The first thing that strikes you on entering the grounds of Galgorm is the scale of the operation. Set within 380 acres of parkland, the Co. Antrim Estate includes 125 guestrooms, Cottage Suites for 2 – 6 guests, a dozen Shepherd’s Huts for upwards of 4 guests, and residences and log cabins for bigger groups.
And that’s not all – work is underway to build additional Shepherd’s Huts and five treetop hideaways set amidst the forest grounds. All in, over £10 million has been invested to date, with more earmarked.
Arguably the centrepiece of Galgorm however is the sprawling, audacious Thermal Village. This area is truly something that needs to be seen to be believed. Easily accessible regardless of where you’re staying (though the short, forested walk from the Shepherd’s Huts area through to the back of the Thermal Village is a unique experience in itself), the village is set across multiple acres of indoor and outdoor pools, hot tubs, saunas, showers, caves, and more. At the heart of it is an extensive spa centre with a multitude of offerings. It’s no surprise that Galgorm has previously picked up the Global Luxury Spa Hotel of the Year award.
We started our stay by hopping on a train from Belfast station, and taking the 40 minute trip to Ballymena. From there we picked up a local taxi driver who showed us through the area and on to Galgorm town, then into Galgorm itself. We were staying in the Shepherd’s Huts and, new as they are, the driver wasn’t immediately aware of their location however the excellent signposting guided us. It was the first indication of how big an operation Galgorm is, when we spent several minutes driving through the car park areas to find the entrance to the huts.
The huts have their own reception – a repurposed covered wagon that was once drawn by horses. The reception manager possibly has the best job in the world, welcoming visitors to this total hideaway while cozied up at the back of the wagon. While I was checking in, my wife made friends with a horse in a nearby field. A golf cart was called and ten minutes later we were in our Shepherd’s Hut.
Nestled deep within the newly created Secret Meadow, the one-bed huts are equipped with all mod cons including a feature stove and a mini kitchen with hob, microwave, fridge, freezer, kettle, toaster, and coffee machine for a cosy woodland retreat. Each hut comes with its own outdoor bath and fire pit on the terrace, perfect to experience the healing and restorative benefits of the surrounding forest. In each hut is also a pair of robes and flip-flops, required wearing for access to the Thermal Village.
From here, the first point of access at the village is The Alpine Garden. Running along the River Maine, this area includes three saunas and sets of open saunas with space for two in each. The saunas overlook the river and include a light, heat lamp, and curtains can be drawn for added privacy. A highlight of the whole experience can be found here in the Alpine Vitality Pool, a large heated outdoor pool right on the bank of the river that includes multiple jacuzzi and seating arrangements. Simply put your robes on one of the coat racks and ease yourself in and enjoy tranquil warm waters while the sound of the flowing river gently runs in the background.
Further on in is the Elements Café, surrounded by a river deck dining area and a steam room. At Galgorm, everything is table service and all the menus are in the app – so be sure to install it before beginning your adventure.
Beside here is the first of many surprising, enveloping experiences. Amongst other things, The Riverside Garden houses The Celtic Sauna is an intense, all-encompassing spa experience that begins with an inhalation of Aromatherapy Associates frankincense oil. A traditional Aufghuss (German for ‘infusion’) ceremony ensues, whereby the sauna master melts large balls of ice one by one, each infused with aromatherapy oils. The scents are dispersed throughout the room by the sauna master whipping a towel in front of the fire. A 20 minute ritual all in, the experience is enhanced by music and views over the River Maine from the floor to ceiling glass window. Finish it off, if you dare, with a jump into the plunge pool just outside.
From there guests are invited to the Beltane Hot Tubs and Firepit area for a complimentary beverage. The firepit is bookended by two hot tubs should you wish to go for a dip. Beside the Celtic Sauna is a Salt Cave, a recent addition that can accommodate up to eight guests. The walls are built out of huge blocks of pink salt while the floor is several inches deep in rock salt.
Further in again is a 1,000 year-old olive tree, right beside a multi-chambered outdoor heated jacuzzi pool – imagine three jacuzzis merged together with walkways from one to the other, with views overlooking a manicured garden.
The first indoor space we visited was the Hydrotherapy Pool and attached Heated Experiences. The latter is four different steam rooms, each at different temperatures and offering different experiences. Guests can cool off from each room with a quick cold shower.
It’s almost an insult to call the Indoor Pool a pool – firstly, the water is gently heated, and the relaxing atmosphere is enhanced by a number of amenities in the room. There are a number of heated stone seats off to the side, across from several relaxation beds where guests can go for a snooze as the gentle sounds of the pool wash over in the background. Also in here is a semi-closed off shower unit with options to mimic various intense rain scenarios, such as a warm Amazon rain shower.
Back outside, and around, is a whole other area – a tranquil, and relatively little used, Walled Garden. This large botanical garden has walkways bringing guests through from one space to the next, and includes a steam room and sauna. There’s also the Palm House, an old glasshouse that is now a dedicated bar. There’s decking outside and, like everything at Galgorm, it’s table service – so just take a seat and you’ll be looked after. Follow the decking and you’ll be at a hidden gem of the whole Thermal Village – two hot tubs with a number of (yes) heated stone seats running along the side of them. Here too is table service, so just hop on in and the bar manager will be over to take your order in no time. Hot tubs with a drinks service? You better believe it.
