Deirdre Mullins travels north to unwind.
When Percy French wrote The Mountains of Mourne, I'm sure he didn't envisage it being hummed more than a hundred years later in a hotel spa. But I found it difficult to think of anything else while I soaked in the hot tub of the Slieve Donard Hotel. As the water jets gently massaged my back, the picture perfect view lay before me. It was just as French described: "Where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea."
The Slieve Donard in Newcastle, Co Down is a four-star hotel. Its spa is part of the ESPA portfolio, which is an international brand of hotel spas. Having already visited two impressive properties in this collection (The Europe Hotel, Killarney and the Ritz-Carlton, Powerscourt) my expectations were high.
The Slieve Donard spa is divided into two levels. The top level is pitched as a 'pamper paradise' and can only be used by guests who have booked a treatment. The spa menu has a good selection of treatments including hot stone and Ayurvedic therapies.
I had a blissful facial for 55 minutes at a cost of €85. My treatment started off with a 'sensory test', where the therapist asked me to smell different essential oils with the understanding that the body knows what oil it needs. Apparently, I needed revitalisation, but instead I floated off to a half-sleep as the therapist massaged my face, chest and head.
Before a treatment, one can enjoy the single sex sauna, Jacuzzi and steam room. The latter was out of order on my visit but the others were spacious with beautiful views of the mountains.
Segregation from the opposite sex is fine for a girlie spa break but not so conducive to a romantic weekend away. However, post-treatment you can lie beside your partner in one of the beds in the relaxation room, which is dimly lit and includes magazines, relaxing music and fruit.
The ground floor of the spa has what I missed upstairs: a swimming pool. At 20 metres long, it's a decent size for doing some lengths. If you don't want to splash out (pardon the pun) on a treatment, the pool's swan neck water jets do a good head, neck and shoulder massage.
Adjacent to the pool is a large Jacuzzi facing outwards to a large window overlooking Newcastle, which sits neatly in between the sea and mountains. There is also a sauna, steam room and a sizeable gym. Everything on this level is free for hotel guests to use, kids included. But the children's sometimes noisy presence robbed me of that solace that I look for on a spa break.
On the flip side, it's good space for parents. Kids are so often banned from hotel spas but here mum and dad are free to enjoy the pamper factor without needing to book a babysitter. The hotel has a large grassy area surrounding it and a beach on its doorstep - both great areas for children to play. One drawback for the family break is that the hotel doesn't have a play room - so rainy days can be spent in the pool or on the dodgems in town.
Newcastle is a traditional seaside holiday town and has a slow and peaceful pace to it. There are many homely cafes to while away a few hours and the promenade is perfect for strolling along while licking a Mr Whippy or tackling an oversized candyfloss.
The Slieve Donard sits at the northern end of the town and is housed in a large red-brick and somewhat austere-looking building. Its history is interesting as it was built 115 years ago as an end-of-line luxury railway hotel. In its heyday it was almost self-sufficient with its own bakery, vegetable gardens, pigs, laundry and even power plant.
The hotel's interior has kept its original style and with the shiny marble floor in the lobby makes for a strong first impression. A warm and welcoming feel is created by the open fire and friendly staff. Just off the lobby is a cosy drawing room, the hotel bar and The Oak Restaurant.
The restaurant's interior is striking, with 20ft-high ceilings, chandeliers and white tablecloths. The room comes alive with many staff and a good turnover of custom. I had delicious pan scallops as a starter (€12), which turned out to be the best dish of the meal. My main course, Atlantic Gurnard (€23), was less impressive and the chocolate banana cheese cake (€9) was dry and disappointing.
Breakfast at The Oak was a standard hotel buffet breakfast with the usual hot trays of fried food and a good selection of health options such as granola and fruit salad. My otherwise nutritious bowl of porridge was given an extra warming kick from the bottle of Bushmills whiskey which stood temptingly beside it.
I stayed in a Resort Twin room in a newly extended wing of the hotel. The room felt spacious due to its white walls and high ceiling. Its classical style decor kept with the hotel's old-world feel.
Thankfully, the bed lent itself to a great night's sleep - something I don't take for granted in hotels. The view was a spectacular sight to wake up to, the Mournes perched majestically over Newcastle and the Irish Sea. It had me humming French's tune once again
A one-night stay at the Slieve Donard Hotel starts from €91pps; two nights from €165pps and three nights from €228pps including dinner, bed and breakfast. To book, or for further information, go to: www.hastingshotels.com/slieve-donard-resort-and-spa or call: 048 4372 1066 and quote 321 rates. *This offer is per person sharing and is available Sunday to Thursday. Supplements apply for room upgrades and single occupancy. Offer is valid throughout 2013.
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