Destination Discovery: Northern Ireland & Dublin

i By January 22, 2020 No Comments

Poets and authors, historians and travel writers have all documented the natural beauty and inexplicable magic of Ireland. As we touched down in Dublin, we were excited to explore for ourselves what all the talk is about. We were six ladies: four seasoned incentive travel planners, June Tiffney, Aer Lingus sales manager, Canada, and me.

Aer Lingus was without flaw. We left Toronto on time, sat in comfortable economy seats, the flight crew was exceptionally friendly, food was good and arrival in Dublin was smooth and well organized. A great start to our adventure (even better on our return when we were treated to the carrier’s impressive business class service). Michael Dalton, director of sales for DMC Moloney & Kelly, was there to greet us and travel with us on our destination discovery trip to Northern Ireland (NI).

First, just a wee word about Michael Dalton. He was the jam on our toast, the sugar in our tea and the epitome of the warmth and friendliness that many of us know flows so naturally from Irish folk. Michael is the creative and organized, intelligent and witty, well connected and well-respected DMC professional that every planner would want to know.

NI hotels, resorts & spas

The itinerary called for three nights in Northern Ireland and one night in Dublin. Caitriona Lavery, sales manager, Hastings Hotels, waved an enthusiastic welcome as we pulled up to the Grand Central Hotel Belfast, our home for the first two nights. Caitriona is my friend as well as a long-time, passionate advocate for MICE development in NI. She represents Hasting Hotels’ three MICE properties in Belfast—The Grand Central Belfast, The Europa and Culloden Estate and Spa—as well as the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa in Newcastle, County Down. Caitriona is as remarkable and engaging as the properties she represents, and she exemplifies all that is good today in Northern Ireland’s thriving hospitality community. You soon realize that is as much about the people as it is about the place.

The Grand Central Hotel Belfast opened in June 2018. It’s an elegant and stylish four-star hotel that sparkles with sophistication in the historic Linen Quarter, a vibrant must-explore area with 40 cafés, bars, restaurants and three major music venues including The Grand Opera House. Offering 300 luxurious bedrooms, three restaurants, conference and meeting room facilities, and a chic 23rd-floor observatory bar with panoramic views over Belfast City, this is the ideal property for incentive travel groups large or small. Simply put, the food was scrumptious, the beds cloud-like, the service impeccable, and the fusion of refinement, comfort, luxury and charm ensured an unforgettable stay. Close by is the colourful Cathedral Quarter with quaint cobblestone streets, welcoming pubs and unique eateries.

Majestic, ancient, modern, historic, luxurious and rugged are just some of the threads woven into the tapestry of Northern Ireland.

And it is in The Cathedral Quarter that we visited The Merchant Hotel, an AA Five Red Star property. Rich with history and opulence, this grand hotel was purpose-built in the mid-nineteenth century as the headquarters of the Ulster Bank. It was transformed into a hotel in 2006 offering 21 beautifully-appointed Victorian rooms . Thirty-six unique and spacious Art Deco rooms were added in 2010. The hotel also includes five luxury suites, a luxury spa, an award-winning bar, a rooftop fitness centre with panoramic city views, and a dedicated meeting and events suite.

Once the official palace for the Bishops of Down, Hastings Hotels’ magnificent Culloden Estate and Spa is the most prestigious luxury five-star hotel in Northern Ireland. Overlooking Belfast Lough and the County Antrim coastline, it stands in 12 acres of stunning gardens and tranquil woodland. There are 105 exquisitely furnished guestrooms and a world-class ESPA Spa. For fine dining, The Mitre Restaurant offers modern Irish cuisine and is considered one of the finest restaurants in NI. Other f&b options include charming afternoon tea in The Crozier Bar & Lounge and informal dining at The Cultra Inn, a cozy bar and bistro nestled within the estate grounds.

We explored the multiple award-winning Galgorm Spa & Golf Resort, a four-star property set within 163 acres of lush parkland on the Galgorm Castle Estate. Featuring a luxury spa and a selection of dining options, it’s just 30 minutes from Belfast in the picturesque countryside of County Antrim. It offers 122 luxury guestrooms and suites, and a Thermal Village & Spa, the first of its kind in Ireland. A championship Parkland golf course and golf academy is only a mile from the resort on the estate grounds.

