Travel review: Setting sail for the 5-star delights of Belfast

There’s something incredibly liberating, and oddly comforting, about taking your own car on holiday with you as we did on our recent trip to Belfast.

And with Stena Line offering multiple sailings from locations across the UK, taking your car to Northern Ireland couldn’t be easier – and unlike Europe, there’s no drama about driving on the wrong side of the road.

Stena Line – Cairnryan to Belfast

The sun is shining on the #StenaLine sundeck! #sunnydays #sunnysailing #StenaLineUK #StenaLineIE Image credit: rusty_goldfish

A post d by Stena Line UK Ireland (@stenalineukie) on Sep 29, 2016 at 2:16am PDT

Our ferry, an early morning sailing out of Cairnryan near Stranraer, provided a hassle-free method of getting our car to Belfast, as well as an incredible level of comfort to relax during the three hour cruise.

The vessel, Stena Superfast, may be one of the least imaginatively named ships to make the crossing to Northern Ireland from Scotland, but it was packed with everything you would need to keep yourself, and kids if you’re travelling with them, happy.

For parents, there’s the option of the Stena Plus lounge for complimentary drinks, snacks, wifi and comfy seats. If that’s not relaxing enough there’s even the on-board Nordic Spa, where you can really unwind with a full body massage.

For children, the centre of the main deck is taken over by a massive entertainment area. With games consoles and a dedicated cinema area showing the latest films.

Arriving in Belfast shortly before 10am we knew we had a few hours to spare before we would be able to check into the Culloden Estate Spa hotel – our five-star accomodation for the mid-week break.

Shopping and eating out

Belfast as a city grew up around its large port, meaning everything is within a short drive of the Stena Line dock. So within 20 minutes of arriving on the Emerald Isle we were inside the Victoria Square shopping centre on the hunt for a late breakfast.

If you do decide to visit this shopping centre, I highly recommend you make a trip to the dome on the top floor, which offers incredible views across the entire city. We were lucky enough to find a history buff security guard on the top floor who was able to point out all the key landmarks including Stormont, Belfast’s City Hall and the Prince Albert Clock.

The city centre itself offers the usual array of high street stores and high-end designer boutiques, the likes you will find in any major European city, but the friendliness of everyone helps make Belfast stand apart here.

And the vast variety of places to dine out means you will be spoilt for choice. We opted for brunch at the eclectically-decorated Granny Annies, with dozens of clocks and ornaments covering every surface. The food, however, was straight-forward, a proper breakfast for myself and a stack of fruit-laden pancakes for my partner.

After a few hours exploring, taking us late into the afternoon, we felt we had barely scratched the surface of this complex city, but a desire to check-in and rest meant the decision was made to head to the hotel.

Culloden Estate Spa

I’ve been fortunate to stay in a few five-star hotels in my time, both in the UK and abroad, however, the Culloden Estate Spa was very impressive. After our bags were taken to our suite, complete with potentially the comfiest bed I’ve ever had the pleasure to lie on, we were briefly shown around the magnificent 19th Century Gothic mansion turned hotel.

Its former use as the official home of the Church of Ireland Bishop of the Diocese is still clear with former private chapel turned into a relaxing bar.

Extensions to the building, including the addition of the spa, have been sympathetically created and take advantage of hotel’s stunning views over the Belfast Lough and the ships arriving into port.

Culloden Estate also boosts a long list of celebrities from the world of music, movies and politics as customers of the hotel, including Sir Cliff Richard, Bono and Tony Blair as well as the English and French football team and the Irish Rugby team.

The hotel also boasts its own traditional pub, the Cultra Inn, just short walk from the main building, and while the menu gives the suggestion of traditional hearty pub grub, every element of our dinner was elevated to high-end restaurant standard, with my Mourne Lamb Rump the standout dish of the meal.

