Review: Culloden Estate and Spa Belfast, a Hyatt SLH Property

After spending a couple days on the Wild Atlantic Way of Ireland’s west coast, we made the drive cross country into Northern Ireland to see the sights in Belfast and the surrounding areas. As my first ever stay at a Small Luxury Hotels of the World (SLH) property, I was very curious to see how their unique properties stacked up against the luxury hotels within the major hotel brands I’m more familiar with.

With many 5-star awards and certificates lining the lobby walls, in addition to its own claim as one of the finest luxury hotels in Ireland, let’s have a look at this hotel in detail and see if it can live up to such lofty expectations.

Booking the Culloden Estate and Spa

Cash rate prices at this property are steep, starting at £300 ($504CAD) per night and going up from there. Therefore, I of course opted for a points booking via World of Hyatt and their SLH partnership.

As a hotel category 3, award nights are priced at 12,000 Hyatt points per night. Bringing the cost to a total of 24,000 Hyatt points for our two night stay.

World of Hyatt points are relatively easy to accumulate once you have an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) and a few years of US credit history. Opening a few Chase cards such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred and especially the Chase Ink Business cards once you’re eligible will earn you a significant amount of points.

Despite some recent devaluations, it’s still relatively easy to get exceptional value for World of Hyatt redemptions given that the program still publishes a standard award chart. This stay being a good example, I was thrilled to be getting a solid 4+ cents per point. 

Hotel Overview

Located about a 15 minute drive east of Belfast city center, Culloden Estate sits at the top of a steep embankment overlooking Belfast Lough.

Belfast Lough in the distance at the magnificent Culloden Estate

Conveniently located directly adjacent to the property is Cultra train station, providing very easy access to Belfast and both airports in the region.

Cultra train station

As we wound our way up the hill along the drive to the main entrance, we were immediately awestruck by the incredible architecture of the castle-like residence. Once used as the official residence for Bishops of the Irish Church, referring to the hotel as a palace wouldn’t be much of a stretch.

Culloden Estate main entrance

Scattered throughout the impeccably manicured grounds are many bronze sculptures and art installations on display from Gormleys, a notable Irish art gallery.

The gothic mansion, originally constructed in 1876 and set on a sprawling 12 acres, is the definition of old school luxury. While I almost always lean towards a contemporary setting for our hotel stays, this was a very interesting change, but I was a little taken aback by the sheer ostentatiousness of the main lobby and surrounding seating areas. Stepping inside the main mansion and into the lobby feels like traveling back in time to the 19th century.

Lobby area of Culloden Estate

Instead of one giant space making up the lobby, there was a smaller check-in area upon initially entering. Then the rest of the main public areas consist of smaller seating rooms for the lobby bar and afternoon tea service.

One of several rooms for the lounge bar and afternoon tea service

Each room was bursting with antique furniture and fixtures. Floor to ceiling, artwork filling every wall. Not knowing where to look next, there was almost too much to take in.

If you are familiar with the design aesthetic of a W Hotel, Culloden Estate is the complete opposite

We didn’t partake in the afternoon tea service, though it did appear to be quite popular with the other guests. With tea service being almost an obsession in the UK, it’s no surprise most of the seating did fill up throughout the day.

Room – Deluxe King

I booked the base room at this property, which is the Garden View Room. As per the agreement between Hyatt and SLH, guests booking via World of Hyatt are entitled to a one category room upgrade at check-in based on availability. With that said, we were proactively upgraded to the Deluxe King Room prior to our arrival.

The rooms have been recently renovated at Culloden Estate, and the design of the guest rooms have gone in favor of a more modern tone, as opposed to the over-the-top ornate motif seen in the public areas of the hotel.

Awaiting us on the desk were two chocolate cupcakes and a welcome letter detailing the special amenities extended to us during our stay.

When booking through World of Hyatt, members receive special benefits at all SLH properties.