For our last night in Northern Ireland, we travelled to the gorgeous Slieve Donard Hotel and Spa, another of Hastings Hotels’ spectacular properties. Resting at the foot of the majestic Mountains of Mourne, this beautifully maintained former Victorian railway hotel sits between a strip of beach on one side and legendary Royal County Down Golf Links on the other.

The property features 180 luxurious bedrooms, The Spa at Slieve Donard, one of Europe’s finest award-winning resort spas, and dining options that vary from the sophisticated, high style of the elegant Oak Restaurant, to fresh and healthy delights in the Lighthouse Lounge, to the perfect pint by the fire at the Percy French Inn. To add to the magic, Christmas blanketed the resort on our visit, mesmerizing guests with no less than five large twinkling white-lighted Christmas trees in the lobby towering toward a massive sparkling crystal chandelier. WOW!

(Top of post) View of Belfast City Centre from the Observatory, the 23rd-floor lounge of the Grand Central Hotel Belfast. Photo © Christopher Heaney | Hastings Hotels. (Gallery) 1. Aer Lingus operates its transatlantic flights aboard the Boeing A330-200 and A330-300 (shown). Photo courtesy of Aer Lingus. 2-5. Grand Central Hotel Belfast. All photos © Christopher Heaney | Hastings Hotels.  2. Exterior of hotel. 3,4. Cityview Executive guestroom. 5. Afternoon Tea in the Seahorse Lounge. |  6-8. The Merchant Hotel Belfast. All photos © Rob Durston | The Merchant Hotel. 6. Front entrance. 7. Design details in the perfectly-preserved restaurant, The Great Room, include a glass cupola and Ireland’s largest chandelier. 8. Victorian Double Bedroom Suite features high ceilings, velvet throws and silk curtains. | 9-11. Culloden Estate and Spa. All photos courtesy of Hastings Hotels unless otherwise noted. 9. Entrance to the property, which is located on the slopes of the Holywood Hills. 10. Guestroom. 11. Cultra Inn @ Culloden, the property’s traditional Irish pub and bistro. Photo © Christopher Heaney. | 12-14. Galgorm Resort and Spa. All photos courtesy of Galgorm Resort and Spa. 12. Entrance. 13. The property’s Thermal Village includes indoor and outdoor pools, hot tubs, saunas, snow cabin and more. 14. Water feature in Thermal Village. | 15-17. Slieve Donard Resort and Spa. All photos courtesy of Hastings Hotels unless otherwise noted. 15. Exterior of the property, which was originally an old railway hotel. 16. Lounge, ESPA Spa. Photo by Christopher Heaney. 17. The hotel’s reception area decorated for Christmas 2019. Photo by Alanna McQuaid.

One more sleep… Dublin

Even after a dozen visits to The Westbury Hotel over the years, I’m excited to see this iconic Dublin City hotel again for our one more sleep in Ireland before heading home. With its celebrated five-star luxury accommodation, superb bars and restaurants and ideal location (only steps away from Grafton Street), it’s easy to see why it was voted the number one hotel in Ireland by Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards 2019.

Grafton Street is part of a network of streets in Dublin’s Creative Quarter that offers something for everyone. Replete with luxury shopping and whimsical boutiques, talented street artists, lively bars and great restaurants, it’s only a short walk to museums, galleries and theatres. Location, location, location!

The Westbury Hotel Dublin | 1. Entrance to the property, which is a member of the Leading Hotels of the World. 2. Wilde at The Westbury: The hotel’s chic, 1930s-inspired restaurant. Photo © TinaHillier2016. 3. The Gallery: Home to one of the city’s most popular Afternoon Teas. Photo © Simon Brown. All photos used courtesy of The Westbury Hotel. 

Unique venues and experiences

Game of Thrones

Whether you are an ardent fan of Game of Thrones (the most-watched HBO series of all time), or by some odd circumstance you have never heard of it, a day spent with James McKay at Winterfell Tours will give your group an experience to savour for a long time.

