Once the New Year is in, Valentines comes next if you need an excuse for an outing, so - in honour of NI Year of Food and Drink 2016 - why not book a break at one of these great Northern Irish destinations? This selection is just a taster, it could easily have been twice as long - and Belfast is not included although there is no shortage of romantic places to stay there, including The Merchant Hotel, Ten Square Hotel, The Fitzwilliam and Malmaison, to name just four…Have fun!

Hastings Culloden Estate & Spa - Belfast

Culloden HotelIf traditional grandeur and exclusivity are what’s needed to set the scene for a special occasion, then this imposing retreat could be just the place for you. Listed as Belfast, but actually just outside the city, near Holywood, Hastings Hotels’ flagship property is the region's premier hotel and was once the official palace for the Bishops of Down - who clearly knew how to look after themselves. A fine example of 19th-century Scottish Baronial architecture, with plasterwork ceilings, stained glass windows and an impressive staircase, it is beautifully set in immaculately maintained gardens and woodland overlooking Belfast Lough and the lovely Antrim coastline. Period furniture and fine paintings lend gravitas to the high ceilinged reception rooms, while spacious guest rooms include a large proportion of suites and a Presidential Suite, with the best view. Formal dining is in the discreet Mitre Restaurant overlooking the lough, but friendly, attentive staff warm the ambience and there’s also a change of scene offered, at the ‘Cultra Inn’, an informal bar and restaurant in the grounds. The Culloden makes an impressive wedding venue, and is licensed to hold wedding ceremonies on the premises.


The Old Inn
Crawfordsburn, Co Down

The Old InnThe old world village setting of this famous and hospitable 16th century inn - the oldest in continuous use in all Ireland - belies its handy location close to Belfast and the City Airport. A welcoming fire and friendly staff in the cosy reception area set the tone for the whole hotel, which is full of charm, very comfortable - and always smartly presented. Oak beams, antiques and gas lighting all add to the atmosphere and, although it is an attractive all year venue with pretty gardens, it feels especially welcoming in the colder months. Bedrooms vary due to the age of the building - some rooms have romantic four-posters and a few have private sitting rooms - but all are comfy and twelve new junior suites were recently added. A destination restaurant, Lewis, celebrates connections with the author C.S. Lewis and offers modern Irish 'informal fine dining' showcasing the best of seasonal local foods in an atmospheric setting, while the characterful Parlour Bar is popular for casual meals. To work it off, there’s great walking nearby (Crawfordsburn Country Park, Helen’s Bay) also golf and equestrian activities. A lovely old-fashioned hotel.


The Salty Dog Hotel & Bistro
Bangor, Co Down

The Salty DogA choice corner site overlooking Belfast Lough and Bangor Marina makes the perfect location for this welcoming boutique hotel. Originally a pair of Victorian redbrick buildings, which gives it character, The Salty Dog now offers informal contemporary style - and also the hands-on hospitality of owner Kenneth Sharp and his team, something that is not easy to find in larger establishments. The ground floor is semi open-plan, with views over the harbour and lough from both the bar area (where you may bring your dog) and the restaurant, which has a well earned reputation for good cooking of carefully sourced local foods and is deservedly popular with local diners as well as residents. Breakfast - served in the bar, overlooking the marina - is also seriously good, and open to non-residents so there’s always a buzz. The speciality drinks menu - craft beers, gins, cocktails - is a delight, and there’s a craft beer of the month to give it focus. If you enjoy a lively atmosphere this is a great spot for a romantic break, especially if you can get a spacious first floor room (those at the top are much smaller) and, if staying several nights, there are some other excellent restaurants within a few minutes’ walk.