We were entitled to the following benefits at Culloden Estate:

  • Complementary daily full Irish breakfast
  • Room upgrade to next category
  • Early check-in and late check-out
  • Complimentary wifi

The entrance to the room is a short hallway with the door to the bathroom on the left. Just past the bathroom in the main room was the closet.

There was no minibar or fridge in our room, though there was complimentary coffee, tea and bottled water that was replenished each day.

In the corner of the room was a desk and chair along with a mirror. While not a huge working space, it was sufficient enough to get a bit of work done. Having some accessible power outlets built into the desk was handy as well.

Beside the desk and directly under the window is a small sitting area with two chairs and a small table in between.

The rest of the room was taken up by the king size bed, which had a night stand on either side. Above each night stand were reading lights and a power outlet along with two USB charging ports. Opposite the bed was a large wall mounted TV.

The bathroom was wrapped floor to ceiling with a beautiful stone tile. Along with a single floating vanity and free-standing tub, it was quite functional for the two of us.

Perhaps taking some inspiration from Lufthansa, we both got a kick out of the rubber duck.

The enclosed shower was to the right of the vanity, and had a rain shower head above in addition to a handheld shower wand.

Restaurants & Bars

We had very full days of sightseeing during our time in Northern Ireland. By the time we had returned to the hotel for the day we were quite tired and didn’t want to venture very far. We ate dinner at the hotel both nights. The first night we ate in the lobby bar and the second night we ate at the on-property Irish pub, Cultra Inn.

Lough Bar

While our stay at Culloden Estate was otherwise exceptional, the Lough Bar really fell short on what I would expect at a supposed 5-star establishment. The service from the wait staff here ranged from poor to downright abysmal both days we were patrons of the bar.

Lough Bar

Keep in mind, this is a boutique hotel with only 98 guest rooms and the hotel was nowhere near fully occupied during the time we were there. With never more than one or two other tables to serve in addition to ours, the wait staff often disappeared for what seemed like 20+ minute intervals.

We eventually did order some food and cocktails. Only then did the service somewhat pick up from there.

I ordered an Old Fashioned while my wife had a French 75. We shared a charcuterie board and a Crispy Irish Chicken while we sipped on our drinks.

The drinks were well made and strong. The charcuterie board was rather small, but very tasty, and the Crispy Irish Chicken was only okay.

My disappointment was further exasperated when I received the bill. This being a very high-end hotel I was fully expecting food prices to match. However, on top of the painfully inattentive service, the eye-popping £80 ($135CAD) price tag for two drinks and two small share plates really left me quite dismayed.

Lough Bar

The following afternoon I met up with my wife who was already seated in the Lough Bar with a drink. Not wanting a cocktail, I was planning on just ordering a tea. In a continuation of the lousy service from the previous day, despite the fact I had been seated for over half an hour, our table was never approached by any of the staff, so we just left. 

Cultra Inn

Culloden Estate’s on-property pub and bistro is an elevated take on the traditional Irish pub. In a refreshing change of pace from a day earlier, the food and service here was outstanding.

Trying to keep our costs down my wife and I often opt to share a starter plate. We decided to share the Feta Cheese Salad, which we both found to be a very good start to the meal.

I had already had my fill of Fish and Chips and burgers so far this trip, therefore I decided to try something different. So, I ordered the Irish Chicken Curry and my wife went with their Gourmet Burger.

Of course we couldn’t resist the Sticky Toffee Pudding for dessert, which came out perfectly warmed and delicious.

If I were to ever return to Culloden Estate, I’d just skip the Lough Bar entirely and go to the Cultra Inn instead. Cultra Inn has a ‘shareables’ menu and the drinks menu is nearly identical.

Vespers Restaurant

Vespers is the preeminent dining venue at Culloden Estate, however it was not open for dinner on either night we were at the hotel. Nonetheless, it is open daily for breakfast, serving a full buffet in addition to made to order items from the kitchen. As we booked our stay through World of Hyatt, everything from the buffet and kitchen were completely free of charge.

