. I got more comfortable watching it through the floor-to-ceiling window of Galgorm’s sizeable, outdoor ‘Celtic Sauna’, perfectly framed and effectively on mute.
It was a gorgeous experience. Such a sight really knocks you for six. It inspires self-made pacts: ‘I must spend less time looking at my phone!’. It didn’t last of course. I recently had a ‘Where’s my phone?!’ crisis while looking directly at it, but for one leisurely half an hour, I felt truly engaged with nature. And wonderfully, wonderfully warm.
How I’ll ever learn to accept a spa hotel that bandies around words like ‘relaxing’, ‘escape’ and ‘bolthole’ after experiencing this one I’ll never know.
Galgorm feels truly remote. It’s disconnected from the chaos of city life in a way anywhere half an hour outside central London is not. Latterly, a sense of stress still lingers, even when faced with the most sumptuous scenery. (For me, at least, Hampstead Heath does not a day trip make.)
Nevertheless, Belfast is easily accessible from Galgorm. Ballymena Train Station is a short walk, albeit along a treacherous, barely-paved stretch of road. (As such, my friend and I were in and out of the city in a single afternoon to visit its highest-profile tourist attraction, the Titanic Belfast. Here, the divine, statuesque exterior is as heartbreaking and compelling as the story told inside. The doomed passenger liner was of course built in the same harbor in 1911.)
Apart from this lone outing, we hunkered down for the weekend at the resort. And it went all too quickly, not least because of the wealth of things to do.
Here’s a brief overview of our itinerary: mornings were spent gorging on fresh fruit and mackerel (not together) in the dining room, the scent of lilies filling the air. I executed my usual acid test and found no soya milk for my latte, which surprised me. Nevertheless, almond milk was a welcome alternative.
The second afternoon was spent reading weekend papers. Do so next to an open fire in one of several opulent lounges, or in the River Room with its delightful, domed roof. Then, a walk along the meandering paths of Galgorm Wood, the petite, pretty National Forest in which Galgorm’s located.
Arriving late on the first evening, we retired straight to our comfortable room. The decor is described on the website as ‘classic yet contemporary’. I’d sway more to the former, but liked it all the same.
We didn’t turn in without a nightcap: namely, the complimentary beer, soft drinks and snacks in our minbar. This was a nice touch – the kind that can even make an impression over more elaborate details.
Not that we’ll be forgetting our exquisite meal back in the River Room in a hurry. It’s one of only four restaurants in Northern Ireland to be awarded three AA Rosettes for culinary excellence. The menu is local, ever-changing, and of impeccable quality.
The steamed lemon sole, with crab, caramelized fennel, bisque and sea herbs, was a standout starter. It perfectly complimented the main: halibut and scallop complete with leeks, trumpet and salsify.
On the second afternoon we squeezed in a too-short visit to the Thermal Village and Spa. Yes, it’s literally a village.
Think lengths in the immaculate 20-meter indoor pool. Endurance tests in the Snow Cabin. (Exactly what it says on the tin). An ‘isn’t life fabulous’ moment in the outdoor, 12-man Beltane Hot Tub.
It’s probably the first time I’ve ever felt this perfectly satisfied by a spa. My flawlessly-executed, 60-minute back massage – using Aromatherapy Associates oils, which I’m now obsessed with – felt almost superfluous.
Meanwhile, the massage therapist was charming, as were most of the staff across the board. Particularly the knowledgeable drivers, who picked us up and dropped as off at Belfast International Airport, once again only half an hour away by car.
If pushed to critique, some of the younger members of the reception staff at times seemed stressed. A fairly straightforward enquiry about local horseback riding took hours to be properly answered, for example, although this may have been outside the person’s control.
But Galgorm is a big operation. It boasts 122 rooms, from suites in the central manor house to fully-equipped riverside cottages. Not to mention three restaurants on site. We didn’t even have time to try the Italian food at Fratelli, or a steak at Bar + Grill at Gillies.
Furthermore, this is a popular spot for weddings. At least two that we knew of took place the weekend of our stay, not that we really noticed. It’s so huge that even at capacity I’d imagine this place relaxes. Ultimately, this is truly an excellent resort.
For more information, visit galgorm.com.
Prices start from £145 [$196, €163] B&B midweek for a standard room up to £205 [$275, €232] B&B midweek for their new Deluxe rooms. This rate also includes access to the Thermal Spa Village (75,000sq ft of indoor & outdoor experiences). Spa treatments start from £55 [$74, €62] per person and dining in the 3AA Rosette River Room Restaurant starts from £50 [$67, €57] per person.
easyJet flies to Belfast from Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, London Gatwick, London Luton, London Stansted, Manchester and Newcastle, up to seven days per week, with prices starting from £16.99 [$23, €19] per person (one-way, including taxes and based on two people on the same booking). All flights can be booked at easyjet.com