Holidays & Travel

Travel: Slieve Donard Hotel might have a new look and new owners, but it still offers a warm welcome where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea

Luxury and relaxation is still the vibe today

Slieve Donard Hotel
The Slieve Donard Hotel is the epitome of luxury and grandeur

When the chance came to check out the new-look Slieve Donard, our first thoughts turned to the grand entrance lobby – would it be just as grand? Just as welcoming? Would the easy charm of this iconic hotel, so long the architectural gem of Newcastle and wider Co Down, have changed somehow under new owners, Marine & Lawn?

The answer is ‘Yes’... and ‘No’. The railway-inspired lobby is still as impressive with showpiece fireplace and statement chandelier, but the lavish new makeover is evident as soon as you spin out of the revolving doors and into a green and leafy reception area.

It was a cold and drizzly, overcast afternoon when we checked in for two nights but the resort (as it is now known) offered the perfect welcome.

The former Hastings flagship hotel re-opened under new US owners last September following an extensive refurb, with the interior design led by Marine & Lawn Adventurous Journeys (AJ) Capital Partner’s in-house design team. The stated aim was to “preserve the Victorian elements and characteristics” of the landmark red brick building by the sea.

Certainly, the furniture, floral fabrics and rich, deep colourings are all reflective of an age gone by – although the deep green walls and dark grey ceiling of our room were a tad on the sombre side, especially when ceiling spotlights and soft lamplight failed to sufficiently spill into darkened corners.

Colour scheme aside, the room was spacious and well-appointed (watch out for the fake drawers on bedside tables that don’t open), with a sea view window – its sill a regular resting spot for an inquisitive seagull intent on giving our room a beady-eyed once-over.

The refurbished guest rooms at the Slieve Donard hotel
Hand-carved crests are mounted over each of the guest room headboards

Inside, pictures of golfer Rory McIlroy and other well-known faces and landscapes synonymous with the seaside town adorned the walls. Among these was a framed copy of the title page of The Mountains of Mourne song sheet, penned by songwriter, poet and entertainer, Percy French.

Another nod to the rich history of the place was a hand-carved crest mounted over each of the guest room headboards - 180 guest rooms in total have been refurbished. Each crest replicates the carved stone hanging above the front entry to the 125-year-old building - originally built by the Belfast and County Down Railways as an ‘end of line’ luxury holiday destination.

Luxury and relaxation is still the vibe today, with facilities including a 20-metre indoor heated pool within a two-storey spa area, private putting green, gym, bike rentals, tennis courts and games room. The spa - especially on a rainy Monday - proved the perfect sanctuary to while away a few lazy hours swimming, reading and luxuriating in the elongated Jacuzzi area which faces full length windows looking out to sea and the mountains beyond.

Slieve Donard spa and pool
The Slieve Donard's spa and pool offer a luxurious sanctuary (alex macleod/A.M Baxter and Company Ltd)

Food, of course, is always part of any short getaway and the hotel has several dining options to choose from, including the Percy French located at the hotel’s entrance, the Wolf Bar, Lighthouse Lounge and the new JJ Farrall’s (named after the Slieve Donard’s 19th century architect) where we were headed on this quiet Sunday evening.

A light and airy restaurant with open fire and lots of cascading greenery - offset by tartan, leather and wooden finishes – it boasts an extensive a la carte menu with varied choice in each section.

Roast scallop with fennel for my starter (perfectly cooked and delicately flavoured) was followed by traditional Mourne lamb for the mains and pistachio cake with olive ice-cream for desert. The food was generally good, although the main course was disappointing and it wasn’t quite the five-star service on this particular evening. Sunday lunchtime is busy here, though, so perhaps a laid-back Sunday evening was not the best time to judge.

Thanks to a spacious, comfortable bed, Egyptian cotton bed linen and squishy pillows, we had the best night’s sleep before enjoying a leisurely breakfast and heading outside for a bracing beach walk – literally a stone’s throw from the hotel.

Slieve Donard Hotel lobby
The Slieve Donard Hotel's railway-inspired lobby remains impressive, with showpiece fireplace and a statement chandelier

The waves crashed and the wind roared, but, as we rounded a corner while battling our way back from nearby Murlough beach, standing tall like some sort of red-turreted Disney castle was the Slieve Donard, waiting with friendly staff and glowing fires.

Yes, it may have changed, superficially, but the heart of the place still beats strong. It felt good to be back.

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