Set amidst beautiful scenery, with the River Maine running through the grounds, this former gentleman’s residence is one of Northern Ireland’s best known country house hotels and, following major redevelopment, it emerged much larger and more contemporary – and has now taken its place among Ireland’s leading hospitality players.
The approach through well-tended parkland creates a sense of anticipation, as you pass the separate banqueting and conference facilities to arrive at the front door of the original house, just a hundred yards from the river.
Inside, guests are welcomed in a large modern reception area designed to accommodate the large numbers of guests who attend weddings and other events held in the hotel's two function areas (a choice of traditional or contemporary styles is offered), and wide corridors and lifts lead to the 48 contemporary deluxe bedrooms in the modern extension that takes up part of the old walled garden area; accommodation also includes some suites and rooms in the old house, most of which have views over the river.
The new rooms are spacious and very appealing, with huge and extremely comfortable beds dressed with fine white cotton sheets, down pillows and duvets, standard lamp for reading, a table and chairs for in-room dining, pleasantly neutral decor and no gimmicks; en suite bathrooms are attractive too although (as is often the case with modern plumbing), smart new fittings may not always work as well as the traditional ones.
Some rooms have balconies overlooking the river (the sound of water at night is wonderful); with extensive decking on that side of the hotel, however, it could be noisy in summer when there’s a large wedding on.
The hotel has always had a pleasant atmosphere, staff are helpful, and some of the original elegant ground floor rooms are still in use, including drawing rooms and the former dining room which is available for conferences and small weddings or other celebrations.
Garden lovers may wish the walled gardens could have been restored and some other space found for the new development, but the work has been well executed and glazed upper corridors allow views of sunshades over tables at Gillie’s Pub & Bollinger Garden and the equestrian centre immediately behind the hotel, which all adds interest.
Like the impressive destination Spa, the equestrian centre is very much in demand - and you can see into it from your table at the characterful Gillies Bar & Grill (part of the original hotel), where informal evening meals and breakfast are served.
This unusual dining room and bar has oodles of atmosphere, especially when candlelit at night, and - in tune with the trend at resort hotels - there is another casual dining option too, at Fratelli, a bright and rustic Italian restaurant and bar. The choice of dining styles also includes fine dining at the River Room Restaurant (see below) so residents have plenty of variety during their stay and local diners also have good reason to make it a destination for a night out whatever the mood or occasion.
Conference/banqueting (500/300); secretarial services, video conferencing, free broadband wi/fi.
Rooms 75 (9 suites, 7 junior suites, 14 family, 3 disabled, all no smoking); children welcome (under 4s free in parents room, cot available free of charge, babysitting arranged). B&B from about £89.50 pps. Spa; fishing; horse-riding; walking; garden. Golf nearby. Wheelchair accessible. No pets. L &D available daily. Open all year. Amex, Diners, MasterCard, Visa.
River Room Restaurant:
The fine dining restaurant is in the new build and, although not a large room, the design is interesting with some striking features, unusual lighting (uplighters in the centre of tables, for example) and seating that offers a mixture of regular tables and large semi-circular booths offering privacy at round tables used for twos or fours – and, unusually, the acoustics are excellent.
Ask for the booth directly facing the river if you crave a full-on river experience; otherwise, large windows afford a pleasant river/garden outlook rather than a view. Tables dressed simply with classic white linen and very little else bode well for a food-focused experience – a feeling swiftly reinforced by efficient, well-trained staff who present the menus and wine list, quickly followed by very good breads and butter .
So far so very good indeed. A seven course Taste of Antrim menu is offered and highly recommended if you have only one evening to experience accomplished head chef Chris Bell's outstanding cooking; Glenarm salmon,Toomebridge smoked eel and Rathlin scallops are likely to be among the fish and seafoods offered, followed perhaps by Antrim lamb or Angus beef.
There's also an à la carte, in a similar style - it's understated, yet you have the feeling of being in good hands. Just four choices are offered on each course and, on first impression, they are conservative. Yet, while descriptions generally give little away, flavour combinations and mini dishes within the main dish - potted Lissara duck, for example, in a dish of roast local pigeon with 'brioche, ginger, plums, carrot' - hint at something interesting going on in the kitchen,
And the cooking delivers far more than the menu promises. A little pre-starter gets the meal off to a good start and perfectly timed service, together with a succession of perfectly executed dishes outstanding for their excellent balance of flavour and texture and overall attention to detail convey the confidence of true professionalism.
Many a lesser chef would be tempted to ‘improve’ a classic like Irish rib eye of beef with béarnaise sauce and pomme fondant with dribbles, foams and smokes; here it is perfectly cooked and carefully presented without any unnecessary adornment and all the better for that.
Desserts follow the classic theme – a chocolate and praline mousse, for example, served with a refreshing red fruit salad – and strong, aromatic coffee served with petits fours rounds off the meal nicely.
Service of both food and wine is very efficient – and the Wine Cellar is available for tastings.
Sunday Lunch is also served in the River Room, and Afternoon Tea is a speciality on Saturday afternoons.