Breaks: Pampering, gin and summer sunshine at Ballymena's Galgorm resort
It's a tough life being a food reviewer but someone has to do it... Allison Morris combined her passion for food with an enthusiasm for luxury accommodation – and gin – at the Galgorm Resort & Spa
WHAT about this weather? It's been so sunny this past few weeks I've had to pull out my 'summer case', a collection of ill-fitting, brightly coloured reminders of holidays past to help bulk out my wardrobe.
And it was armed with a small overnight bag full of tiny dresses and sun cream that I left The Irish News office and headed towards the village of Galgorm just outside Ballymena.
This wasn't my first visit to the Galgorm Resort and Spa; I'd previously stayed in the small cottages on the grounds and enjoyed a fair few meals in Gillies, the hotel's popular bar and restaurant. This time I was staying in the main hotel and as we've been enjoying Mediterranean heat, it was a very different experience.
The hotel and the grounds are exceptionally beautiful with a river running through the serene setting. There was a wedding in the great hall, with guests having a wonderful time in very un-Irish weather.
I love the entrance to the Galgorm, grand and luxurious. My guest, an art lover, was constantly commenting on the beautiful – and expensive – original art that adorns almost every wall. I know nothing about art, but I nodded sagely in agreement to make myself look less chavy.
There was little time spent in our beautiful room, with its views of the outdoor pool and hot-tub (there's an indoor pool too), guests chilling in bikinis and shorts in the late evening sun.
Instead we were off to a pre-dinner gin tasting in the Galgorm's gin library, a room with hundreds of bottles of gin, both the familiar and the strange, lined up like a fragrant beauty contest, every last one a winner in my book.
There are gins that cost £2,000 a bottle – we weren't that extravagant (Who knows? Maybe one day) and instead tried a fabulous, locally made Jawbox, with ginger ale, lime and honeycomb, followed by a delicious fragrant cocktail which we carried outside to the enjoy in the last of the day's sunshine.
The tasting itself was a hilarious and informative affair, our waiter full of interesting, historic facts about my favourite tipple.
Appetite worked up, for dinner we'd booked the River Room, the three AA Rosettes award-winning restaurant under the direction of head chef Chris Rees. The tasting menu runs at a very reasonable £55 a person for five courses; add your wine pairing to that for £30 a head.
We ordered from the A La Carte and what followed was an hour and a half of major indulgence. Scallop Ceviche with milk curd, green olives and a squid ink cracker and a local rabbit dish with ham ballotine, asparagus, mustard and morels.
While waiting on this, freshly baked bread arrived with local butter and smoked salt to season.
We also had an amuse bouche of tiny little black pudding bon bons and a shot of delicious celeriac mousse with deep, rich braised pork.
The Scallop ceviche arrived like a piece of modern art, little mouthfuls of fresh raw shellfish, in a fresh bright green dressing, the black squid ink cracker gave crunch, texture, taste and presentation – all tick, tick, tick.
The rabbit was moist and succulent; we shared the love and the delightful dishes.
Salt aged beef and turbot followed. My fish came with a little Strangford crab pasta cigar and a light sauce that didn't overpower the sweet delicate fish; the salt beef was blushing pink with a rich deep oyster mushroom sauce that stood up to the cut of meat.
We had wine and later prosecco before going to the bar which was in full swing with a great live band and stacks of atmosphere.
If I'm honest, there were a few more gins, but I floated off to sleep in my room with a view and woke to one of the best hotel breakfasts I've enjoyed in a long time.
Eggs Royal, overnight oats with berries, endless coffee and freshly squeezed juice and a beautiful view at the start of yet another stunning day.
It's hard not to feel smug in such a setting. The only problem? Work called and so there was no time for a trip to the Thermal Village spa, to cure the rest of the previous night's excess.
However, we decided that was as good an excuse as any to return at a later date for some pampering and another look at that still-to-be-fully explored gin library – perfect bliss in Ballymena.
:: Galgorm Resort & Spa, 136 Fenaghy Road, Ballymena, Co Antrim, BT42 1EA. For booking and enquiries call 028 2588 1001 or see galgorm.com