Northern Ireland is small—about the size of Connecticut—and the countryside begins just a few miles from Belfast’s City Hall. Travelers have a choice of staying in the capital or visiting on day trips from one of the bucolic retreats outside of town.
The Merchant Hotel Belfast: In an age of stripped-down modernism, the Merchant is a glorious throwback to well-appointed comfort that recalls Belfast’s Linenopolis heyday. While the five suites and 21 rooms feature giant plasma TVs, rain showerheads, and beds big and deep enough to get lost in, the hotel also shipped in 17 containers of antiques and accessories from Paris to put some French polish on the Victorian decor. The main dining room and lounge occupy the Italianate Great Hall of the former Ulster Bank, but guests tend to congregate in the sleek bar, cozy pub, or hip nightclub, the latter of which is sealed within the 5-foot-thick walls of the former vault. An expansion to be completed by late 2008 will add a spa, a gymnasium, and 30 rooms.
Europa Hotel: The presidential suite is named for Bill Clinton, who stayed here in 1995 when he helped jump-start the Northern Ireland peace process. Short of that, the best bets at the 240-room hotel are the 56 executive rooms and four junior suites. Clad in glass and midcentury modern in style, the Europa remains one of Belfast’s best business hotels, with its center-city location next to Great Victoria rail station.
Culloden Estate & Spa: Just five miles east of the city, the former palace of the Bishops of Down is set within a 12-acre hillside estate with sweeping views of Belfast Lough. Preferred tee times at the nearby Royal Belfast Golf Club, Ireland’s oldest, lure many travelers to the 79-room hotel. Recent expansions to the original manse hewed to the Scottish baronial style but added spa and health club facilities, as well as suites with garden and water views.
Slieve Donard Hotel: This 1897 railway resort hotel sits at the foot of the Mourne Mountains on Dundrum Bay, about 30 miles south of Belfast. Following a $30 million renovation completed in September 2006, the 178-room Slieve Donard has 80 new executive rooms and a sprawling spa complex with a glass-fronted sauna that looks out to the sea. The challenging links courses of Royal County Down Golf Club, site of the 2007 Walker Cup, adjoin the hotel. (It is wise to reserve tee times when booking a room.) After a round of chasing balls into the prickly gorse, relax with a repast of Dundrum Bay oysters and sweet Dublin Bay prawns in the formal Oak Restaurant.