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Independent Minds: Aileen Martin, Culloden Estate and Spa

Though its ecclesiastical exterior emanates the grandeur of its illustrious past, Culloden Estate and Spa is all about unbuttoned, kick your shoes off and put your feet up luxury, with a glass of Irish whiskey in hand. This is largely down to the warmth of the Irish welcome which greets every guest staying with the Hastings family, which feels like an extension of their home. As the youngest of her four siblings, who all play prominent roles in the family collective, Aileen Martin brings a light-hearted touch to hosting at Belfast’s much beloved country-meets-city retreat.

A warm, Irish welcome from Aileen at Culloden Estate and Spa

What does being ‘Independently Minded’ as an hotel owner mean to you?

For a long time, we were the only show in town – peace was announced after The Troubles, then suddenly global brands began to appear in Belfast. We were worried about becoming like the local corner shop, being overshadowed by corporate chains. We have always been passionate about providing independently Irish hospitality, and supporting local in every way that we can, which all comes from returning the support of locals who supported us during these most difficult times.

Independence is a big word in Ireland, and for us, it is all about the warmth of the Irish welcome we’re known for around the world. All of our properties have a roaring fire in the foyer, welcoming guests into the hearth and home. At Culloden, we greet guests with a glass of Irish whiskey and some homemade fudge on arrival, and when we say that line so often heard in the hospitality world, “Have a great day”, we’re genuinely interested in what you’re going to do, and how you’re going to spend your day. The Irish are known globally for our friendliness, our charm, and for “having the craic” – (a local term for having great fun) entertaining, hosting, and just generally making sure everyone is having a good time is what we do. We’re also a nation of feeders, we want everyone to eat and drink all the time, which goes hand in hand with hospitality.

Irish whiskey and homemade fudge on arrival

What was the inspiration behind the hotel, and where do you continue to find sources of inspiration?

Culloden Estate is part of a family collective, which was originally started by my father, Sir William Hastings, when he was left a pub with his brother in Belfast. With a background in the drinks industry, he soon added several other pubs to his growing business. It wasn’t until he met my mother, who was from an upper class Belfast family, that he aspired to call himself an “hotelier” instead of a “publican” and moved into the hotel industry in the 1960s.

In 1967, he purchased the palatial Culloden, a stately home where Church elegance meets laid-back luxury. As the first five-star hotel in Northern Ireland, Culloden has always been the jewel in the Hastings crown. Built by William Robinson in 1876, Culloden House was named for his wife, Elizabeth Jane Culloden, and later became the official residence of the Lord Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore – hence our rather charming motto, “Built for a Bishop, fit for a King”. History is at the heart of Culloden, and we continue to be inspired by its longstanding heritage as one of Belfast’s most prominent buildings.

We also like to “borrow with pride” by bringing back the best bits and pieces from our personal travels to improve our offering in any way that we can, which is also why being independent is so important.

How do you think your hotel stands apart from other boutique hotels?

Our location is truly second to none – high on the slopes of the Holywood Hills, overlooking Belfast Lough and the County Antrim Coastline, and yet just six miles from the centre of Belfast. We offer the best of both worlds, as a countryside retreat meets city break. There is a vibe about Belfast that you don’t get in other cities, and it’s a place which always seems to exceed expectations. The city’s trademark lively spirit can be felt in the music which always seems to be playing, to the bustling markets and dynamic food scene.

If you only had 24 hours to get a taste for your hotel experience, what would you recommend a guest must do?

I would recommend waking up in the Dufferin Suite – it’s in the main house, and approached from a dramatic staircase with the beautiful backdrop of a large stained glass window. Separated from other suites, you’ll feel a world away from everything. With its high ceilings, large sash windows and dramatic elevated views over the gardens to the Belfast Lough, you feel as though you could just sit in the living room all day in peace and quiet, with your feet up and enjoying a good book.

The Dufferin Suite at Culloden Estate and Spa

We firmly believe that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and Culloden’s breakfast is a celebration of Irish produce. The local honeybee sausages are an absolute must-order as you can’t get them anywhere else, along with the local porridge which sits beside a bottle of locally made Bushmills Whiskey on the buffet. I’d recommend a liberal dash, and liberal is the key word here. The bottle is constantly being topped up throughout the morning, and it’s always so entertaining to watch guests going back for more, justifying that it warms them up for the day! If you’d like to meet any of our award-winning suppliers who helped put the produce on your breakfast plate, we happily arrange visits to local farms for our guests.

There are the classic must-see and must-do activities, like visiting the Titanic Exhibition (voted the World’s Leading Tourist Attraction in 2016), exploring the UNESCO Giant’s Causeway, taking in the incredible scenery on a Game of Thrones tour, or eating your way around the local food specialities at St George’s Market. If you’re looking for more of an off-the-beaten-track experience, local guide Tracey Jeffries runs the most wonderful selection of food tours where you can really get to know the people and produce of County Down. From making sourdough bread, drinking tea in her kitchen, visiting a local gin distillery, and chocolate tasting where chocolate was invented to oyster shucking on the coast, you’ll be sure to get a true taste of Northern Ireland.

An authentic taste of Northern Ireland

For a more relaxing way to spend your day, The Spa at Culloden has recently been refurbished with the additions of a new vitality pool overlooking the gardens, and a Tylarium (a steam and sauna combo for the ultimate heat experience). It’s like a sauna but doesn’t run as hot, so you can relax and stay longer without overheating. Medical tourism seems to be on the rise at the moment, so if you’re in search of scientifically-backed treatments, our MediSpa with an in-house physiotherapist, private GP and cosmetic services by the forward-thinking brand ESPA, is the perfect health holiday booster.

End the day at the lively Cultra Inn, our on-site traditional yet informal pub where you can mingle with the locals and pull your own pints of Guinness.

Aileen behind the bar at Cultra Inn at Culloden

How would you describe your own perfect luxury experience?

My perfect luxury experience is a personal experience without the frills and formalities of stuffy service. It’s the little things which can add up to either wow or disappoint, from turndown service to local amenities on offer. Above all, it should be a place where you can take your shoes off in the lounge and put your feet up, without looking around to see if you’re about to be told off.

Do you have a vision for the future of the hotel?

When you walk into the Culloden, you get an immediate feeling of history, a traditional feeling which I hope won’t change too much over the years. We’d like to try and keep our laid-back luxury feel, whilst always staying ahead of the hospitality game and of course, continuing to support our local partners and suppliers. We’d like to keep our offering as authentic as possible – as an example, we have been picking herbs from our kitchen gardens which are used in our cocktails instead of importing citrus fruits to flavour our drinks.

Looking ahead to a post-pandemic world, we recognise the growing demand for longer stays and self-catered accommodation which is where our Stag Lodge and Honeysuckle Apartments come in. These exclusive, stand-alone lodges set within the 12 acre grounds of our estate give guests that extra level of privacy which has become all the more important, and will continue to be so important as we emerge from the times of Covid-19.