Really this is just a brief overview of the outdoor areas at the Thermal Village – it doesn’t give a sense of the scale, the tranquillity (it’s never crowded – aside from the hot tubs, there was never a lack of space), the serenity of the whole setting. It’s a remarkable achievement and unarguably one of, if not the, best spa experiences on the whole island of Ireland. This is a sprawling complex of individual experiences, each one in of itself something to write home about. Having access to all of them at once is the peak of luxury – this is rivalling the best spas on an international level.
There is a huge roster of treatments available, including facials, scrubs, aromatherapy massages, and more. There are also a number of clever packages, such as the Forest Thermal Experience which gives a day pass to everything in the Thermal Village, a 60 minute treatment in the spa, and lunch at Elements Café.
Dining at Galgorm
As much consideration has been put into the food and drink offering at Galgorm as has the spa facilities. In total there are six different dining options at Galgorm, not counting off-site restaurants such as the Castle Kitchen at the Galgorm Castle Golf Club (which has a complimentary shuttle from the resort running every 10 minutes in the evening).
The centrepiece is Gillies Grill and it’s clearly a popular place with locals as well. The extensive selection of menus caters for a wide range of tastes with classic brasserie dishes, a grill selection and Asian-inspired creations with a suitable wine and drinks list. We dined there on our first night and enjoyed starters of Smoked Duck and Salt & Chilli Chicken, followed by mains of Herb & Cheddar Cheese Crusted Cod and the Gillies Signature Burger (prime beef burger, smoked bacon, cheddar, baby gem, tomato, tomato relish, chips). The warm wooded interior and segmented nature of the space created an intimate atmosphere, despite the number of tables that were clearly being served at any one time.
We retired to the Cocktail Bar, housed in the resort’s conservatory – a bespoke glass room that combines views of the River Maine with excellent cocktails from the bar team.
Speaking of gin, Galgorm also has a Gin Library that may house the largest private collection of gin on the whole island. There’s a daily gin tasting hosted by the Gin Bar Manager whereby guests will enjoy a French 75 upon arrival, before embarking on a journey of discovery with a G&T from a local distillery. Guests will have the opportunity to garnish their drink from the ingredients on the garnish boards, making for a unique experience. Following this, guests will be treated to an international gin which has contrasting botanicals or flavour profiles. The library also houses a very special gin, but I won’t give away the secret.
The River Room at Galgorm is the resort’s fine dining destination. It’s one of only four restaurants in Northern Ireland to be awarded 3 AA Rosettes. Here Head Chef Chris Rees and his team offers a tasting menu starting at £80 per person, with wine pairings an additional £40.
Breakfast each morning is served in Gillies Grill and consists of classic continental cold cuts as well as smoked salmon, breads, pastries, and local cheeses, as well as a hot buffet that includes regional favourites of fried potato farl and fried soda bread. It’s hard not to eat more than your fill but then that’s the idea – to set you up for a day at the Thermal Village.
The second evening we dined at the Castle Kitchen, a livelier atmosphere than Gillies Grill for sure and abound with groups having their own celebrations. A large open kitchen at one end of the room enhances the feeling that it’s always busy here. The speciality is the steaks, grilled over charcoal, and it’s clearly a popular choice. We opted for starters of Pork, Pigeon & Pistachio Terrine, and Gin Cured Salmon, followed by mains of Rabbit & Black Pudding Pie and a 10oz Chargrilled Ribeye. The pie was different and wonderful, with the braised rabbit falling apart, mixed in with a local black pudding and a rich mustard and tarragon cream sauce, topped with mashed potatoes. The ribeye was as good as you’ll ever get and came with a choice of sauces including Chimichurri and Café De Paris (butter sauce infused with herbs). There’s also live music in the Castle Kitchen from 9pm every Friday and Saturday, when the bar stays open until 1am.
Another major dining location at the resort is McKendry’s, a lounge & bar with an emphasis on whiskey. Located adjacent to Gillies Grill, McKendry’s offers the warm ambience and atmosphere of an eclectic Irish pub. There’s live music every night from 10pm, and over 300 whiskeys to choose from.
I can’t emphasise enough how forward-thinking and consistently impressive the drinks service is at Galgorm. Of everything, this really stood out to me – it’s one thing to have a great cocktail bar, well staffed and well appointed, but it’s quite another to repeat that multiple times across several different locations, some of them in totally different buildings. Each bar in Galgorm has its own drinks menu and are priced appropriately. The most impressive is the Cocktail Bar where the knowledgeable staff will happily take their time to talk guests through their tastes (they’re also delighted to whip up something not on the menu), but don’t let that detract from the other bars – they’re all equally impressive and you’ll get a fantastic cocktail, with an emphasis on gin, at any of the locations.
Tying everything together at Galgorm is the impeccable service. It’s obvious that the staff are well looked after and trained to a very high standard – they’re genuinely eager to interact and help out guests in any way they can, often switching roles based on the immediate needs of the guests. It’s easy to overlook great service – when it’s flawless, it’s like oil to an engine. To have such all-round excellent service is testament to the hard work and dedication of everyone involved at Galgorm.
Galgorm is a stunning destination. The focal point, the Thermal Village, needs to be seen to be believed. The eclectic accommodation and dining options ensure not only is there something for everyone, but give reasons to stay longer than you should, and to come back again. Foiled around the whole operation is the amazing staff and attention to detail. Nothing is made available to guests if it’s not of the highest quality possible. With a gin cocktail in hand I highly encourage anyone and everyone to make their way to Co. Antrim to experience this unique resort.