With day two came the opportunity to further explore, having our own car gave us the freedom to pick and choose where and when we went places in the city, but if you prefer other means of transport, the hotel has a train station at the bottom of the grounds which will whisk you into the heart of the city,

A short drive from the hotel is one of Northern Ireland’s most famous tourist attractions – Titanic Belfast. The building itself serves both as a monument to Belfast’s maritime past as well as a visitor attraction focused around all things Titanic and how the ship came to be.

Titanic Belfast

Standing on the site of the Harland Wolff shipyards, the firm that constructed the Titanic ship and her sisters, Olympic and Britannic, the museum will take you on an interactive adventure through Belfast’s history, how the city came to be a centre of shipbuilding, the construction of the titanic itself as well as the backstory of some of the people that worked on her.

While the majority of the building has a lively atmosphere with families talking and interactive audio exhibits playing out, everything changes as you step into the sixth gallery, which catalogues the sinking of the Titanic. Instead the only sounds clearly audible are is the morse code SOS message sent out by the ship shortly after it hit the iceberg, and stories from survivors telling of their experience.

The exhibition concludes with a look at the efforts that went into finding the remains of the vessel, some 12,000 feet beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, as well as incredible ROV footage of the ship itself.

Titanic Belfast is not something you can rush, to do the experience properly I’d highly recommend setting aside a good few hours of your day – we personally spent nearly three hours exploring the exhibits.

From outside the museum it is easy to jump onboard the open top sightseeing tour bus which provides one of the best ways to see some of key tourist attractions and locations from Northern Ireland’s history

CitySightSeeing Belfast

Titanic Belfast was officially the fourth stop on the tour, but the hop-on hop-off nature of the bus was ideal for us as we made our way to Crumlin Road. The tour itself takes you past HMS Caroline, Stormont and CS Lewis Square and features some of the more famous of Belfast’s murals, including Freedom Corner.

The bus continues past the City Hall, down Dublin and University Roads and past Windsor Park, the national football stadium. Knowledgeable tour guides explain the origins of The Troubles in the city as well as the background behind some of the murals as you pass by Falls Memorial Garden and the International Wall murals. The tour continues on back into the city centre, but our stop was the infamous Crumlin Road gaol.

Crumlin Road gaol

The Victorian-era prison, officially known as HM Prison Crumlin Road, was in use until 1996 and hosted a wide-range of prisoners including Martin McGuinness, Michael Stone and Bobby Stands.

Our tour guide, a former prison officer at the jail, took us on a tour through the history of the prison, from it’s construction in the mid-1800s,  the changes required to incorporate executions at the site and it’s reputation as Europe’s Alcatraz – despite a number of escapes.

The knowledgeable guide was able to explain the inner-workings of the prison was thoroughly entertaining throughout.

Culloden Estate Spa – Mitre Restaurant

By the time we returned to the hotel, after a spot of shopping in the centre, it was already early evening and rapidly approaching the time of our restaurant reservation.

We were booked into the Mitre restaurant, with it’s views out over the grounds and the lough beyond, the menu promised five-star dining, and it more than delivered. The whole experience was more refined than our meal at the Cultra Inn, however, the fact that both kitchen’s pride themselves on their use of fresh, local produce, meant that all our meals at Culloden were delicious and executed flawlessly.

The on-hand staff were both attentive and knowledgeable, providing a perfect wine recommendation for our dishes, an incredible starter of scallop, with a sweet red pepper and slightly sour apple, followed by a melt in the mouth short rib of beef.

Heading through from the restaurant to the bar we sat and enjoyed a couple of custom crafted cocktails to complete the evening before calling it a night ahead of our return trip to Aberdeen.

Fact file

Hastings Hotels (, 028 9042 1066) offers nightly rates at the Culloden Estate Spa from £105 per person on a BB basis.

Stena Line sails from Cairnryan to Belfast offering a direct link from Scotland to Northern Ireland on the Stena Superfast VII and Stena Superfast VIII from as little as £79 single for car and driver. The crossing time is approximately 2hrs 15mins.

Admission to Titanic Belfast, Crumlin Road gaol and the citysightseeing tour were provided by VisitBelfast, prices are available on the individual attractions’ websites.