Magnificent Galgorm preaching to converts
Even by my standards, it was a record: less than a minute had passed before I set foot there.
Like decadent Roman emperors on a hot, languorous Tuesday afternoon, we basked in one of Galgorm’s many outdoor hot tubs, the wife and I guests of this lavish, sprawling estate, set in 380 acres of lush parkland in Ballymena.
The design of the hot tubs is conducive to conversation of course, much like sitting around a table, only your clothes off and with delicious warm bubbles nibbling at your bottoms.
Two middle-aged women with strong North Antrim accents shared our space; their faces looked warm and friendly, so emboldened by a few lunchtime gins that I thought I’d break the ice.
“This place has changed so much, it’s just beautiful now,” I said, before adding, a little recklessly, “The first time I came here was for an official school in 1998 and it It was a hostel back then. .”
A few polite little chats followed before I let our new friends know how often they would be visiting this paradise on their doorstep.
“Well, I got married here 25 years ago,” the woman next to me replied, and a flash math calculation in my brain informed me regretfully that I had just missed her big day.
To her credit though, she didn’t seem to mind me, chatting as affably as before. Well, me and my big mouth.
Anyway, I didn’t think so. It was never a dunderin’ hostel – modest or old-fashioned might have been a more apt description – but my underlying argument still stands, as the startling expansion and transformation of this bastion of luxury and care continues apace.
And neither ‘modest’ nor ‘old-fashioned’ could ever be said with a straight face of a place where the mission statement is to establish itself as the island’s premier leisure destination, and in which the princely sum of £60million has been pumped into in recent years alone.
For all that ambition, however – the group also owns The Rabbit in Templepatrick, The Olde Inn in Crawfordsburn and the Fratellis and Parisien restaurants in Belfast – the money hasn’t gone to their heads; there was no drift towards the cold, corporate and strictly professional ethos of some of their rivals.
No, the Galgorm Resort and Spa has stayed true to its roots and values the personal touch, the staff are down to earth and courteous, from the top notch concierge to the handful of drivers who transported me and the wife , at all hours of the day and night on the ‘Gus’ electric bus, even offering us a couple of free bags of crisps when midnight cravings attacked after a sip of late-night gins at Gillies.
We had booked to stay in a cozy shepherd’s cabin – #5 to be precise – nestled in an idyllic forest next to the Maine River, and they are equipped with all mod cons including a hob, oven microwave, fridge and freezer, coffee machine, kettle and toaster.
The box of fresh cream rolls and gins waiting for us in the room was another touch of class.
The cabanas are about a five minute walk from the main hotel, but seconds from the spa village, which was also part of our package.
As a spa newbie, I wasn’t sure of the whole shebang as I unpacked my bag and looked out the window to see dozens of couples, all dressed in the same brown robes, walking around barefoot, outside. Except for flip-flops like hippies in some New Age Commune, wisps of white smoke billowing from mini-chimneys everywhere.
“So it’s kind of like glamping,” my mom said over the phone after I sent her a video of me walking around our hut.
Well, there’s certainly the same affinity with the great outdoors – not that I’ve ever glamped – but that’s where the similarities end, I guess.
This is more of a luxury log cabin in miniature form than a neat campsite.
Speaking to our sister newspaper the Belfast Telegraph recently, Galgorm chief executive Colin Johnston said the group wanted to capitalize on the public’s new love of the outdoors in the wake of the pandemic, with treehouses as the next addition to their portfolio.
“Much of Galgorm’s future growth will be primarily outdoors and expand into the woods,” he said. “There are the bowels of 20 acres of woodland that we want to develop with a mix of spa and accommodation.
“Some of these things were already happening, but the pandemic has just energized the trends.”
Amen to that, I love nature, and the brochure’s promise of watching the sun set on the patio, soaking in a glistening outdoor tub as the fire pit blazed beside me read like heaven.
But that will have to wait until next time as I was too busy pouring down gins like they had gone out of style as the sky turned from purple to fiery red the night I was there.
Yet it was as pretty as the picture as we sat next to the window of the Conservatory, the tranquil, glistening river beyond us framed by a blaze of color from the carpet of pink and purple wildflowers. on the other side of the shore.
And so that was the main event, an evening of gin tasting coupled with a four-course meal.
On this occasion, it was the folks at Donaghadee’s award-winning craft gin producers, Copeland Distillery, who regaled us with where their spirit comes from and their vision for world domination – while the next stop, on Tuesday July 26, this will be Jawbox handing out the drinks (tickets available at www.galgorm.com).
Gin is having a moment, of course, and Galgorm certainly has a thing for the stuff, with its own gin emporium, the Gin Library, a sort of love letter to the trendy drink.
While the drinks were fabulous – we were handed a variety of gins and gin cocktails between courses – the food was to die for, starting with the chef’s selection of canapes, which included tasty braised beef dumplings; then a sublime starter of smoked haddock and tarragon gratin, with parmesan and samphire crumbs; followed by a dish of roasted Morne lamb rump, candied baby carrots, asparagus, mashed new potatoes, peas and mint jus; and topped off with a rhubarb and gin trifle with shortbread.
In keeping with everything else, everything was of the highest quality.
Truth be told, I arrived at the Galgorm as an avid beer and red wine drinker, while still holding out hope that one day I would get into gin, just so I could join all the beautiful people. Yet I left in love with it, another vice to add to the list.
But I was also a spa newbie, and likewise am now a convert after an afternoon well-done, sweating my cojones out in an assortment of saunas, steam rooms, whirlpools, heated loungers, and “detoxifying” salt caves. “. The pick of the group, however, was the Celtic Sauna experience – all intoxicating aromas of incense and sweeping views of nature – followed by a dip in a freezing plunge pool, complete with a health warning.
Perhaps reminiscent of a recent conversation where I told the woman that she was in line for a large payment for my work if I did it during my employment, she seemed rather jaded at the idea of me walking in .
But I went and lived to tell the tale. I may have a big mouth, but there’s nothing wrong with the ticker.