The cedar-wood sauna hut is fragrant with frankincense and eucalyptus, and the music playing is soaringly cinematic, the epic sound of violins rising to a crescendo. Out of the window, the River Maine flows serenely past. It’s an innocuous sight, as the temperature inside rises. When you think you can’t take the heat any more, the resident sauna master whips the air violently with towels, so you feel a wave of intense heat, mingled with piquant essential oils, wash over you as you lie, eyes tightly shut. After 20-minutes, the so-called Celtic Sauna Infusion experience finishes in fitting dramatic fashion – you lower yourself into a cold plunge pool outside, causing your heart to thump and your breath to stop. It’s all encompassing, yet totally life-affirming.
If you didn’t know any better you’d think that this was taking place in Finland or Denmark – where ‘Aufguss’ sauna rituals are the norm. In fact, Galgorm Resort, a luxury spa hotel, is found just 30 miles outside of Belfast and this is its own unique, Celtic version of the traditional Scandi experience. It’s made even more atmospheric due to the lush and verdant vision of 163 acres of parkland, Irish woodlands and rolling hills that surround the spa.
It may be in Northern Ireland (and not Norway), but at its heart Galgorm offers a true celebration of the ‘art of the spa’. Home to one of the largest thermal spa villages in Europe, you could spend days immersed in wellness activities. Dotted along the river banks, there are private hot tubs as well as a series of indoor and outdoor heated pools, steam cabins, a salt cave and glass-fronted saunas. The Snow Cabin – the only one in Ireland – offers a bracing spa experience. At -15 degrees, you sit amid powder snow and ice crystals, which have been designed to boost the immune and circulatory systems. From hot poultice massages to SkinCeuticals facials, there’s also a wide choice of beauty and body treatments on offer.
Galgorm is also the ideal place for groups of friends to regroup and reconnect. After all, we’ve waited long enough, and there’s an urgency in the air among loved ones desperate to spend time together again.
What you’ll find at Galgorm is spa-ing with a serious injection of the fun-factor – you can sip fizz while you lounge in bubbles; cool down with a strawberry cocktail after the heat of the sauna; giggle during massages or manicures together in the glam pink and silver Boudoir therapy room (it’s purposely designed for groups of friends). You can even dine within the spa in the unique riverside Halo Dome – a domed, energy-saving space made of reclaimed timbers and one of only five of its kind in the world.
Back in 1857, Galgorm Resort was actually an original working mill, owned by the Young family. The current resort has sprung up around the original building – expanded with £11m worth of spa facilities and a variety of chic accommodation. You can still spot the heritage in the main building, which houses the reception area and most of the bars and restaurants. Original grand fireplaces, floor-to-ceiling sash windows and ornate plasterwork reveal the clues of its past.
Off the lobby area, the Conservatory is – as its name suggests – a light-filled space offering dainty afternoon teas and casual lunches (you can tuck into crab and chilli brioche rolls; warm brie on sourdough and fresh salads).
Talking of which, when it comes to dining at Galgorm, you are spoilt for choice. Kick off your evening at the Cocktail & Gin bar, which offers over 400 varieties of gin, making it the largest in Ireland (there’s a daily gin-tasting laid on for guests).
Fratelli offers rustic Italian dishes – from Sicilian-style pizzas, topped with N’duja sausage, to classic carbonara pasta. With its lively ambiance, Gillies Grill seems to have captured the soul of the resort, with local Antrim produce given modern Asian twists – with Salt & Chilli Chicken; Irish Piri Piri Mussels and Crispy Oyster Mushrooms. As well as drinks and snacks in the vibrant Castle Kitchen + Bar (it’s located at the nearby golf course and guests can hop in the shuttle to get there) – guests can also experience fine-dining courtesy of chef Chris Rees in The River Room. One of just four restaurants in Northern Ireland to be awarded 3 AA Rosettes for culinary excellence, dishes showcase local artisan producers and ingredients from the kitchen garden with menus that change daily.
While there are 125 contemporary rooms and suites in the hotel, Galgorm also offers charming shepherd’s huts, spa residences, log cabins and delightful cottages in the grounds where guests can stay. All of which give a private home-from-home feel and are ideal for spending quality time with loved ones.
The cottages are bang on trend right now – offering privacy yet flexibility, with guests able to tap into all of the resort’s facilities. They come with their own gardens and feature sleek kitchens and cosy living rooms, with fireplaces and flat-screen TVs. Bedrooms have luxury en suite bathrooms, with New York-style subway tiles, and enough cosseting details to feel like this is the equivalent of a hotel suite (just with tons more room). So you’ll find deep carpets, thick towels and fine linens.
Industrial-style lighting, pops of colours, with woven rugs and bright cushions on velvet seating, and mid-Century-style furniture bring oodles of style. Giving a sense of destination, the painted wood-panelled walls are adorned with stylish archive artwork featuring Northern Ireland’s classic beauty spots
Aside from the spa, you can spend your days exploring the city of Belfast; immersing yourself in the countryside by following one of the walking trails or heading out to pootle along the stunning Causeway coastal route.
For a change of scenery, guests can also eat at Galgorm’s sister hotel The Rabbit – a 30-minute drive away in Templepatrick. The boutique-style hotel has a boho feel with its quirky-cool décor – from vibrant, statement wallpapers to retro, tasselled lamps.
Like Galgorm, The Rabbit also boasts lavish and extensive spa facilities, but it has more of a younger, funkier approach compared to its sophisticated ‘older sister’. There is a vast outdoor Roman bath topped with a giant disco ball, relaxing poolside cabanas, a salt chamber and an aroma steam room. By night, the Relaxation Burrow brings Balearic vibes and a playlist to match, with guests able to chill out by the in-spa bar, party in the pool, or kick-back within one of the hot tubs.
Meanwhile, dinner in the Rabbit Restaurant is laid-back and bistro in style, with standout dishes including Cauliflower Cheese Arancini with Saffron Aioli; Hot Smoked Salmon Nicoise; Shellfish Orzo Pasta and Roast Fillet Of Hake with Pomme Purée and Buttered Green Beans. Desserts are the perfect crowd-pleasers and include Warm Apple And Cinnamon Crumble with Salted Caramel Ice Cream and Sauce Anglaise and Raspberry Ruffle Eton Mess with Toasted Coconut. Live music brings an upbeat addition to the dining experience.
Not one to stand still, Galgorm is looking ahead at more development, taking investment at the resort to over £60m by 2023. First up are new treehouses due to open later this year, where guests can sleep to open in the grounds, as well as an additional 64 luxury bedrooms. Then there is the creation of the ‘Log Village’ – which Galgorm describes as its “answer to Soho Farmhouse”. Set in a secluded riverside location, it will offer a rural retreat for guests to stay in, with cabins, teepees and caravans offering quirky accommodation, alongside hot-tubs, barrel saunas and an outdoor pool.
Offering carefree stays in an idyllic setting, Galgorm offers the ideal setting for what we’ve all been waiting for. After years of lockdown, it’s time to reconnect with our dearest people in a place that is inherently uplifting.