From plastic wrapped remote controls and slowly unintentionally becoming a sanitiser aficionado, John Mulgrew pays a visit to two of Northern Ireland’s luxury hotels to relax and unwind amid a slightly new way of doing hospitality
Just a few months ago the very idea of heavily disinfected rooms, a litany of perspex, sealed doors and an aroma of alcohol often lingering in the air as part of a luxury hotel experience would be scoffed at.
But as with almost every other element of day-to-day life, Northern Ireland’s hotels and hospitality sector have had to adapt in order to welcome guests back through their doors – something which many of us across Northern Ireland are more than happy to have to deal with for both personal safety, and the chance to luxuriate for at least a day or two in a bid to stave off some of the monotony of staring at the four walls of a home office each day.
There’s been a general sense, already, that many here are keen to help and support local businesses, as international tourism numbers fall off a cliff and visitors from GB are also significantly down.
Many have already set aside previous plans for a sun-drenched getaway in favour of something a little closer to home, and one such trip included a chance to take in one of Derry’s leading top-end hotels again – a much-welcomed stop off before an onward journey to Donegal.
The Bishop’s Gate Hotel in Shipquay Street was recently named among the top 25 hotels in the UK, according to Tripadvisor, and has been a benchmark for luxury hotels in the city centre since opening its doors.
While things aren’t drastically different at the 31-bedroom spot, the requisite hand sanitising station is the first port of call – greeting you on the way through the revolving wooden and brass-clad door, bringing you towards the grand staircase and perspex-clad reception desk.
‘Your room door has been sealed’ I’m told as I check in. That’s a new one, but again, something which some spots are rolling out to ensure customer confidence. I should say, it’s a sticker over the keycard entry to highlight no one has been in the room since it was cleaned down.
Some of the changes are minor, but they quickly remind you that we are living in a different landscape to the one we were used to just a few months ago. Television remote control cleaned and then wrapped in plastic, anyone?
But aside from the inevitable changes, it’s still the efficiency and friendly warmth you can come to expect from the Bishop’s Gate.
We’re in the penthouse suite on this occasion – a large living room with separate master bedroom (which can be closed off with sliding doors) and bathroom. It’s a grand affair. This room approaches the £300 mark for most nights, but rooms can be found here from as little as around £100.
Downstairs in the restaurant, the same sort of coronavirus-related changes are visible – perspex screen and a one way system through the bar area.
On this occasion, two courses start at £21.50 – with a supplement for steak. I opt for a confit duck, the crisp skin and fat juxtaposed with some acid from the accompanying pickled vegetables.
A well-charred piece of bone-in ribeye had a decent mineral flavour, but might have needed a touch more cooked towards the bone. A well-balanced Old Fashioned also helped with digestion.
And while the weather wasn’t playing ball, the confines of the penthouse provide more than enough solace from the dampness outside the window.
There was also the chance to visit one of the Co Down’s most luxurious and prestigious getaway spots. Nestled in the shadow of the peak from which it takes its name, the Slieve Donard sits right on the Newcastle coastline, and has played host to names such as Charlie Chaplin in its more than 120 year history.
The boozy hand sanitiser is the first sign of the changes – this one has a hint of the cheaper end of the blended whiskey about it, so I’d imagine may have come from one of the distilleries playing its part in the fight back against Covid-19. A hand sanitiser aficionado is not a role I’d thought I’d ever have the pleasure of undertaking.
There’s the usual social distancing upon check in, as well as a firm attention to disinfecting and wiping down the reception after dealing with each group of guests. Also, it’s your own pen sealed in a plastic wrapper… and you get to keep it.
Our room is a long and spacious affair – a large king-sized bed with a small living room-like seating area framed by bay windows which look over the Irish Sea.
At the time of the visit, it was food-only bars or outside venues which could open. That meant small plates being ordered in the Chaplin Bar to accompany a cocktail. It’s all well spaced out and doesn’t feel cramped. The drinks prices are certainly that of a hotel venue as grand as this one – just shy of £10 for a large glass of wine.
Food options include the Oak Restaurant, in the hotel itself, and the Slieve Donard’s bistro, the Percy French – located just at the entrance to the resort – but on this occasion we opt for a dander across the way to Brunel’s.
Breakfast is served in the Oak Restaurant in the morning, and includes the usual list of hot options – from Eggs Benedict to a hefty full fry. But it’s table service only, now, so gone are the queues for the hot breakfast station.
It’s been good to spend time in two of Northern Ireland’s best hotels at a time when the entire sector is struggling, with tourism even from GB taking a battering, and international visits now through the floor as borders remain closed, routes reduced and self-quarantine in place.
And while there are small concessions that have to be made in order to make the hotel and hospitality experience possible, they are worth it to both support our economy and get our businesses up-and-running through the most difficult times they’ve ever faced.