Have you ever read that inspirational quote about the elegant swan, gliding along the lake while its legs are paddling frantically underneath?
That’s exactly the image which came to mind during our stay in the elegant Culloden Estate and Spa.
Not that there is anything frantic about the ambiance of the five-star hotel in Holywood but as we relaxed with the most sumptuous afternoon tea, serenaded by a harpist, we discovered that the hotel was in the midst of catering for a wedding, a number of foreign tours as well as around 30 pre-booked afternoon teas, not to mention other hotel guests...so while the engine room of the Culloden must have been paddling somewhere unseen, the ‘swans’ who looked after us were nothing but graceful in their care and attention.
Showing us to our table which overlooked the beautiful landscaped gardens of the Culloden and the far shore of Belfast Lough, Sam was welcoming and attentive as he talked us through the mouth-watering afternoon tea.
Originally invented to “control the tempers of detoxing dieters” afternoon tea was once known as Afternoon Appease, meaning to relieve a demand. WARNING : detoxing dieters, leave your calorie-counters at home and just luxuriate in the goodies of a Culloden Afternoon Tea spread.
Eating relatively early in the afternoon, we selected a traditional Irish breakfast tea despite the tempting upgrades of Prosecco or Gin on offer.
Top marks to the Culloden for presenting an afternoon tea of absolute elegance which stays true to the world-class produce of this country.
We were presented with finger sandwiches of egg and spring onion a mini granary loaf; Ewing’s smoked salmon, cucumber and cream cheese on granary and Givan’s Belfast ham and tarragon mayonnaise on batch white loaf. These little packages of flavour were bursting with filling and were accompanied by a sundried tomato, basil and Fivemiletown goats cheese open tart.
Moving up the tiers of the cake stand, the middle section boasted a homemade assortment of buttermilk scones with fresh cream and County Down preserves. Delicious and gone in a flash!
Preparing to scale the summit of the afternoon tea mountain, we took a break to relax in the wonderful surroundings and enjoy the views over the Lough.
If this had been the Great British Bake Off, the top layer would have been the showstopper...glazed fruit banquettes, apple and blackberry panna cotta, salted caramel and banana cupcake with caramel frosting, raspberry and white chocolate macaroons and, my personal favourite, chocolate and pistachio madeleines.
Every morsel would have qualified for the Paul Hollywood handshake of approval.
Hungry though we were after a journey from Portrush, not even our north coast appetites could manage to finish the feast that is a Culloden afternoon tea.
Cue the ever-helpful Sam who packaged up the remaining items for us to take back to our suite to enjoy later.
Making our way through the newly refurbished accommodation wing of rooms, we were struck by just how peaceful and quiet the atmosphere was in such a busy hotel.
A beautifully decorated corridor of duck-egg blue and walnut, lead us to one of the Culloden’s sumptuous state suits, the Hadlow Suite.
The elegant suite - again part of a major refurbishments in April - has been designed and decorated in soothing blues and bronzes with an incredible amount of space, giving a wonderfully airy atmosphere to the accommodation.
The Hadlow Suite was brightly lit thanks to large windows which afforded more gorgeous views of the Belfast Lough.
Elegantly furnished, the suite also featured a wonderfully quirky little nook area in which stood a wooden coat stand, lit by three long slim windows...the kind of space ideal for pulling one of the comfy armchairs into and settling down with a good book.
Offering everything to make your stay as comfortable as possible - TV, radio, hair dryer, iron and ironing board, tea/coffee maker, robes and slippers - this roomy suite also features a beautifully modern marble bathroom complete with free-standing bath tub and walk-in power shower.
Again, the serenity and peaceful atmosphere of the hotel was evident in the bedroom wing of the Culloden Estate and Spa.
Total and utter relaxation.
In the morning, breakfast was served in the Mitre Restaurant and, like the Afternoon Tea experience, placed local produce at the heart of the most important meal of the day.
I opted for smoked salmon with some tomato bread. Without doubt some of the tastiest and thickest cut smoked salmon I have ever enjoyed.
My breakfast partner enjoyed the delights of mushrooms, tomatoes, bacon and delicious Mourne heather-honey flavoured sausages.
Eventually, it was time to take our leave of this ‘Star of the County Down’. If you haven’t been, treat yourself to a trip to the Culloden Estate and Spa.
It’s grand but not snooty, elegant but not stuffy and the warmest of welcomes - coupled with the finest mouth-watering local produce - awaits you.
Afternoon Tea £29 per person.
The Hadlow Suite from £695 per night. http://www.hastingshotels.com/culloden-estate-and-spa