Northern Ireland was the film location for 11 episodes of the epic fantasy sensation and Winterfell offers many unique tours and experiences throughout the region. Just 40 minutes from Belfast, visitors can meet the real-life Direwolf Dogs and explore 20 key film locations that took place at the ancient sprawling demesne of Old Castle Ward. Sword fighting, falconry displays, photos ops on the iconic throne chair, and lively medieval banquets await. See your group wrapped in sweeping fur adorned cloaks for axe-throwing and archery competitions that will make them belly laugh with fun. Teambuilding at its best.

In addition, Winterfell Tours offers group experiences at Thistle Cottage, an exclusive private venue that sits over 1000 feet above the Irish Sea with breathtaking views over Tollymore Forest and the surrounding Kingdon of Mourne Mountains. Group experiences include breadmaking on the wood-fired stove, traditional lunch by the open fire, sheep herding and shearing demonstrations, and more.

(Photos courtesy of  Northern Ireland Tourist Board unless otherwise noted.) 1-4. Winterfell Tours’ Game of Thrones® incentive experiences at Castle Ward include sword fighting, medieval banquets, visits with the direwolf dogs, winter ale tasting, tours of locations used in the series, tomahawk axe throwing and myriad Instagrammable photo ops.  5. Soda bread making experience at Thistle Cottage. Photo courtesy of Winterfell Tours.

Titanic Belfast

Titanic Belfast is the world’s largest Titanic visitor experience and a world-class educational facility. It is located in the Titanic Quarter, in the exact location in Belfast where the ill-fated ship was built. Opened in March 2012, there are nine self-guided interactive galleries drawing together special effects, dark rides, full-scale reconstructions and innovative interactive features. Explore the shipyard, travel to the depths of the ocean and uncover the true legend of Titanic.

The Titanic Belfast experience includes interactive galleries with special effects and full-scale reconstruction. Photos courtesy of Titanic Belfast | Northern Ireland Tourist Board. 

The Giant’s Causeway

Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986, the spectacular Giant’s Causeway is located in County Antrim on the north coast of Northern Ireland and is, without doubt, the highlight of any tour in the region. It’s an area of about 40,000 interlocking basalt hexagonal columns (or stone pillars) formed as a result of an ancient volcanic fissure eruption. With a welcoming visitor centre and gift shop, its an ideal experience before heading out to nearby Bushmills Inn for a traditional lunch, followed by a tour and whisky tasting stop at Bushmills Whiskey Distillery, the oldest working distillery in the world. This is a grand way indeed to spend a day flanked by the wild Atlantic Ocean.

1. The Giant’s Causeway is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located on the north coast of Northern Ireland. 2. Giant’s Causeway Visitor’s Centre. 3,4. Bushmills Inn and Bushmills Whiskey Distillery. All photos courtesy of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.

Majestic, ancient, modern, historic, luxurious and rugged are just some of the threads woven into the tapestry of Northern Ireland. Hotels and resorts, manor houses and castles are all plentiful and there is something to match every corporate budget and purpose. Add to that some of the world’s most sought after visitor attractions and you have it all in NI today. Eimear Callaghan, business solutions manager at NI Tourist Board, is a valuable resource with a keen understanding of the MICE industry. Eimear’s passion and enthusiasm prove once again that it is as much about the people as it is about the place. Sláinte!


Caitriona Lavery, Hastings Hotels

Paula Stephens, The Merchant Hotel

Leigh Heggarty, Galgorm Resort and Spa

Michael Dalton, Moloney & Kelly, a member of the Hosts Global alliance of DMCs

David Synnott, The Westbury

James McKay, Winterfell Tours

June Tiffney, Aer Lingus Canada

Eimear Callaghan, Northern Ireland Tourist Board

Photo of Alanna McQuaid, publisher of Photo by Lori Smith.

Alanna McQuaid is the publisher of and co-founder of McQuaid Smith Communications Inc. Destination Discovery FAM trips are part of McQuaid Smith’s FAMSmart program. To learn more about FAMSmart contact Alanna at or click on the logo below.