Newforge House
Magheralin, Craigavon, Co Armagh

Newforge HouseIf you ever get a chance to visit John and Louise Mathers’ lovely Georgian country house, don’t miss it! The address may not be promising, but this gorgeous place really is a perfect setting for special occasions and short breaks. It’s been in the Mathers family for six generations and, when John and Lou took it over 10 years ago, they did a complete revamp so it’s fresh but still in keeping with its history. The stylish rooms are luxurious (all with beautiful bathrooms, five with separate bath and shower), the lovely period drawing room has an open log fire, and there’s a fine traditional dining room where John serves superb dinners based on local and organic produce (at separate tables or seated as a group, as preferred) and outstanding breakfasts too - Moira, with its superb butchers, is just down the road, and they have a large garden complete with their own orchard and chickens…Stylish simplicity and friendly, professional service are the hallmarks of this lovely place and, although it feels like worlds away with its mature trees, gardens and green fields, it’s less than half an hour’s drive to Belfast (and handy to both Belfast International and City airports and Ferry Terminal). A real gem.


Ardtara Country House
Upperlands, Co Derry

Ardtara HouseFormer home to the Clark linen milling family, this Victorian country house is now an attractive, elegantly decorated small hotel with a warm atmosphere and a reputation for genuine hospitality. The property changed hands in 2014 and, as the new owners are the highly regarded Browns Restaurant Group (of Derry City and Letterkenny), there is a sense of real excitement surrounding the kitchen and restaurant - but there is also continuity, as manager Valerie Ferson and her long serving team still oversee the accommodation and the house in general. While not especially large, it is a fine house with well-proportioned reception rooms including a proper bar with access to the recently renovated conservatory and garden. Antique furnishings and fresh flowers everywhere give Ardtara a homely ambience and it can also have a sense of occasion, which lends it very well to small weddings and other special events. Rooms vary, as is the way with old houses, but they are mainly large and luxuriously furnished with garden views, king size beds and the expected modern gizmos, and some of the bathrooms have free-standing baths and fireplaces. Browns Restaurant at Ardtara is a fine dining destination, and breakfast has always been a high point here too, so allow time to enjoy it.


Whitepark House
Ballintoy, Ballycastle Co Antrim

Whitepark HouseAs Newforge House is to Craigavon, so Bob and Siobhan Isles's Whitepark House is to Ballycastle and the North Coast - it’s an absolute one off, and one of the most desirable destinations anywhere in Ireland. Tucked away in a sylvan setting, with views of Whitepark Bay, it’s a pretty old house with a path down to a beautiful beach just across the road. Bob is both an ace gardener and a chatty and well-informed host who welcomes guests with home-made pastries and bottomless cups of perfect tea to enjoy beside an open fire in the cosy sitting room. Nothing is too much trouble for this man, and no detail escapes him when it comes to the comfort of his guests. The bedrooms have quite recently been redesigned to allow for thoughtfully designed en-suite bathrooms (not easy in an old house); some bathrooms have views too - in one you can even lie in the bath and soak in the beauty of the garden. You may be lucky enough to have a four-poster bed and seating area, but all the bedrooms are beautifully decorated and each has its special personality, and the warm feeling of being surrounded by a well-loved garden. A superb breakfast, including vegetarian options, is served in a huge conservatory at the back, where there are comfy couches to relax on at any time. Bob likes to see guests well prepared for the day ahead - there is much to explore, notably of course the beautiful north coast and the Glens of Antrim. Stylish, cosy, luxuriously comfortable and with Bob's lovely gardens to enjoy in fine weather, this is an exceptional place to stay. A treasure indeed.


Belle Isle Castle
Lisbellaw, Ennskillen, Co Fermanagh

Belle Isle CastleMagically situated on one of eleven islands on Upper Lough Erne that are owned by the Duke of Abercorn’s Estate, Belle Isle has a delightfully exclusive away-from-it-all country house atmosphere and is impressively furnished with antiques, striking paintings and dramatic colour schemes (the work of the internationally renowned interior designer, David Hicks); in addition to the eight romantic bedrooms, guests have use of a magnificent drawing room and also the Grand Hall complete with minstrels’ gallery, where dinner - which may include produce from the sister estate, Baronscourt, well known for its game - is served for residents. The original castle dates back to 1680 and has mid-19th century additions, including a courtyard and a coach house offering self-catering accommodation. Maintenance and housekeeping are immaculate throughout this romantic (and well heated) place and it could be the perfect choice for a small wedding - they are licensed to hold civil weddings and the courtyard accommodation is ideal for guests. [The Belle Isle School of Cookery is independently operated on site: Tel 028 6638 7231;]


