Leave the passport at home and indulge in the award-winning Galgorm and its new sister hotel The Rabbit
The satisfied-yet-shocked look on her face — coupled with an exaggerated eye-roll — would suggest the scene she is now greeted with was not at all what she was expecting.
In her defence, when she left the outdoor pool area of The Rabbit Hotel nearly two hours earlier, I promised her I would just relax on a lounger and “catch up on emails” in her absence.
Neither of us expected the atmosphere to kick up such a notch, with cocktails flowing, music pumping and little old me having the craic with a load of other hotel guests.
Charismatic bartenders Gary and Karl were busy keeping us all happy with beers and delicious cocktails called The Jessica Rabbit, as the adorable resident dog Florence kept an eye on proceedings. Each and every one of us were in our togs in a heated pool, drinking and getting on like we had known each other for years.
Initial inhibitions and awkwardness were replaced with newfound friendships and a genuine sense that we were on a Mediterranean island in mid-30s temperatures — as opposed to a brand new hotel 18km from Belfast city centre, where the temperature outside was in the low teens.
It was total bliss, and it didn’t take long for Sarah to join in the party vibe. So much so, that we lost track of time and nearly missed our dinner reservation, which wasn’t helped by the fact that as we were quickly changing in our gorgeous room, we got a knock at the door offering us a complimentary cocktail before our meal.
Trust me, we didn’t need another cocktail. But considering we were on holiday, away from our kids (whom we love dearly, by the way), we happily accepted the well-dressed gentleman’s offer. It was just another little touch that made this hotel break so special.
As we sat down to dinner (we were only 10 minutes late in the end) all we could see were familiar faces from the pool party, all with complimentary Jessica Rabbit cocktails in front of them.
The winks, fist bumps and knowing glances between us all were a far cry from the private, romantic getaway we had planned. But no one was complaining.
Everyone, including all the couples that we had befriended in the pool, a group of “auld wans” (Sarah’s words, not mine) and a multi-generational 50th birthday party meant that the restaurant was also buzzing.
The temperatures continued to rise thanks to the lip-smackingly delicious salt and chilli chicken and sriracha chicken wing starters, before we were treated to succulent steaks and house wines.
Our pals Amy and Ryan from the pool, who were sitting in a completely different part of the restaurant, then sent us two more Jessica Rabbits, which we took as secret code to go join them in the bar, where there was live music.
The madness of the day couldn’t have been further from the previous night on the trip, when we went even further north and stayed in the already-established award-winning Galgorm Spa and Resort.
The vast location is no secret to anyone who likes to treat themselves to utter luxury in lavish five-star surroundings.
But what a lot of people may not know is that there is now another accommodation option on the expansive grounds, called the Shepherd’s Huts.
A dozen gorgeous and utterly private huts dotted around an adjoining piece of land are the latest ‘wow’ factor at the hotel. Each one is angled in such a way that you feel completely cut off from the hustle and bustle of the main hotel in total privacy, yet it is still only a five minute walk away.
We were pleasantly surprised at how well kitted-out the huts were, with loads of mod cons like Dyson hairdryers, digital sound systems, welcome treats, an outdoor tub on the big balcony area and a fully functioning kitchenette that would allow you to literally lock the door behind you and not emerge for days.
Our short stint required us to leave however, but when you are making the walk to the main hotel to sit at Gillies restaurant, you will be happy you made the effort.
There is no over-the-top pomp about the place. You get the instant impression you are somewhere special, but you never get imposter syndrome. A roaring fire kept us all warm as we tucked into an amazing three-course meal.
The fancy-looking wine cellar that greets you as you walk down the stairs to the bathrooms wasn’t exploited with our less-than-brave ‘usual’ order of red but knowing that this spectacle is there just adds to the exclusive feel of this resort.
The food was as you would expect: we devoured braised blade of beef and Irish piri-piri mussels. But a special mention has to go out to the bang bang chicken starter — I’d drive up there right now from my home in Dublin just to taste it again.
Feeling stuffed after our meal and considering we had a long drive that afternoon, we decided to opt out of the bar that night and took a complimentary ride in one of the hotel’s branded Defenders to drop us back to the Shepherd’s Huts.
The next morning, we dragged ourselves back out for breakfast, before checking into the spa for the afternoon.
Knowing full well that Sarah had a massage booked in The Rabbit, we decided we would only indulge in one of their less demanding treatments. At least, we thought it would be less demanding.
But as soon as the wonderfully-moustached sauna master Pavel guided us into the Celtic Sauna Infusion Experience and explained how the subsequent 25 minutes were going to pan out, we knew we were in for a treat.
Imagine a really REALLY hot sauna with three different aromas wafting around as you look out over the River Maine while deeply-emotive music is funnelled into the room and Pavel swirls his towel in the air to circulate the heat.
Even the regular handfuls of crushed ice weren’t enough to get our temperatures down for long, so as soon as the third aroma was complete he lined us up at the resort’s plunge pool, where he politely suggested we take a dip. It was sheer bliss.
Of course, there was still time to soak in various hot tubs and pools dotted around the resort before he headed off to The Rabbit.
They may have the same owner, neither is very child-focussed (I say that as a positive) and there are some similar style touches throughout to ensure you know you are staying at one of their hotels, but there is no denying there are two very different vibes at The Galgorm and The Rabbit.
The sheer indulgence of the spa in the established venue is so different to the craic of the outdoor pool party vibe of the newbie.
They are both spectacular though, and left us planning return trips. We may even ask Santy for some help with that...or babysitting vouchers at the very least.
THE RABBIT HOTEL AND GALGORM RESORT
See rabbithotel.com and galgorm.com
■ THE Rabbit currently has a lot of enticing Christmas packages. The pick of the bunch is their midweek ‘Festive Getaway’ deal.
For €160pps you get an overnight stay, a seasonal three-course dinner, use of the spa from check-in to check-out, a duo clay ritual spa treatment and a full Irish breakfast. For more information, see rabbithotel.com/christmas-2022.html.