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Review: A Weekend at Northern Ireland's Ultimate Spa Resort

Review of Galgorm Spa Resort
February 2024
Reading time 3 Minutes

We dive in to a weekend at Northern Ireland's ultimate spa resort

To describe Galgorm as a hotel really doesn't do it justice - this is a resort, in the truest sense of the word. Northern Ireland may have many treasures, but during a weekend stay at Galgorm we felt no need to head out to see them. To say there's enough to keep you busy at the hotel is an understatement - the resort is vast, and packed with options for dining, drinking, celebrating and relaxing.

Turning off the main road just outside Ballymena, the winding drive gives way to immaculate lawns, scattered (during our pre-Christmas visit) with giant ornamental baubles which have been artfully arranged to look as though they’ve rolled down the grass in front of the hotel. The hotel itself is a large white-fronted building, wrapped up like a gift in a gigantic, fairy-lit red bow. As the car pulls up, we can’t wait to unwrap it. 

If the building looks big from the outside, it’s nothing to the scale of what we discover within. The large entrance hall and lobby are warmed by roaring open fires, the fireplaces are festooned with garlands, and there’s a Christmas tree at every turn. Once we’ve checked in, we make our way into the depths of the building, down the long corridor which leads to the accommodation. Passing various doorways, we catch glimpses of a chic-looking conservatory bar, a busy grill restaurant, and what seems to be a traditional Irish pub. 

There’s little time to explore tonight though – having taken off from Newcastle at 5.30pm we’ve arrived at Galgorm (via Belfast International) just in time for dinner. Our room is one of their spacious Deluxe options, with a king-sized bed, comfortable seating area, marble bathroom, and all the special touches you need for a comfortable stay – from a GHD hair dryer to a well-stocked complimentary mini bar. In daylight, we’ll be able to see over the spa garden (currently lit with twinkling lights) and across to the river. 

Tonight we’re dining in the resort’s Italian restaurant, Fratelli, which turns out to be a welcoming spot accessed via a pretty outdoor courtyard. A bottle of wine is soon procured, and the highlight of the menu here are the cicchetti; a selection of Italian small plates such as fried mozzarella (perfectly crisp and delightfully oozy), arancini with mushrooms, parmesan and truffle mayo, and spiced meatballs in tomato sauce, which have a real kick and are topped with a generous grating of parmesan. 

After dinner, we decide to check out the pub we passed earlier (a helpful doorman has already informed us that there’s live music in the pub each night). McKendry’s Bar is set over three levels and really does have the feel of an Irish pub, with lots of cosy nooks. We wedge ourselves into a corner by the fire and settle in, as a man with a guitar entertains the busy bar. Stepping out of the pub back into the smart hotel corridor an hour later gives us a bit of a jolt – but the sound of the music fades quickly as we head back to our room.

In the morning, we go exploring. The resort is set on the banks of the river Maine, and at this time of year the water looks wild as it smashes over rocks and down rapids. It takes us well over an hour to explore the site, discovering self-contained events spaces (all set for weddings later in the day), shepherd’s huts, self-catering cottages, a tennis court, courtyards and walkways strung with festoon lights, riverside paths and bridges, woodlands and even a hidden garden, where ornate gold and glass chandeliers hang from gnarled tree branches above iron fire pits.

Still feeling we haven’t quite seen everything, it’s time to head to the jewel in Galgorm’s crown: the spa. Across three separate areas (the Riverside Garden, the Alpine Garden and the Serenity Garden), at a conservative estimate I’d say Galgorm’s spa is five times the size of the largest hotel spa I’ve previously visited. It is vast, and intelligently designed to make the most of the nature which surrounds it – every sauna, steam room, pool and hot tub seems to be perfectly placed to frame a view of the woods or the rushing river. A traditional indoor hydrotherapy pool and thermal suite opens out to the Riverside Garden’s outdoor hot tubs and Jacuzzi pool, as well as a series of free-standing wood-clad buildings connected by walkways. There’s a Salt Cave and a Celtic Sauna, as well as the River House perched above the water (where heated recliners tempt you to stay all day), and a cold plunge pool which I decline to sample (my partner jumps straight in after five minutes in the Celtic Sauna, then has to go back into the sauna to warm up). 

Passing by the dome-shaped Elements café, which is open for brunch, lunch and drinks, we make our way to the Alpine Garden. This stretch of the riverside is wilder, more wooded, and dotted with tiny cabanas perfect for two, small sauna pods and hydrotherapy pools perched on the riverbank. A small plaque bearing a QR code provides a way to order drinks, which are promptly delivered to us as we lounge in a bubbling vitality pool. There can be few better ways to enjoy a glass of fizz than while floating in warm water, surrounded by trees and the sound of birdsong. 

The final area is the Serenity Garden set in the walled garden, complete with a stunning and ornate Palm House which has been repurposed as a bar. There’s just time to explore before I need to head back to reception to check in for my treatment, a 60-minute full body massage. Using aromatherapy oils, this is a seriously comprehensive experience which starts with a foot scrub and ends with a soothing scalp massage, taking in pretty much everything else on the way (my therapist even manages to dislodge the stubborn knots in my shoulders, although it takes a bit of doing and at one point I nearly surrender). 

As if there’s not enough to keep us busy at Galgorm itself, the hotel also operates a restaurant at Galgorm Castle Golf Club on the outskirts of Ballymena – our destination for tonight. A shuttle runs back and forth between the two all night, so five minutes after leaving the hotel reception we arrive at the golf course and head upstairs to the Castle Kitchen + Bar. It’s a large space with a tiled bar, blossom trees and velvet booths, and there’s a pleasant buzz in the air as we enter. Having looked over the menu it’s clear that steak is the star of the show here, so we start simple with bread and olives to share. Juicy Nocellara olives arrive stuffed with garlic and mixed with semi-dried tomatoes, while the bread is a soft homemade focaccia which we dredge in rapeseed oil and balsamic vinegar, and smear with salted Irish butter. 

The main event arrives with a flourish – my Irish aged sirloin is accompanied by grilled tomato, mushroom, rocket and fennel salad, a silky peppercorn sauce and a hefty portion of perfectly crispy fries. The steak is meltingly good, pink and well-flavoured. My partner has chosen a rib-eye and a side of traditional Irish champ, which is creamy, peppery and generously flecked with scallions. Getting into the swing of things, we hang around for an Irish coffee (for him) and a Baileys (for me) before we head back to Galgorm. 

Instead of McKendry’s Bar, tonight we visit the chic conservatory cocktail and gin bar, drawn in by the sound of music from the grand piano. We take a seat at one of the marble-topped tables beneath the central glass dome and browse the cocktail menu, and when the pianist eventually rounds off the evening with a rendition of Piano Man, we join in with the enthusiastic applause which follows. 

We return to the conservatory for breakfast in the morning. Tea, toast and juice are brought to our table, and we take our pick from the extensive continental buffet before ordering from the a la carte menu. My partner’s Galgorm breakfast is a feast – with both soda bread and potato bread in addition to the usual cooked breakfast fare. My eggs Royale, meanwhile, are an outstanding example of their type – jammy eggs and delicate smoked salmon on buttery crumpets, topped with a perfect hollandaise sauce. It’s a fabulous note on which to end our visit to Galgorm – even if we leave feeling we haven’t quite explored every corner of the resort. There’s always more to see here. 

Galgorm, Co. Antrim, N.Ireland BT42 1EA

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