Review: Galgorm Resort and Spa ups the ante in luxury stakes
The Galgorm has undergone something of a transformation of late with a £11m extension, so we sent reporter Jonny Bell to see if its more of the old or something a bit more fancy.
The Galgorm means something to everyone. Whether it's a wedding, a night out in the pub or a treat in the spa - but now it's upping the ante to mark itself out as the ultimate all-in-one location for anything you could possibly want for, or need, from a luxurious break in Northern Ireland.
So what better way to test those bold claims than by bringing along the newborn. We did leave his forever in the terrible-twos brother with the grandparents - that would be stacking the deck.
At the tail end of last year the resort unveiled its £11million extension boasting near 50 more rooms and a thermal village, which by its title alone couldn't help but intrigue.
The work and commitment of the staff, the publicity material said, would mean an unrivalled customer experience - and enhancement to the Northern Ireland tourism offering.
And on arrival, after providing our names, we were whisked off to the VIP reception.
Canapés and iced water were provided and within moments our key was in hand and we were shown to our suite.
Having travelled the world from the Far East to California and spent a fair few nights in an exotic hotel or two, one would like to think the best you've been in would not be the one that sits just outside Ballymena.
But it is.
We've been expecting you
There once was a time someone gave me the keys to a brand new Aston Martin and said "be good to her" before turning on his heels to disappear into the crowd leaving me pondering how to manoeuvre out of the parking space. (It's not something I bring up a lot - or continuously link to.)
But that fateful day sitting in the seat of that £140,000 car - in the lap of the ultimate luxury - struck me again as I walked into one of the Galgorm's signature suites.
Understated style, elegance, luxury and a big whaft of leather.
A cocktail bar sat at the head of a dinning table that was probably carved from an old Scandinavian tree and placed on a parquet floor that would not have looked out of place in an old school house, but was spotless.
Then there was the lounge area. A soft and supple leather was bookended by swivel wool chairs that just oozed a call to throw off those shoes and sink in and go for a spin.
The bed you could do lengths in and the bathroom, clad in marble, held at the centrepiece a tub so deep I'm pretty sure my diver's watch got its first taste of the deep.
The bay windows provided extra sitting for the obvious party-goers that this suite was dying to entertain.
All designer, it was a walk through the pages of a glossy magazine.
Naturally there was the ubiquitous flat screen televisions - but the gas fire, Bang & Olufsen sound system and cocktail recipe book were a nice touch and we'd have been lost without the wrap-around balcony.
It overlooked the thermal village, which was where I headed as my wife fed the little warrior.
Thermals not required
And the luxury didn't stop at the end of the ankle-deep carpet as you left the new extension. The new thermal village, on the floor below the rooms helps blanche aways those cares.
An outdoor hot tub, log fire, sauna, sanarium, orangery, pool, snow cabin - the list goes on - are all there to sooth you into life by the river.
Little, if any, expense has been spared - it's the only place in Ireland like it, apparently.
Spoilt for choice and with only an hour I relaxed and soon found myself thinking only of the bubbles in the outdoor hot tub.
Then I opted for the snow cabin.
A cursory glance inside offered three people wearing their robes, so I joined them. But you have to do it right, so I ditched the robes - and sandals and soon found myself near frozen and hopping on one foot and making my excuses while trying in vain to grasp for the door.
A brief stint in the sanarium - cooler than a sauna and with added aroma - brought the colour back and then it was a few lengths of the pool and I was ready for dinner.
Also on offer around the 'village' is a relaxing orangery and individual hot tubs, each with their own secluded spot alongside the River Maine.
While a cafe pumping out the aroma of quality coffee tempted, my time was tight and my stomach was grumbling.
The Galgorm offers a variety of dining options. There's the bar and grill-type offering of Gillies, the River Room for fine dining and then the newest addition, Fratelli.
Our stay included a meal in the Italian - it's the more family-orientated offering. Although I wouldn't let that put you off. It's a bustling Italian at heart with staff to put you at ease.
While our little warrior was a touch on the young side for the children's chef hats and pizza making - he did not miss out on any attention from the staff, who made sure he was always smiling and mum and dad could enjoy a meal - for once.
Starters were 'cicchetti' - a tapas style offering.
For me it's always a bonus when you can maximise the amount of different food you can get.
One slight criticism was that the chicken wings came in an odd number. Luckily the fish special option appealed to my dining partner which helped smooth along the often fraught negotiations of who gets what off a shared platter.
Then it was on to the mains.
The menu was mouth-watering and we were surrounded by people tucking into delicious-looking dishes.
For me there are not enough Italians that offer traditional spaghetti bolognese - here it came with fusilli and I couldn't resist.
Beefy with a rich tomato sauce, it didn't disappoint.
My wife went for a pizza. Made on the spot it was crispy, light and packed with flavour.
Desserts came again in short offerings meaning you got two for the price - and size - of one.
For me if it's Italian it can only mean tiramisu.
We were told we could, it we wanted, swap our two dessert choice for a liquor coffee. But chancing my arm I managed to get my tiramisu with a calypso coffee. Again the staff make you feel like you're one of the family and are happy to help, if it means bending a rule. Almost as if they can't say no - something I probably didn't exploit enough.
My wife's compote and chocolate offering I'm sure were nice, but they paled in comparison to my own, so I remember little.
Gin and juice?
Back to the suite - or as I was calling it - "home".
With the little warrior down and with it being July, we decided to sit on the balcony and watch the trees sway in the autumnal storm.
Drinks were courtesy of the Gin Bar.
This was a stop-off on the way back to the room.
Handed a phone book of different offerings, the attentive bar man guided me through the options.
As partial to a gin as I would be, I doubt I'll come across one as smooth and refreshing as the King of Soho I eventually opted for after an extensive survey of the options - or sticking my finger on the page the book landed on.
Although the price list was a touch on the bitter side.
Over easy eggs
After a night sunk deep in the enormous bed it was breakfast in the River Room.
I have always loved a breakfast in a hotel, with the endless thick coffee, the pools of beans, stiff bacon, that conveyor belt toaster and even the watery scrambled eggs. But - as with the rest of the resort - we were in for a treat at Galgorm.
Cooked breakfast came with just the right amount bread to meat ratio I demand.
Soda bread that was crisp and fluffy, potato bread that was unbelievably light, the best cuts of bacon and a sausage that was perfectly formed. Small though it appeared, it was that start to the day you need.
And again the little-un was not forgotten by the staff who made sure he was smiling and giggling the entire time.
A leisurely walk around the grounds after and our brief but enjoyable stay was over.
In its expansion the Galgorm has not just added capacity and continued on the footing that has served it well in past years, it has stepped up a level, or seven.
Guests in the thermal village were up for the day for a treat, diners in the restaurant were out for a celebratory meal and those enjoying breakfast spoke of their golf game in unmistakable French.
All spoke well of their time, some were even regulars.
It's inescapably a place for all occasions.
But as a guest we felt that we had been singled out for special treatment, that it was us that all attention was focused.
Of course that's just a trait of a well-organised staff.
The Galgorm has not been backward in coming forward about its desire to offer an unrivalled customer experience and the awards have rightly come.
The test will be if that level of service can be maintained and in the ever-changing world of hospitality, just where the resort goes to maintain its level and go beyond it.
What they have created is not a mere resort, but rather a small hint of paradise.
Just who would have thought it would be just outside of Ballymena.