Bushmills Inn
Bushmills, Co Antrim

Bushmills InnThis 19th-century coaching inn is right in the centre of the village that has lent its name to some of the island’s best whiskeys, and alongside the River Bush that was crucial to the founders of the distillery when they picked this spot to set up business in 1608 (or even earlier). It’s one of Ireland’s most famous hotels and rightly so - many extensions, improvements and subtle modernisations have been undertaken in the current ownership, but proprietor Alan Dunlop has a keen sense of the inn’s historic importance and he and his team have done well, improving amenities without loss of character. Now, although luxurious, it is still a cosy and proudly old-fashioned hotel. The traditional tone is set by the turf fire and country seating in the hall and public rooms and, while bedrooms vary - the largest are quite grand and the newer ones are individually furnished in a comfortable cottage style, and even have “antiqued” bathrooms - it’s all very well done and avoids a theme park feel. Likewise with the food, which is proudly rooted in the seasonal produce of the region and successfully balances traditional fare (essentially country cooking, with some of the Scottish influences that are typical of this area) with the variety that today’s visitors demand. The inn is understandably popular and it can be hard to get a booking in high season, but it is a wonderfully cosy place for an off-season break - and good value too. There is just so much to do around here and the hotel even has original entertainment organised on-site, including a unique 'Thursday night is movie night' package offering dinner and a classic movie in their own little cinema, complete with complimentary popcorn (see hotel website for schedule).


Lusty Beg Island Resort
Boa Island, Kesh, Co Fermanagh

Lusty Beg Island ResortYou can call in to Lusty Beg by boat, of course, as many people cruising on beautiful Lough Erne do in the summer time, but it’s just as exciting if you arrive by road, as you have to call up a little ferry that takes you over to the island. It’s highly unusual and always worth a visit, if only to call into the pleasant waterside pub for a drink or a bite to eat. But there are plenty of reasons to stay in this romantic place much longer - especially if you are into spa treatments, as their two-storey destination Island Spa has treatment rooms featuring the famous VOYA hand harvested organic seaweed products on the upper floor, while the ground floor provides state-of-the-art hot tub, sauna, steam room and a double bathing suite for couples. There are all sorts of other activities offered on this prettily wooded island too, or you can just chill out and do very little except enjoy the friendly bar, the good food in the restaurant and comfortable accommodation in lodges and chalets around the island. A one off.


Galgorm Resort & Spa
Ballymena Co Antrim

Galgorm Castle - BiscuitSet amidst beautiful scenery, with the River Maine running through its163 acres of parkland, this former gentleman’s residence recently underwent major redevelopment and, having emerged much larger and more contemporary, quickly took its place among Ireland’s leading hospitality players. Although perhaps best known for its weddings (a choice of three venues is available on site) you don’t have to be attending a wedding to enjoy the outstanding amenities, notably the new world class ‘Spa Village’ which is a first in Ireland and offers an extraordinary range of treatments and experiences. But, even if you were to use none of the leisure facilities, it is an exceptional place to stay; the accommodation includes 48 contemporary deluxe bedrooms in the modern extension and also some suites and rooms in the old house, most of which overlook the river - and the sound of the water can be magical at night. There’s a choice of three restaurants, including two informal ones (Ghillies Grill and Fratelli Ristorante) as well the fine dining River Room where Chef Jonnie Boyd’s offering includes 5- and 7-course tasting menus. The River Room also sports a Gin & Champagne Bar - and serves both Sunday Lunch and a formal Afternoon Tea, which is very popular and includes a special range of Valentines Afternoon Tea Menus (8th-14th February 2016, £22-45 pp, depending on day and choice of menu). Plenty of treats on offer here then.

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