A great Gaelic escape

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It’s not everyday your masseuse demands “Give me a hug!” at the end of a treatment. But in the case of Melissa, my deceivingly petite South African therapist at Galgorm Resort and Spa, I’m happy to oblige. She’s spent the past hour making it her personal mission to pummel every knot out of my shoulder blades and relieving months of pent-up stress and tension in the process.

Beforehand, the health card I filled out at the beginning of the treatment included the rather embarrassing option of asking “would you like your therapist to make small talk?” (Instead of ticking “yes” or “no” I decide to be very British and write underneath in faint pencil, “I don’t mind.”) In any case, I’m very happy chatting to Melissa, who is full of health and well-being tips – which is highly preferable to the dignified silence many therapists tend to adopt.

Indeed this cheery and obliging manner extends to the entire staff of the Galgorm Resort, where the level of service are like no other we have encountered. (Maybe us hard-nosed Londoners are not used to the convivial Northern Irish temperament – who knows?) From when we get collected from Belfast airport by Paul, who gives us a potted history of the resort and surrounding area – to the next two days of being constantly fussed over by the rest of the cheery concierge and waiting staff, my companion and I admit to feeling slightly undeserving of the attention being paid to us.

Exterior of GalgormExterior of Galgorm

Located in Ballymena, a short drive from Belfast Airport, it’s no surprise that Galgorm is a popular venue for weddings and honeymoons, given its romantic picture-postcard settings. Set across the sprawling River Maine, this 75-bedroom, four-star resort and spa is set predominantly in an elegant country manor – and is rarely short of guests.

Despite its popularity with locals and tourists alike, it’s nonetheless a tranquil hideaway, with 163 acres of sprawling parkland to explore. Even at its busiest times – aside from the restaurants or spa – you rarely notice many other people, save the odd bride scurrying to have her photo taken by the babbling weir of the River Maine, with a groom and photographer stumbling after her.

The décor from the lobby to the guest rooms is classic and traditional (if a tad olde worlde) with Baroque touches here and there. As we enter our spacious Junior Suite, we immediately collapse onto our expansive beds, still bleary-eyed from our early flight that morning. There are also self-catering cottages and log cabins for those who didn’t want to stay in the resort itself.

The Spa at Galgorm

The Spa at Galgorm

Having taken a much needed power nap (this jet-setting lifestyle can take its toll) we go for dinner in Fratellis, where we enjoyed a beetroot risotto that was pure manna from heaven. The restaurant, like everywhere else in the resort, has a pleasant ambiance is accessed via a pretty courtyard with a fountain (just begging to be instagramed). Elsewhere, the hexagonal River Room is like something out of an EM Forster novel, offering diners spectacular views across the River Maine while they enjoy dishes from the à la carte menu, afternoon tea or sunday lunch.

Galgorm also has an extensive wine cellar where guests can enjoy tasting sessions. There is also Gillies, the resort’s bustling pub and steakhouse whose food and atmosphere – although adequate and friendly respectively – don’t seem to chime with the rest of resort’s more luxurious surroundings (but then again it’s a cheerful place to find yourself for an evening).

There are many grand reception rooms for weddings and other such events (the resort can hold up to four at a time). But for those of you who don’t have nuptials to celebrate, the spa itself is a perfect place for some much-needed down time. Or else you can wander the gorgeous parkland, visit the nearby Galgorm Castle and Golf Club or organise activities such as horse-back ride, clay pigeon shooting or even a fishing trip if you feel so inclined.

Spa Relaxation Area

Spa Relaxation Area

The next day, my companion and I wandered the grounds, popping into the different on site venues where weddings were taking place later that day. We snuck into the Phantom House, several yards from the main building, with its pretty rows of ribbon-tied chairs, exposed brickwork and original Aga. (For couples looking for a Brontë-esque winter wedding, you’d be hard-pushed to find anywhere more charming than this.) As one of us is already married, while the other decidedly single, we choose to put our lofty dreams of ‘the perfect wedding’ to one side and move on to explore the spa.

With its palatial Eastern-inspired furnishings, the Spa at Galgorm can easily hold its own among the many plush establishments of the UK’s top hotels. There’s lots to keep spa junkies busy, from the hydrotherapy pool with massaging water jets, to the many different rooms for sweating out toxins and languishing among soothing herbal blends – while the more courageous can brave the ice shower to boost their circulation (or just snap out of a hangover …). But we spent most of our time in the outside hot tub and jacuzzis, admiring views of the river and chatting to other guests (many of whom were on a return visit). One drawback is that the day spa tends to get crowded with wedding parties at the weekends, but is thankfully less busy during the week.

Outdoor Hottub

Outdoor Hottub

The spa offers a varied menu of tradition and holistic treatments, using Irish beauty brand Voya, as well as Aromatherapy Associates and Eve Lom products. In addition to massages, you can also opt for a traditional Hammam bath, body wraps, and bespoke facials, which can be carried out in the treatment rooms or The Boudoir (for groups and bridal parties). For couples who enjoy a spot of TLC à deux, there is also the Paris Suite for with adjoining treatment beds and freestanding baths.

We return from Galgorm completely rested and well fed (although slightly regretting not having the time to visit the city of Belfast). The resort doesn’t peddle any lofty philosophies about “living well” or encourage guests to embark on restrictive detoxes. It’s just a friendly spot to spend a few peaceful days in the countryside and enjoy some much-needed down time (with the occasional added hug, if you’re lucky …).

The River Room

The River Room

by Viola Levy

Galgorm Resort & Spa, Galgorm, 136 Fenaghy Road, Co. Antrim BT42 1EA. For more information and to book, visit here or call +44 28 2588 1001

Room rates at Galgorm Resort and Spa start from £125.00 per room.