The staff at Vespers restaurant were delightful, regularly checking in on us to refill our coffee and tea. Our orders were taken promptly and food arrived within a few minutes. On our last morning our server even offered to prepare us some items to-go since we had a drive ahead of us that day.

Dining room at Vespers restaurant

The buffet consisted of cereals, fruits, meats, cheeses, juices, and various pastries.

Additionally, if you’re feeling brave you might consider some Irish Whiskey in your morning porridge.

To go along with all of that, eggs, bacon, sausages, smoked salmon, and pancakes can be made to order from the kitchen. This breakfast was a great way to start our day, we filled up enough in the morning to tide us over for most of the day, usually only needing a light snack midday.

Bollinger Champagne Garden

It goes without saying, any luxury hotel deserving of a 5-star rating must feature its own exclusive champagne garden.

We didn’t see this area get any use during our stay, as we visited Northern Ireland at the tail end of spring and the weather wasn’t quite warm enough yet. However, my understanding is that this garden is open every day during the summer, and it did appear to us that preparations were underway by the staff to be opening soon for the season.

I was a little disappointed we weren’t visiting during the summer, as this looks like a very unique space to sit back on a warm evening and enjoy some canapés while sipping on some champagne.

Facilities

The spa and fitness areas of Culloden Estate are without a doubt the highlights of the property. The range of services and therapies available from the spa were some of the most extensive I’ve ever seen from a hotel spa. It also seemed to be quite popular, as we were reminded throughout our stay that if we wanted to book any treatments there were very few openings remaining. While we didn’t book any spa treatments for ourselves, I did make use of the rest of the facilities. 

Spa

The centerpiece of the Culloden Estate spa is the large heated indoor pool. In addition to the pool, there is a jacuzzi tub and both a dry sauna and steam room. I really enjoyed the quiet and tranquil setting of the spa. I spent quite a bit of time here one late afternoon just lounging around after a busy morning of activities.

Indoor pool at the spa, Culloden Estate

Overlooking the pool was Zest, a handy refreshment bar serving fresh fruit, snacks and both alcohol and non-alcoholic beverages.

Between dips in the pool, I spent the rest of my time using the jacuzzi and steam room while enjoying the views of the surrounding hotel gardens.

The jacuzzi at the spa, Culloden Estate

Fitness Center

The fitness center at Culloden Estate is the most comprehensive gym I’ve ever seen at any hotel. Featuring dozens of pieces of equipment including weight machines, treadmills, ellipticals, stationary bikes, and free weights.

The gym also had two pieces of equipment rarely seen in hotel fitness centers; a full squat rack and trap bar.

I really liked all the windows throughout the spa and gym. With such lush surroundings outside, it was nice to be able to look out on the property no matter where you were.

Also throughout the day, various workout classes were hosted in the fitness studio led by the on-site training staff.

Conclusion

I have mixed feelings about Culloden Estate. The grounds of the property are truly a sight to behold, and the public areas of the mansion are a glimpse of a bygone era. Unfortunately, the unacceptable service we experienced both days in the Lough Bar really dampened my spirits.

Without holding the rest of the property and amenities accountable for the Lough Bar, Culloden Estate was otherwise outstanding.

Priced attractively as a World of Hyatt category 3 and a welcoming change from the cookie-cutter style properties I most often frequent, Culloden Estate proved to be a relaxing retreat after several busy days of sightseeing around Northern Ireland.

Jeff Jamieson

Jeff Jamieson

Contributor at Frugal Flyer
Jeff stepped into the ring of points and miles in 2018, this was during his first trip to Italy where he had only just dipped his toe into what was possible with loyalty programs. After eating pizza twice a day for two weeks straight and taking in all that Tuscany of Rome had to offer he knew he was hooked on “la dolce vita” of points and miles. Always fascinated with aviation, Jeff obtained his Private Pilot’s License in 2006. Now he fuels his affection for travel and aviation by seeking out new strategies while building upon existing opportunities along with the help of his close circle of fellow travel enthusiasts.

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